Ruth ‘Rudy’ Mumma, whose Vegan Butcher opens in Islington, north London, on November 1, insists that she did not choose the name to court controversy. “It was just an oxymoron,” she insists. “We just wanted to spark a conversation.”
And so she has. No sooner had news been released of what will be the UK's first permanent vegan butcher's shop (founded by Mumma and her chef fiancé Matthew J Foster), than Piers Morgan took to Twitter. “And people wonder why I've written a book about the world going nuts” he wrote, retweeting a picture of the soon-to-open shop to instant reaction from fans and dissenters.
Looking around the place as the final preparations are made – with its white tiles and images of pigs and chickens (albeit with ‘animals are friends not food’ written beneath them), Mumma's protestations are hard to believe. It looks like a butcher's shop. The staff are dressed like butchers.
And the ‘meat’– well, the steaks, burgers, bacon, black pudding and chicken liver pâte (called chick'n lover pâte) look like the real thing. They smell and taste like it, too. At their first restaurant, Rudy’s Vegan Diner which opened in Camden in 2018, Mumma recalls a customer who refused to try their pastrami because he didn’t believe it was vegan. “Matthew had to talk him into it,” she says with a laugh. “And then he said it tasted too much like meat for him.”
Mumma and Foster's aim for Rudy’s Diner – as it is now with their butcher's shop – was not to create another poor cousin to burgers and bacon, but to create products whose taste and texture rivals and ideally trumps bona fide meat. The more meat-lovers like it, they say, the better.
Both Mumma and Foster are former meat-eaters. They know what meat tastes like, what it smells like, and how important it is to certain cuisines and cultures. One of the highlights of Rudy’s Vegan Diner was a Jewish man who declared their Reuben sandwich the best he’d ever eaten – “and he had a regular salt-beef place,” says Mumma.
At the diner some of her favourite customers are men who have been dragged there by their girlfriends and leave “grinning from ear to ear, saying it’s the best burger they’ve ever had,” she says.
It is estimated that there are twice as many vegan women than men; in Mumma's case, it was Foster who lead the move to veganism. They met when Foster was vegetarian and Mumma an omnivore. Within a few months of the relationship, Foster became vegan. He didn’t insist on Mumma following suit; instead, it became a topic of conversation.
A vegan butcher's shop... and people wonder why I've written a book about the world going nuts. https://t.co/vyc96YqmeS
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) October 27, 2020
“The more information I gathered, the less eating meat made sense,” she says simply. Her decision was based on the cruelty of some farming practices, but also the environment. “If everyone in America just did meatless Mondays each week, an extraordinary amount of water and carbon would be saved.”
For the couple, full veganism was the way forward, but they understand that people’s responses and routes to veganism differ. “A lot of people have asked if we only hire vegans, and that is not the case,” Mumma explains. She is not interested in preaching to the choir; indeed, she is not really interested in preaching. “All we ask is that people are open-minded. We have a lot of curious people who just want to give our products our try.”
The proof of the black pudding is in the eating, after all – and Foster is “a perfectionist.” A self-taught chef whose 30-year career has covered everything from fine-dining restaurants to fast-food joints (via the Prince of Monaco, for whom he has catered), he has not just the “knowledge, experience and skills to recreate the flavours of meats and meat dishes” but the determination, too, says Mumma.
Creating alternative meats is a “long, extensive process – but he loves the challenge of it. He’ll wake up and decide he is going to make vegan steak, complete with fat – and he won’t rest until he’s done.” Foster's 'lobstah salad' is made from jackfruit, the 'cheeze sauce' from cashew nuts and his chilli from soya mince. Mumma and Foster love meat; they just don’t love the consequences of it. “A lot of people are vegan for ethical reasons but still want the flavours and the comfort of the meat dishes they once had – and we’re in the same situation.”
The recent EU ruling that allows plant-based ‘meats’ to use names like burgers and sausages is significant to them only in so far as “we want people to have an awareness of what our products are emulating. The best way to describe our jackfruit-based ‘rack of jack ribs’ is by using the words that are available already.”
But Mumma insists they could have got around the ruling had it gone the other way. “Matthew is so creative” with the names, she says. “I mean, chick’n lover pate. How cute is that!”
When Rudy's Vegan Butcher opens on November 1, coinciding with World Vegan Day, they will celebrate by giving away 100lb (45kg) of free 'baycon'. Customers will be advised on how to cook their products – though Mumma assures me it’s very simple. “Just like you would real steaks or ribs or burgers!”