It was on a camping holiday with friends in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs that I encountered the worst meal I’ve ever had. Worse than school dinners. Worse than that time in Barcelona when I ordered tomato bread and was given a piece of bread with a limp slice of tomato on top. Worse, even, than being repeatedly taken to the BHS café for lukewarm beans and sloppy sausages in Gateshead as a child.
With appetites increased by the bracing highland air, we headed down to the village by the campsite, hoping for some hearty, Scottish fare to sustain us through another sub-zero night beneath the stars. A quick sweep of the menu in the village’s only pub, however, suggested otherwise. Lamb, chicken, beef, more lamb. Lamb in curry. Roast lamb. Leg of lamb. Lamb, lamb, lamb. You want lamb on toast? Lamb jelly? Lamb jam? No problem. Of the 15 or so choices available, there was just one meat and dairy-free option at the bottom of the menu, scrawled on as a clear afterthought in hasty blue biro. But desperate times call for desperate measures. I handed over my £8.50 and said the words that no veggie in a restaurant ever wants to utter: “I’ll have the tomato pasta, please.”
Now, when a dish is described as ‘tomato pasta’, I think you can be forgiven for not taking that entirely literally. You might reasonably expect a few things from such a dish. Onion. Garlic. Basil. Maybe even the inclusion of a consolatory mushroom or two. Small gestures, but ones that make all the difference.
When my dish arrived I found that it was a literal interpretation on the theme. A value can of chopped tomatoes had been heated up and upended over a bowl of soggy pasta. Voilà. Bon appétit. I stared in disbelief. Aware, however, that the only alternative was a box of breakfast bars stashed in my tent, I tucked in, albeit with a lasting degree of festering resentment.
While the situation in Newcastle is rarely so dire for those on a meat and dairy-free diet, until recently we’d still been without the luxury of being able to choose absolutely anything from a restaurant menu. Enter Painted Elephant, Newcastle’s brand new vegan restaurant – the first in the city centre to serve 100 per cent vegan food. With takeaway options available through the day and a more formal service by night, Painted Elephant’s selection of fresh, creative and inspiring meals – including the famous ‘Buddha Burger’, so good that one customer finished hers and then ordered another as dessert – has certainly got Newcastle’s vegan and vegetarian community talking. And best of all, there’s not a tomato pasta in sight.
I met Painted Elephant’s owner, Laura Turnbull, for a soy latte to find out more.
Lyndsey Skinner: First things first, what inspired you to open up Painted Elephant?
Laura Turnbull: I’ve always had a real passion for cooking food but I’d never really considered the possibility of being able to do it for a living because I didn’t eat meat. Most catering courses and chef jobs that I’d looked at required you to prepare and cook meat dishes and, because I didn’t ethically agree with that, it seemed like the only way I would be able to cook food that I believed in was to start up my own business, where I’d have more control over what went into the dishes.
I also felt that there was an increasing demand for a vegan restaurant directly in the centre of Newcastle so as to cater for locals and tourists – people that were maybe only in Newcastle for one or two nights and were looking for somewhere central that they could have a tasty dairy and meat-free meal. I was excited by the idea of opening a restaurant where like-minded veggies and vegans could order anything that they wanted from the menu, rather than being limited to one or two choices.
LS: People are much more familiar with vegetarian dishes than ever before, but for a lot of people vegan food is often more of an unknown entity. Why do you think people should try vegan food?
LT: One thing that we care quite strongly about is not coming across as preachy, or that we’re trying to force our beliefs regarding veganism onto people. We like to let the food speak for itself, and I think that it really does that. Because there is no meat centrepiece, I’d say that that encourages vegan chefs to be more creative with their dishes. The meals are very fresh and tend to be bursting with flavours. We get people in who eat meat and are unsure about what to expect from a vegan meal, and they tell us that they didn’t even notice the absence of meat, which is really great.
Of course, if veganism is something that you are interested in considering, when you look into it you will learn about all of the positive aspects of a vegan diet – the impact upon the environment and animal cruelty issues that a vegan diet is free from. Those two things are causes that we do care about very passionately at Painted Elephant. But we’ll only tell you about it if you ask us.
LS: What can people expect from a meal at Painted Elephant?
LT: We serve quirky, innovative dishes centred around whatever produce is in season and the menu is always changing. Every time you visit our restaurant there will be something new to try. We can also accommodate special requests – for example if you require a dish to be gluten-free, or even if you’d like a dairy-free birthday cake, if you let us know we can do our very best to help you.
Twice a month we run ticketed, themed tasting events. These are six-course gourmet menus, centred around a theme. For example in the past we have hosted an Alice in Wonderland evening, an Americana night and a Burmese event. Our next night is going to be a Harry Potter themed Hogwarts feast, and it’s been so popular that we’ve had to put on an extra night. We try to make these events as much of an immersive experience as we can, with music and décor relating to the theme – for the Alice in Wonderland night we played classical music from the time that the novel was written and dressed the table up as the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, which was great fun. We also encourage fancy dress, of course, although it isn’t obligatory…
LS: Where do you get your inspiration from for your dishes?
LT: Every week we are sent a selection of organic seasonal produce from a local provider. We choose a fruit or vegetable as a centrepiece for the dish and work outwards from there. I think we would call our meals fusion dishes, as even within one meal the flavours and components don’t have to necessarily come from one culture or cuisine. We like to try new things and we’re always on the lookout for new inspirations.
LS: What kind of response have you had to Painted Elephant from the people of Newcastle?
LT: We’ve had a really overwhelmingly positive response – the local vegan and veggie community have been so supportive. When we have new ideas we tend to run them past these groups, and so everyone feels really involved in the restaurant. As this is our very first experience of running a business like this, we’re always open and thankful for constructive criticism. It’s also been really nice that we have had so much support and positive feedback from people who aren’t even veggie or vegan and are just looking to try somewhere new, or have maybe come along with a vegan partner. It’s been a huge boost to find that everyone has so much belief in us, and we feel so inspired to be working in such a lovely community.
LS: There seems to be a bit of a boom in vegetarian and vegan food in Newcastle at the moment. Why do you think this is?
LT: Meat and dairy-free diets seem to be getting a lot more media attention at the moment, and it seems that across the country there are more vegetarian and vegan restaurants opening. It feels like the movement is making its way outside of London, Glasgow and Brighton now. More veggie and vegan restaurants creates more of a demand – hopefully this can work in Newcastle in the way it has in somewhere like Glasgow. I’d like to think other people might be inspired by businesses such as Painted Elephant. We’ve no previous business experience, and so we really just gave this a go based on our passion for cooking great food. It was as simple as that. It’s a really great time to be involved in this sort of thing in Newcastle – it feels like the start of something that is just going to keep gaining momentum.
LS: So, you’ve been open for around five months now, and you’re already gaining positive reviews. What is next for Painted Elephant? Where do you envisage your business going?
LT: We are already building up a strong customer base, and we’d love to look into eventually expanding and getting a larger property. We’re only tiny, and a lot of nights we are fully booked. We’ve thought about the possibility of hosting live music nights and other events, and in the summer we’re taking part in a national vegan road show. We also recently hosted a local artisan market, where local businesses set up stalls selling artwork, photography, vegan chocolates and soaps, among other things. We’re really so excited to be part of such a burgeoning vegan culture in Newcastle, and we enjoy getting involved in as many creative ways as possible. We have had some tentative discussions about whether or not there is scope for Newcastle’s first vegan pub – but maybe that’s one for quite a bit further down the line…
LS: Can you sum up, in one sentence, what you’d like people to know about Painted Elephant?
LT: We’re all about friendly people, cool music and great vegan food. I can’t say any more than that, really!