Hetty McKinnon talks breaking stereotypes as a vegetarian chef and helping design the menu for VEDA
You know that we are vegetable freaks here at Honeycombers. From the seasonal vegan hotpot available at Pure Veggie House to our top vegetarian restaurants in Hong Kong to these menus with vegan options, we can’t get enough carrots, corn and kale. So when we found out that Hetty McKinnon of Arthur Street Kitchen fame had worked with Ovolo Central to launch veggie-forward restaurant VEDA, we just had to find out more.
An interview with Hetty McKinnon
If you’re from the Antipodes, you might be familiar with Hetty McKinnon, thanks to her cookbooks: Community, Neighbourhood, and Family, which will be released worldwide early next year. For those of us who grew up vegetarian in the 00s, she was something of a hero, making lush salads out of her own kitchen, and getting a name for herself thanks to her creativity with the humble vegetable.
In 2015, Hetty and her family moved to Brooklyn in New York, where she works in her daylight studio kitchen: Neighbourhood, a space used as a test kitchen, where she shoots her recipes and for regular pop up events. And now Hong Kong has the pleasure of her company and talents thanks to VEDA, the newest restaurant from Ovolo Hotels, set to open at Ovolo Central in 2019.
Hey, Hetty. Thanks so much for chatting with me today. We love VEDA! How did you become involved in the project with Ovolo?
Actually, one of the owners’ daughters emailed me, as she was a fan of my first book: Community. So kind of just started from there. It was a pretty interesting opportunity, as I’m always trying to bring vegetarian food to whoever wants to eat it.
My family is actually Chinese, though I grew up in Australia, and I still have family in Hong Kong, so it’s kind of like bringing all of my cultures together.
How long have you been vegetarian?
I’ve been vegetarian for 25 years. I grew up in a very Cantonese household, so we ate a lot of meat, and we ate everything–I’ve probably tried every meat known to man!–but I just didn’t really like the taste.
I remember a moment in my teens when we were having a BBQ at home, and the smell just kind of repulsed me. So at 19, I just started cooking my own food and went vegetarian, to the great disgust of my family. My uncles own a Cantonese restaurant in Sydney, and, even now, they still ask me if I’m still vegetarian!
The term ‘vegetarian’, and certainly ‘vegan’, still conjures up somewhat hippie stereotypes for many people. How do you combat that?
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Weekends are for busy family tables. Growing up, every day was a busy table in our house but I especially enjoyed weekend lunches when my mum would break from usual nightly Cantonese dinner rituals and make chow mein or pasta in broth for lunch. . Hope you have a great weekend, filling your table with food and memories. . Photo by @luisabrimble for #familythecookbook (@plumbooks / @prestel_usa). . #arthurstreetkitchen
The most important thing for me is showing people how to cook vegetables in a really creative and inventive way. My philosophy behind that though, is that if I can show people how to eat vegetables and how to cook them and have them as a really satisfying meal, then more people would eat more vegetables, and it would be less strain on the environment.
I never really use the word vegetarian very much. My third book: Family, which is already out in Australia and New Zealand, but will be released worldwide in April 2019, is the first of my books to actually have the word ‘vegetarian’ on the title.
For me, it’s not about lecturing people because I find that my food is appreciated by a lot of non-vegetarians, but it’s about being more inclusive with the food. I try not to label my food, as the term ‘vegetarian’ often turns people off, so I use terms like ‘vegetable forward’ and ‘vegetable heavy’, and that’s what I try to do through my books too.
In America, they like more specific terms, so over there my message has to be a lot more explicit, so we use vegetarian a lot more over there.
You were raised in Australia, but now you’re based in the USA. Have you noticed much of a difference between the two food scenes, particularly around veggie forward cuisine?
The food scene is completely different between the two. In Australia, ‘vegetarian’ is not really even a thing, it’s just the way we eat. What we eat is very fresh, and very produce-heavy, and the salads which I started off my career making were just like what Australians eat every day. It wasn’t really challenging them, but it was pushing the boundaries a bit on what a salad is with the flavours and ingredients.
In America, a salad is still lettuce, and tomato, and a creamy dressing. It’s incredible that, even in New York in 2018, the concept of a salad is still so narrow. It’s really been a learning curve for me in terms of educating people on what a salad is, and all the exciting possibilities of a vegetable led dish.
And how familiar are you with the vegetarian movement in Hong Kong?
Well, I thought it was really interesting that Impossible Meat was launched here, just after America. The Impossible Meat is very different to the type of food that I cook.
That’s why we’re excited!
Have you eaten it?
Yeah, I’m not a fan.
Well, I didn’t understand it either; they sell it in all the supermarkets in America now, and I was talking to a friend about it, who is a meat eater, and they were saying that I’m not the target market. It’s aimed at meat eaters, so I thought that was pretty interesting. But I’m looking forward to learning a lot more about the food scene while I’m here.
Tell me how you describe the menu at VEDA.
Most of the things on the menu for Veda are new, with a lot of inspiration from the all-day dining menus in Australia. I think some of those cafes in Sydney and Melbourne make some of the best food in the world, and it’s quite effortless, so I’ve tried incorporate that. But there’s also things like a congee, which I’m pretty excited about. It’s actually on a lot of cafe menus in Australia now too, so it’s nice to build in some of those dishes from my childhood, but in a modern way, which is what I’m always trying to do.
And I’m always excited about the salad section. Some of them incorporate like a ginger and shallot sauce, which is the sauce that my mum would make to go with chicken when I was young, so that’s one of my signature salads that I have brought onto this menu, and it’s done with soba noodles and shredded cabbage, and it’s a really great salad.
Oh, and there’s a whole avocado toast menu.
That is BIG news for Hong Kong!
Yeah. So it’s just an avocado toast and then you can choose from like 7 or 8 toppings.
So good! And I like the way that you’re incorporating the food memories of when you were young with some of the dishes.
More and more of what I do now is incorporating the flavours of when I was young, not the dishes, but the flavours. I’m a very different cook from, like, how my mum used to cook, but I learned a lot from the way she puts flavour together. But it’s a whole bunch of influences: from Australia, the States, from when I travel. Hong Kong is a very international city, so it’s the perfect place to bring all those flavours together.
What do hope guests take away from their experience at VEDA?
Look, I want people to kind of be surprised by how satisfied you can feel from eating a dish that doesn’t have any meat in it. I just want to surprise people as to the amount of flavour you can get from just everyday vegetables. I don’t lecture people about eating meat; I mean, I think locally sourced and organic is always the best. But the message is really for people to think creatively about vegetables.