Saturday, May 28, 2011

Six things chefs should know about vegans

As I've mentioned before, the primary goal of this blog is to encourage New Orleans restaurants to become more vegan-friendly. The essence of the problem, I've noticed, is not a lack of desire to please on the part of restaurant management; quite to the contrary, most restaurant owners, managers, and chefs really try to accommodate us as best they know how. But veganism is still a foreign thing to many, and this is readily apparent when we eat out.

So I thought I'd break down the issues that come up when a vegan goes to a non-vegan restaurant. These are the things that discourage us from eating out, and make us less than happy with the experience when we do. My purpose here is, eventually, to help any restaurateurs aspiring to better serve the veg community to do so. Readers, please add comments -- did I leave anything out of this list?

1~ We do get hungry

As was highlighted in my post on Muriel's Jackson Square, quantity is a common issue, especially in upscale restaurants where Huge Plate-Tiny Food Syndrome prevails. Now that's okay when meat is centerstage -- keep those portions small! But when it's just a pile of vegetables, well, it's not going to be enough calories, even if it's as elaborate as the Taj Mahal. A chef should ask himself, "Would this fill me up?" I suspect that the answer in his head would be something like, "No, but I'm not vegan" -- ah, yes, there's that assumption that vegans are just more easily satisfied. ("Whoa, I couldn't eat another single baby carrot!") Not so, meatlovers. We vegans like to leave a restaurant feeling full like everyone else, and our bodies need the same kinds of things yours do; that is, enough calories via a balanced combination of protein, carbohydrates, and fat.

2~ We aren't bunny rabbits, even if we are cute

This brings us to the next component, variety. Yes, vegans eat vegetables, but we also eat legumes, grains, fruit, nuts, seeds, spices, and lots of foods/condiments made from all these things. There's truly nothing more disappointing than being given a plate of steamed vegetables for a main course. For one, if I go out to eat, I don't want plain vegetables, i.e., without sauce, without seasoning, or just steamed! But even if the chef knows how to cook veggies, I'd ask him to please keep in mind -- that's not all a vegan eats. Just like anyone else, we need variety to feel like we've had a complete meal.

3~ We like creativity as much as the next guy

One of the biggest challenges seems to be originality. Not every restaurant is going to strive for this, I understand. I know that some places I go in New Orleans, the most I can hope for is a heap of spaghetti with marinara sauce and maybe some eggplant on top (without the breading, since egg is usually involved). And on occasion, that is enjoyable. BUT. Waaaay too many restaurants serve this exact same thing as their only vegan solution; and it has officially gotten old.

Here are the top 3 things I'd recommend not serving vegans, just because they are so over-used: the said pasta with marinara sauce; a steamed vegetable plate; a salad (unless it's an appetizer that others at the table are having too, of course). The thing that makes this lack of creativity a real shame is that New Orleans chefs already have the techniques and ingredients needed to create awesome vegan dishes! It just takes a willingness to experiment a little. I think part of the issue here is, again, the belief that vegans are more easily satisfied (here, not in a calorie sense, but in a flavor sense. Again, this ain't so.)

4~ We don't enjoy feeling like we're missing out

Let's talk a moment about social awkwardness and the much-encompassing aspect of equivalency. Raise your hand if you are tired of acting content with a piddly meal when at a restaurant with (non-vegan) family members: "Oh, how nice, mmmm, steamed broccoli, doesn't that look good, oh yes! It's definitely plenty, in fact, I'm not that hungry, I ate just a little while ago! Oh, I didn't want dessert anyway!"

We put on this kind of show because for one, we don't want anyone to feel sorry for us, or embarrassed that they brought us along, but most importantly, we don't want to add to their impression that veganism = suffering or deprivation. We know there's incredible variety and flavor possible with an animal-free diet. But on the other hand -- let's be honest here -- veganism DOES = suffering if you love food, are surrounded by four courses of thoughtfully prepared dishes, and only get to gnaw on some vegetables, yourself! And the equivalency factor is not simply a matter of quantity, variety, and originality; it's also about style. Everyone else's food is clearly New Orleanian, but yours is nondescript. Theirs was ordered simply from the menu; yours was ordered via a phone call in advance followed by pulling the server aside and then multiple awkward interactions that you could have done without. You will probably pay an equivalent price, but by no means did you have an equivalent dining experience. This is why we want to educate chefs on how to serve vegans real meals: after all, veganism is about reducing suffering, and our own counts, too! I, for one, yearn to find a NOLA-style restaurant that has a vegan option at every course. This is why I was so impressed by our chance meal at Acme Oyster -- we were not left wanting for anything that night. A vegan meal should not be a lesser meal.

5~ We like to know where we can count on a good meal

Lack of consistency is another thing that keeps us vegans from venturing out to eat at NOLA joints. How many of you have returned to a restaurant where you once had a delicious, "specially made" meal, only to discover that that chef had moved away, or was out sick, or didn't remember what she fixed last time, and so you ended up with something not so hot? This is a sucky situation that we are destined to repeat until we convince restaurants to include vegan offerings on the actual menu. As long as we have to rely on solutions ("I'll see what the chef can do") instead of options (that appear on the menu and do not disappear with our favorite chefs), eating out is going to be unpredictable and usually not worth the expense.

In the past, it made sense for restaurants to offer vegan dishes only upon special request. But times, they are a-changin'. Veganism is quickly becoming mainstream, and with so much focus on both the environment and preventive health measures these days, many people -- not just vegans -- would be glad to have animal-free options when they go out. So, restaurateurs, please consider coming up with some vegan dishes that are worthy of being placed on your menu. Such dishes do exist, I promise!

6~ We greatly appreciate awesome food

Finally, just a few words on culinary flair. We've all seen it: the lackluster vegan dish that the chef forgot to sprinkle any pride, joy, or love onto. I think that's what bothers me so much about the plate full of plain vegetables, is that it's just so obviously easy. No sauce; no thoughtful combinations of flavors. I know that when the chef handed it off to a server, he most definitely did not say, "TA DAAAA!"

Yet, NOLA chefs are capable of doing veganism up big, and I truly believe most of them would -- if only they thought it a worthwhile endeavor. So we have to get that message across somehow -- kindly and patiently, above all, because most of them really do want to do us right, even if they don't yet know how.