After cutting meat from her diet 22 years ago, Woman of Power Peggy Chan went on to become Asia’s leading plant-based chef. Now the founder of Zero Foodprint Asia, Chan describes how she’s making a virtue of the “limitations” her choice has involved.

The notion that being vegetarian meant I’d have to miss out on life’s pleasures never sat well with me. Gluten-free, meat-free, dairy-free, nut-free – we’ve all heard of these terminologies. And when you really reflect upon them, they all sound so seemingly negative about what sustainable dining truly means.

Since my career started in food and hospitality, I’d often search for ways to add to the quality of my meals, as opposed to voluntarily feeding into the same reductive narrative of what clean eating meant to most – bland, limiting, and expensive.

To me, it’s exactly this “limitation” that I find yields innovation and creativity. It’s through “limitations” that I was able to learn how to be resourceful – from working with local farmers to buy second-grade fruits (which wouldn’t have been sold otherwise) that we processed into jams and fruit chips, to making raw truffles using leftover beetroot pulp from cold-press juicing beetroots. It is limitations that have taught me to take risks, trust my instincts and do things that hadn’t been done before. To seek out indigenous ingredients and dig deep into ancient and traditional knowledge.

Peggy Chan

For a woman, let alone an Asian woman who’s already considered inferior in a patriarchal society – where we’re expected to work even harder than the general population in order to stand out – the pathway to success is already rocky. Being a chef who cooks with plants makes those obstacles even more challenging because doing “sustainable”, “healthy” and “local” wasn’t – and still isn’t to a degree – considered mainstream.

Many parts of Asia are reflecting on what sustainable growth means, while other parts are still “developing”. But I’m curious whether the need to continually develop and our strive for growth actually equates to success. And if so, for whom? Can we develop in such a way that acknowledges deep-rooted systemic problems in our food system? And for a city like Hong Kong that imports more than 97 percent of what it eats, how do you do that when civic society, academia and chefs are so far removed from where our food comes from?

Frankly, it’s no longer acceptable to simply do less bad. We ought to all be striving to do more good with the amount of wealth that surrounds us. A lifetime of buying and promoting organic without witnessing any changes in how the market prices the “better” and “more sustainable” option is a clear example that the system is set to continue rewarding extractive and ecosystem-degrading activities.

For this reason, there’s no better time to do things differently, reimagine the future and flip the narrative.

How about we start valuing quality over quantity, that less is in fact, more? How about we make entrepreneurship drive equitable growth? How about we start adopting the concept of stewardship over ownership and abundance over scarcity?

We can make meat-free plant-rich. We can prize biodiversity as a luxury. We can view limitations as an opportunity.

But will we?

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