Rice serveries introduce plant-based charcuterie program

From-scratch vegan meats and cheeses are the latest achievements in #ourplantbasedjourney

Fat dabs of mozzarella were sandwiched between tomatoes and basil leaves on a plate heaped high with caprese salad. Across the table, a grill tray held juicy slices of smoked brisket in barbecue sauce. But like all of the other “meats” and “cheeses” piled on the table at Rice University’s West Servery for a taste test last week, both the mozzarella and brisket were entirely plant-based.

Roger Elkhouri and Johnny Curet in the West Servery at a recent taste-test. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Roger Elkhouri and Johnny Curet debuting the West Servery’s new line-up of plant-based meats and cheeses. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

The meals served to Rice students out of the campus’s six kitchens and serveries consistently rank among the best in the nation each year. But Roger Elkhouri, senior executive chef of the West Servery, wanted to set a new bar by making meat-and-dairy-free lunch meat, cheese and sausage — even barbecue.

The resulting plant-based charcuterie program, which debuted this semester, is the first of its kind in the nation, said Director of Campus Dining Johnny Curet. “I’ve never seen anything like it, ever.”

Action stations in the West Servery, where the charcuterie is incorporated into a dish and served hot off the line, will encourage even more interaction with the students. “That’s key,” Curet said, who said the action station aspect of the program is also unique among Rice’s college dining peers.

“For people who aren’t normally plant-based eaters, we can say, ‘Hey, do you like Reubens? We’ve got the marble rye, the kraut, but also the corned beef and Russian dressing.’” Having a plant-based option, said Curet, means everyone can enjoy it.

“A plant-based diet is a very good, healthy option,” said Elkhouri, whose recipes took a year’s worth of work to perfect. He prefers the inclusive term “plant-based” to the more exclusive label “vegan,” which carries the implication that his meat-and-dairy-free creations are only meant for a subset of students.

This "brisket" in barbecue sauce is entirely vegan. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

This “brisket” in barbecue sauce is entirely vegan. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

“It’s good for everybody,” he emphasized, “and it’s good for the environment, too.”

In fact, a recent study from the University of Oxford published in Science found that consumers who switch to a plant-based diet drastically reduce their individual carbon footprints.

Vegan and vegetarian diners alike can now enjoy traditionally carnivorous pleasures such as Italian sausages with peppers and onions or Reuben sandwiches with pastrami and Russian dressing — all of it made from scratch, on site, every week.

Neither Elkhouri nor Curet were interested in purchasing pre-made mixes, which are costly and don’t allow for as much experimentation. Instead, they spent months crafting each individual recipe after many rounds of trial and error using various ingredients to nail everything from texture to appearance. “You can’t have rubbery turkey,” Elkhouri said, “and it can’t be purple.”

In addition to the herbed turkey, mozzarella and brisket, Elkhouri has also created plant-based versions of corned beef, pastrami, roast beef, cheddar cheese, provolone, pepper jack and even a paprika-spiked “cheese ball” covered in sliced almonds that has the same spreadable texture and sharp bite of the original. Just like real meats and cheeses, each can be cut thin on a deli slicer; each also has a weeklong shelf life.

The plant-based cheese selection is made using coconut milk as a base. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

The plant-based cheese selection is made using coconut milk as a base. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

“I’ve had fake meat before and I don’t think it’s hard to get a similar taste,” said Wiess College junior Dustin Belsha, who was among the first batch of students to sample the plant-based charcuterie. “What I think is unique about this is the texture and the different physical properties — the cheese melts and everything.”

The “meats” are made using a proprietary blend of vital wheat gluten, powdered mushrooms, liquid smoke and other ingredients designed to mimic the taste, texture and appearance of deli meats. The cheeses primarily incorporate coconut milk instead of nut milks, more conventional vegan alternatives.

“You will alienate a number of people if you use cashews or other nuts,” he explained. “So if there’s a chance I can take the nuts out, that was my first intention.”

Growing up in Lebanon, Elkhouri enjoyed a traditional Mediterranean diet he estimates was about 90 percent vegan, comprising olive oil, fresh produce such as okra, tomatoes and eggplant and healthy legumes such as chickpeas and lentils. Cooking this way, he explained, is second-nature.

“A plant-based diet has been around for 4,000 years,” he said, “and plant-based eating is the future.”

Grace Wickerson, Jordin Metz and Roger Elkhouri in the West Servery at a recent taste-test. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Grace Wickerson, Jordin Metz and Roger Elkhouri in the West Servery at a recent taste-test. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Elkhouri and the West Servery staff heard rave reviews in the first week.

“When I was talking to the students, they were very happy,” Elkhouri said. “I saw a spark in their eyes that somebody was listening to them and hearing their needs.”

After 18 years working in the busiest serveries on campus, Elkhouri said it’s feedback like this and the challenges he sets for himself — whether creating plant-based charcuterie or transforming a loathed vegetable, cauliflower, into one that students line up to eat every Monday night — that keeps him in love with his job. Moreover, it keeps Rice University in the top tier of campus dining across the nation.

“Rice Dining is special in that it’s completely self-run,” said Brown College junior Grace Wickerson, who favored the mozzarella and brisket at the taste test. “They’re not dependent on a larger corporation to tell them how to do plant-based stuff, so they can allow Chef Roger to go in the kitchen and play with a bunch of things and have fun making something new.”

For his part, Elkhouri is equally engaged by the students themselves — and already planning another ambitious plant-based project that’s under wraps for now.

“You’re dealing with extremely talented and sophisticated students here,” he said.

“They’re always asking questions and you have to be on your toes, so what we try to do is get out ahead of them.

“Four or five years down the road you’ll be seeing ‘plant-based’ everywhere. We’re pioneers.”

For more about Rice’s plant-based foods, follow the hashtag #ourplantbasedjourney on Twitter and Instagram. For more about Rice Housing & Dining, visit http://dining.rice.edu.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.