Growing up in the small town of Veynes, in the French Alps, Clarisse Flon relished preparing elaborate meals for her family – with hand-written menus describing in detail everything from the appetizers to the desserts.
Now 26 and living in Wimbledon, Flon has made her mark on London’s vegan culinary scene by opening Café Forty One, a vegan restaurant in a Notting Hill hotel that, thanks to Flon’s influence, went cruelty-free by doing such things as not using down in bedding products, and by substituting harm-free alternatives in place of cleaning supplies and other products that test on animals.
Flon, who has transitioned from Café Forty One to consulting (helping brands create vegan options), teaching plant-based cooking, and owning Sunny Spoon, a French vegan patisserie that sells wholesale vegan fare to businesses in and around London, is bringing her expertise and baking know-how to the 24th annual Boston Veg Food Fest this weekend.
After her presentation – at 5 p.m. Saturday – Flon will offer a cooking demonstration.
“I’m very excited about presenting at the festival with amazing people like Paul Watson [a marine and wildlife conservation and environmental activist who was one of the founding members of Greenpeace] and [celebrity vegan chef, cookbook author, and restaurateur] Matthew Kenney,” Flon said in a call from her home in Wimbledon that she shares with her boyfriend, Cameron Allan, who works in finance. “I’m also very eager to meet Matthew. What he’s done with Ladurée [revamping the high-end Parisian bakery – known for its macarons – to include vegan offerings] is incredible and I’m very happy he is helping vegan patisserie move forward.”
We asked Flon, who is visiting Boston for the first time, some questions about her passion for vegan baking and veganism in general.
Most people have a difficult time wrapping their heads around French patisserie and veganism. Is it as much of a stretch as people might think?
Yes it is. The patisserie tradition relies heavily on butter, eggs, and milk. It took me years to master some of the recipes without those ingredients, and some of them I’m still working on!
You opened – and ran – London’s first-ever vegan patisserie. What challenges, if any, did you face?
Fortunately, the vegan stigma is not that strong in London; people are very open-minded. The tricky part was about building this vegan business inside a non-vegan hotel.
What kind of reaction did you get from patrons?
It was complicated at the beginning, as the communication wasn't clear and a lot of guests didn't expect the breakfast to be vegan.
What about their reaction once they tasted your food?
Those who didn’t know were surprised that all of our food was vegan and they really liked it. They were happy to still have a “regular” breakfast – just plant-based.
How did you get the owners of the hotel in which the restaurant is located to switch the entire property – not just the restaurant – to a cruelty-free establishment?
The hotel is managed by a big company and it was hard to convince the management that veganism was a good business move. But fortunately the market is on our side and with the explosion of vegan businesses, it gave me good arguments.
Can pastries and other sweets be tasty without traditionally-used ingredients like butter, eggs, and heavy cream?
Absolutely! I'd argue they're even tastier because you can taste the main product much better, be it the chocolate, the fruit, or nut; it's not masked by the heavy taste of butter or milk. I always try to replicate the exact same taste and the alternatives – to milk, margarine, etc. -- are now really amazing. I promise you can't taste the difference.
What do you use instead of those tried and true ingredients?
I don't substitute with the same products in each preparation. That would be much easier if substitutes were one size fits all, but they're not. Eggs, for example, might have one role in one preparation and a completely different one in another. I also stay away from anything chemical or too synthetic, so no egg replacer for me. I use cornstarch or aquafaba instead of eggs; butter can be replaced by oil or margarine, and there are a dozen different varieties of milk that I can use.
How much does texture factor into the equation in the foods you bake?
The texture is everything in patisserie. I don't approach vegan patisserie any differently from "normal" patisserie; therefore I create my product with the exact same result in mind.
What are some of your favorite items to bake?
I love making croissants at the moment. The way puff transforms in the oven is fascinating. Choux pastry is very special to me, as it took me years to master, and the millefeuille will always be my signature.
You are the most well-known vegan baker in London’s culinary scene, with articles about you in just about every newspaper and magazine in the UK. How are you handling your newfound celebrity status?
[Laughs] Not sure I’m a celebrity. I’m just excited about getting the word out there that patisserie can be delicious and made without animal products. Many amazing opportunities have risen from pioneering amongst others in this movement. I started veganizing desserts seven years ago, and at the time, the vegan scene was very barren. Now there are amazing chefs all over the world creating plant-based options that are amazing.
A recent article in The Economist called 2019 “The Year of the Vegan” and indicated that a full 25 percent of 25- to 34-year-old Americans identify as vegan or vegetarian. Do you see that percentage increasing and, if so, why?
Yes. When I started my market stall in 2012, I was the only person doing anything vegan, and now you can walk in any store, sit in any restaurant, and have your plant-based option. The world is coming to terms with the impact we have as humans on the planet and with the rise of social media, you can't escape the truth.
Why do you think so many people are making the transition to a plant-based diet?
As I said before, I think everyone realizes the impact meat has on the planet and then [they] dig deeper to find out about health or the horrific animal cruelty going on. It helps that some influencers and stars are talking openly about it and being the face of veganism.
What are you looking forward to most about speaking at – and doing a baking demonstration – at Boston VegFest?
I'm very excited about meeting American vegans. I've never quite had the opportunity to see the impact of veganism in the US. I know there are a lot vegan cupcakes and brownie options, and I'm happy to represent the French part of vegan cuisine.
What are you planning to bake?
I'm baking a passion fruit and coconut meringue, and chocolate and coffee entremet.
And the most important question: Will there be samples?
The 24th annual Boston Veg Food Fest, which includes guest speakers, booking signings, cooking demonstrations, and vendors, is at the Reggie Lewis Athletic Center. The hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free, but there is a $5 preview ticket available that allows early entry (10 a.m.) on Saturday. For more information and complete list of speakers, visit bostonveg.org/foodfest