In March 2018, to a chorus of gasps and jeers from spectators, chef Michael Hunter carved a deer leg in the front window of his Dundas West restaurant, Antler. It was an act of defiance against vegan protesters who had been crowding outside, shouting at guests about animal rights for months on end.

News outlets lapped up the conflict, many framing the situation as the ultimate ridicule of morally righteous vegans, and subsequent comment sections exploded in venomous vitriol fired from people for and against the protests and veganism as a whole.

Vegan food in Toronto | Antler restaurant in Toronto

Eventually, tempers calmed, and it seemed like the city had moved on. Five years passed, almost to the day. Then, in March 2023, it happened again. The Spanish Pig, a specialty ham and seafood store in Roncesvalles was the target this time. Vegan protesters plastered the storefront with paper emblazoned with animal rights slogans like, “It’s not food, it’s violence.” The incident poured gasoline and tossed a match onto an ember that had been simmering in the background for years — once again, Torontonians were at each other’s throats over veganism. It felt as if not a day had passed since the Antler debacle.

It was a tough scene to watch. I went vegan in 2017 after learning about the many cruelties of our modern food systems, but I’d be lying if I said that was the only reason I’ve stuck with it for six years. My choice to be vegan stems from a core feeling that all of life’s diverse forms are wildly miraculous and ultimately equal. I’ve always defined being vegan as striving for less pain in the world; loving ourselves deeply, then loving our planet and animals like ourselves. It was heartbreaking to see us attacking each other over a topic so deeply woven into my fabric.

There’s a tale of two Torontos when it comes to veganism. On one hand, there’s ample anger around the topic, often provoked by sensational headlines designed to get clicks. On the other hand, vegan food has been thriving in this city for years, driven by a group of empathetic individuals with an honest mission to reduce animal exploitation.

Peel back a few layers, and right now is a really exciting time to be vegan in Toronto. Plant-based eating is enjoying some long-awaited validation; Toronto’s first Michelin Guide recommended vegetarian restaurants Gia and Shook, and awarded vegan restaurant La Bartola with a Bib Gourmand, which signifies excellent food at moderate prices. First came the honours, then the cameras; this year, Mena Massoud (star of Disney’s 2019 blockbuster Aladdin) brought his new CTV Life food and travel show, Evolving Vegan to Toronto for a glossy, high-production feature on the city’s burgeoning plant-based dining scene.

Peel back a few layers, and right now is a really exciting time to be vegan in Toronto

“Toronto was one of the first cities to embrace the whole vegan movement really early on,” Massoud tells me when I ask him about his decision to feature Toronto. The actor grew up here in the 2010s, and witnessed the “vegan explosion” first-hand. Massoud went vegan for sustainability reasons while at university in the city and, even though he currently lives in L.A., wanted to come back and feature Toronto’s local plant-based chefs. It’s prime time for vegan food in Toronto, Massoud asserts, grinning a million-dollar smile.

Vegan food in Toronto | Mena Massoud smiling in front of a colourful wall

Rewind a few decades, and Toronto’s vegan food scene was a shell of its current self, recalls Sam Lam, owner and head chef of Kensington cult favourite, Buddha’s Vegan Restaurant. Lam, who moved to Toronto from Vietnam in 1984, is a longtime vegetarian and, more recently, vegan. For most of his life, restaurants had so few vegetarian options that Lam was largely confined to eating at home. Over the years, he’s watched our plant-based community grow, and today, he’s happy to see it finally getting worldwide attention — the positive kind, that is.

Vegan food in Toronto | Sam Lam of Buddha's Vegan Restaurant

Lam thinks Toronto’s vegan scene will continue to flourish. “Now, it’s our opportunity to show we’re the best in the world,” he winks. Lam is more than a silent observer, though; he’s part of an often-unsung roster of diverse chefs who have laid the foundation our vegan food sits on today.

North of the Junction Triangle in Mount Dennis, George “Pong” Powell has been cooking healthy, vegan Caribbean classics like fried plantain, rice and peas and callaloo at V’s Caribbean Restaurant for the better part of a decade. Pong, chef and co-owner of the Weston Road spot, is a tall man whose impossible swiftness and grace earned him the nickname likening him to a ping-pong ball. V’s slogan is “Health is wealth, invest in yourself”; Pong’s vegan food is low in salt, refined sugar and “dirty oils,” like vegetable or canola. For him, the well-being of Mount Dennis’s residents is paramount; it’s the community where he grew up, his home.

Vegan food in Toronto | Chef Pong standing behind the counter at V's Caribbean Restaurant

Pong tells me that healthy food is how he makes a difference — and it’s about time that it got some recognition in the city. “I think they’re here a little bit late, but hey, we welcome it,” he says of the Michelin Guide and Evolving Vegan. As he prepares me a steaming plate of chickpea stew and mac pie, he confesses, “The vegan community needs a little bit more help around here.” Despite being a stalwart of the Mount Dennis community, “We don’t really get a lot of fanfare outside of our cult following,” Pong admits. His food is akin to a fantastic home-cooked meal (including a spicy maple jerk tofu that has me wiping away upper-lip-sweat) and, with such a commitment to his neighbourhood, I’m left wondering why V’s doesn’t get much mainstream attention.

It’s not just chefs who have been pioneering this side of Toronto’s vegan movement. Lauren Soo, manager of Malay-Nyonya Ossington restaurant, Soos, tenaciously pushed for more plant-based offerings on the menu after she and her husband went vegan in 2017. Soo proposed introducing fully plant-based offerings to raised eyebrows from her family, who co-own the restaurant. They eventually yielded to her vegan dream — as long as she and her husband did all of the work themselves.

Vegan food in Toronto | The dining room at Soos restaurant on Ossington

“I was working seven days a week those first six months getting Fat Choi going,” Soo tells me. Fat Choi, which Soo loosely translates to “plant prosperity” in Cantonese, was the name she assigned to the all-vegan menu when it started as a two-day-a-week pop-up in Soos. Fat Choi was so successful that Lauren’s family couldn’t deny the value of leaning into plant-based food. Now, Fat Choi is a full-time menu, equal with Soos’s regular offerings — and, thankfully, serving excellent vegan food has become an effort for the whole team.

Vegan food in Toronto | The dining room at ONE Restaurant

It’s not a bad attempt at a pun to describe the vegan movement in Toronto as grassroots. Scores of Toronto foodies are so infatuated with plant-based eating that even traditionally meat-forward restaurants are taking note. ONE Restaurant, the Hazelton Hotel’s swanky Yorkville eatery helmed by chef Darby Piquette, is far from a vegan restaurant — they’re known for juicy 40-oz tomahawk steaks — but Piquette carved out an entire plant-based section in his menu last year. Now, oyster mushroom shawarma tacos and crispy honey-ginger tofu fly out of his kitchen at a pace neck-and-neck with premium wagyu.

Even at Toronto’s buzziest new restaurants, vegan food has a pronounced presence. At Wellington Street hotspot Casa Madera, chef Olivier Le Calvez’s Mexican-Mediterranean menu is a sophisticated offering of big flavours and experimental presentations, where premium proteins and layered seafood towers share the limelight with vegan scallops drizzled with jalapeño-garlic oil, and mushroom-packed truffle risottos.

Vegan food in Toronto | The bar at Casa Madera in 1 Hotel Toronto

For La Bartola’s chef and owner Iván Castro, his recent Michelin accolade is a win for his restaurant and vegan food in Toronto as a whole. “[The Bib Gourmand] shows the world that our vegan restaurant, a plant-based restaurant, could be as good as a non-vegan restaurant,” he smiles proudly. Castro noticed how hot the embers of Toronto’s vegan curiosity were when he started getting rave reviews after hosting secret plant-based dinners at his home. “At that time, I felt that Toronto was missing more excitement around vegan food,” says the Mexican-born chef. Harnessing his deep roots in Oaxacan cuisine, Castro opened La Bartola in 2020, and has been lauded for bold creativity behind the pass ever since.

The more vegan chefs I speak to, the more accurate a picture of Toronto’s plant-based scene comes into focus. Vegan food in Toronto isn’t about anger or self-righteousness. Instead, the people who are pushing this movement forward in the city are doing it with something veganism should always be synonymous with: compassion.

Vegan food in Toronto | Chef Iván Castro rolling up his sleeve

Vegan eating was part of chef Castro’s humble beginnings in Mexico City — but it wasn’t labelled plant-based back then. “I didn’t grow up in a rich family. Eating meat wasn’t an everyday thing,” he remembers. Now, vegan eating is a choice for Castro — and food is his activism. “If you’re eating meat, of course I won’t say anything to you. Instead of that, I will show you that vegan food can be really, really, really good. So that’s my type of activism… through love.”

To Sam Lam, eating vegan is about family. Something of a hopeless romantic, Lam cut out all meat after he met his wife, whose family are devout Buddhists committed to nonviolence, including against animals. When his daughter went vegan in 2018, he followed suit — and changed Buddha’s menu to be completely vegan, too.

“If all of these people make all of these little changes, then we can all do just a little bit better” — Lauren Soo

Lauren Soo’s philosophy is all about moderation and encouraging everyone to do the best they can in a world where ethical consumption is often a dubious concept. She feels that by simply offering plant-based options beside meat dishes, she’s exposed more people to vegan food. “If all of these people make all of these little changes, then we can all do just a little bit better,” she hopes.

Pong, now 47, has been vegan since he was 18. Sure, he cares about saving animals, but he tells me he’d never shame members of his community for eating meat, or businesses for selling it. “If we’re just screaming at them, most people will be like, ‘Whoa, but I love bacon too much!’” he laughs. Pong sees himself as more of a teacher, educating people about the health benefits of vegan food and dispelling myths that it isn’t filling and delicious. Get rid of your preconceptions, he insists: “Food can’t be just about what you were taught. It’s about what you’re learning.”

Vegan food in Toronto | Chef Pong scooping food onto a plate at V's Caribbean Restaurant

In the tale of Toronto’s vegan food scene, I’m hoping we can skip to the chapter where we aren’t angry at each other. “I don’t think what they were doing was really inspiring anybody,” chef Michael Hunter says, reflecting on Antler’s own run-in with protesters. “If they wanted to have a conversation with us about animal rights, or maybe about changing the way that animals are raised in Canada, I would have loved to have that conversation with them, and even help.” It’s a measured response from someone who has more reason than anyone to feel anger towards veganism, and it’s not just words — Hunter has a deep respect for the natural world. He seeks sustainably foraged ingredients, opposes factory-farming practices and he always goes out of his way to cook with local, more ethically sourced meat.

“We actually got more vegan customers that came during that time, which was really cool. People would come in and say, ‘Hey, we’re vegan. We want to support you. We’re not with the people outside,’” Hunter chuckles. In a gesture of good faith, Hunter even ended up hosting a vegan tasting menu at Antler after the protests.

Veganism remains a tense topic for some, but it’s embedded itself in Toronto and in the hearts of many who live here. At its core, it’s a movement steeped in empathy. Navigating how to be more ethical consumers in this world isn’t easy — but this I know: The only way we’re going to move forward is together.