Based in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Rodrigo entered the airline catering business in 2019 and is LSG Group’s Senior Culinary Excellence Manager for Latin America.
“Plant-based foods are somewhat of a trend and it’s rising,” says the chef, explaining that he oversees a geographic region spanning from Mexico down to Argentina’s southern-most tip.
“Some clients, not just airlines but retail, they’re very willing to ask us for plant-based food options. Not only as substitutes of proteins, but substituted dairy, so kinds of cheeses and muffins that don’t have any animal fats. It’s a healthy option and it’s sustainable,” he explains, adding that the growth in interest by airlines follows a similar trend in the retail sector.
“We have a global partnership with the brain of plant-based foods, NotCo, and, obviously, we are we’re looking into that for clients,” says Rodrigo, referencing a company that was founded in Chile.
“Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay are huge on beef because we’re farmers and the culture revolves around that a lot. But we have growth in the vegan population and interest in being flexitarian. So people who are trying to reduce the consumption of meat, even though there’s quite a good offer of beef and chicken at accessible prices,” says the chef in response to a question about whether South America’s famous meat-heavy cuisine impacts the approach to plant-based food in the region.
“But there’s a rise of people trying to eat for health reasons for just sustainable reasons. They see that changing meats for something else, a vegetarian option is something that will help not only the planet but their health. So there’s an increase in awareness in the region,” he adds, explaining that recently introduced products have been better accepted than early entrants to the plant-based market.
“Compared to the retail market, the airlines are more conservative. You have reasons for that. You don’t know who your customers are going to be, their backgrounds and don’t know what they want. So you try to make something that is acceptable to most of them,” explains Rodrigo of a consideration when developing dishes for consumption during flights.
Yet he adds: “The airlines themselves…they’re asking us to develop exciting versions of vegetarian dishes, including a couple of plant-based options.”
Usually, new dishes and developments are served rolled out in the executive class and first class where four options of dishes are typically served. That means if passengers do not want a plant-based option they still have three other options to choose from.
“When you’re travelling economy, you only have usually two options. People want to have something they recognise and understand. Testing plant-based in the economy class may take a little bit more time, in my opinion,” he adds.
Often desserts served to vegans and vegetarians aboard aircraft are fruit-based, points out LSG Group’s Senior Culinary Excellence Manager.
“With plant-based options, we can make a nice rice pudding for a vegan customer that resembles the experience of a rice pudding but without any animal products…People could have options that they feel are tailor-made to them,” he suggests of opportunities to use plant-based products creatively.
“I see a great evolution in the sector,” he adds about the development of recent plant-based products. “As a chef, I eat everything. I’m part of the flexitarian group and try to reduce the consumption of meat because of health awareness and sustainability. As a chef, I tend to cook with good products,” says Rodrigo, describing how he has cooked traditional dishes with empanadas with a beef substitute.
“You’re starting to make customers not miss the original product. It’s a market in evolution,” says the chef enthusiastically.
“I’m really happy to be able to work with this sort of product. I was trained originally in classic cuisine and being able to develop new things for this public is reinventing cooking itself. It’s a nice challenge,” says Rodrigo of developing recipes that include plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy products.