Alejandro Cancino knows his peers are scratching their heads. Why ditch co-ownership of Brisbane's thriving Urbane Group and quit a job running Queensland's top-ranked restaurant, Urbane, to avoid cooking meat?
Not only is Cancino, a vegan, striking out on his own, but he and wife Paola are self-funding their new plant-based Sunshine Coast project comprising both a café and a restaurant. It all sounds like a massive gamble.
"When I pitch the idea to an investor and say I want to open a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, doing vegan food only, and for it to be a place where people will be inspired – they see me and think, 'This guy is stupid, or else this guy is crazy'," says Cancino. "And yes, I am a dreamer. But I am also a doer."
A plant-based, counter-service café, Lola's Kitchen, is due to open mid-August in a nondescript shopping strip at Kuluin, a small suburb west of Maroochydore. The 30-seater is named for their daughter, whose arrival in June last year encourage them to take the leap.
"The menu will be designed by Paola and I will do it," says Cancino, who mentions options such as gnocchi with minestrone, tempeh with smoky mashed potato and cabbage, plus café staples including avocado on toast with sesame cheese and a house-baked fruit loaf. "It will be food I am proud to serve my daughter," he says. "That for me is the big thing."
A production kitchen servicing their flourishing vegan business, Fënn Foods, will sit behind the café. Cancino, who was born in Argentina, started Fënn in 2016; the name means planting a seed in the language of the indigenous South American Mapuche people. The products, designed by him, range from sesame cheese and egg-free aïoli to no-beef 'veef' patties.
Fënn Foods will fuel both Lola's Kitchen and an ambitious high-end, eight-seat vegan restaurant set to follow in March, which will trade only three nights a week. "I hope I will be doing something interesting enough that people will drive to the Sunshine Coast," says Cancino. "It's only 100 people a month."
And unlike the café, the fine diner will be pushed as vegan. "I want to mention plant-based cuisine as something that is real and happening," says the chef. "A movement started."
Work on the menu, including visiting farms and building a network of suppliers, will begin as soon as Cancino gets the doors open at Lola's Kitchen. There will be a sign at the café inviting producers to get in touch, and he'll be trying to track down items such as quinoa leaves. "These aren't on the market and it can help farmers too – if I'm asking for them they might start selling them," he says. "It's the way more and more things are introduced. It's part of changing the way we eat."
Earlier this year, Cancino cooked at a series of vegan dinners in conjunction with Grown, a Brisbane café, whilst still at Urbane. That experience gave him confidence. "Doing the vegan dinners at Grown, you see very different people," says Cancino. "In many ways the response to the Grown dégustations helped consolidate everything – it gave me enough courage to do something."
Plant-based menus are the future for fine dining, he says, and vegetables don't need oyster emulsion or chicken stock to sing. He believes Fënn Foods can be an agent for change.
"If I wasn't doing vegan food, I probably wouldn't do mass-production – but I want to help bring the standards up," says Cancino. "If you only cook fine dining, who do you cook for? That's the dilemma. I don't want to be an elitist chef cooking only for people who can afford to pay $200."
Veganism isn't a trend that will fade, he adds. "It's not going to stop. I don't know if everyone will go vegan but there will be a massive change in the next 20 years. We will see it. Things are escalating."