On “On Vegetarians”

Naomi, my buddy over at GastroGnome, just published a piece about vegetarians, more or less in response to Taylor Clark’s Slate article on the subject. I was going to reply to her in comments, but I think I have enough to say that a full post is worthwhile. Which is of course to say I disagree with her a bit, but in a friendly blog sorta way.

The Gnome’s first point was that if she’s having a dinner party, she feels she is:

“… obligating myself to supplying a vegetarian option, which, in my book, should be at least as interesting and exciting as the omnivorous options. This means two things–1) if you are vegetarian you might miss out on my best dinner parties, because I simply don’t have interest in preparing an amazing pork belly stew with duck stock braised greens for someone who will not eat it and 2) Don’t tell me “you shouldn’t have” after I make you something amazing and vegetarian because the fact is that I should have. And beyond that I probably enjoyed the challenge of coming up with a vegetarian option and enjoyed preparing it. You are my friend, my job, as hostess is to feed you food which will please you. So please enjoy.”

Now of course I’m not going to be upset if a host(ess) elects to make me a great vegetarian option. I’ll be thrilled and honored and I won’t say “you shouldn’t have”, I’ll say “wow, thanks for going to all that trouble”. But honestly, I don’t expect it. I know my food choices are my own, and my main reason for coming to your house is to enjoy your company. So as long as there is sustenance and an adult beverage, I’m going to be perfectly happy.

Most of the time I find that there is plenty of vegetarian food at an omnivorous dinner. I’ll just eat a double portion of the side dishes and salads and be perfectly content. So for me, don’t feel obligated to go to extra trouble. Especially if you aren’t particularly comfortable with vegetarian food. Your regular side dishes are going to be better than a desperate attempt to whip up a veggie entree that you aren’t confident in.

Now to the bigger issue, which as Naomi points out is not really about vegetarians but what she deems “picky eaters everywhere”, when they dine at restaurants. “If you don’t like the food, then don’t eat out”, rather than ask for modifications to the dishes, is her advice. She says they are “from working in the restaurant industry, my biggest pet peeve.”

Here we truly part company. I’ve worked in the industry too, and I’m an aspiring cook, so I hear these complaints all the time. And as a vegetarian with a wife who is severely allergic to all nuts, who dines out several times a week at restaurants both fancy and divey, I’ve been on the other side of the swinging door even more. I think there are four main flavors of objection, which I’ll address separately.

Possibility – This is the easy one. Obviously if there is already beef broth in the onion soup or Pho, I don’t expect you to make it from scratch just for me. Moving on.

Convenience – Cooks love to complain that the special orders slow them down during a busy service. And that can be absolutely true. I’ve had to walk off the line and go find tomatoes in a walk in refrigerator outside the kitchen to make a customer happy. No biggie. I think this is a judgment call. Obviously if it is going to have a significant impact on other diner’s food, it is reasonable to refuse a request. But most restaurants can meet most requests without too much trouble, and I think they should when they can.

Cost – This to me is completely bogus. If my special request is going to cost the restaurant something, they should absolutely pass in on in the bill. Of course if it is an expensive meal, say $100 and they are giving me an extra 25 cents worth of aioli, they might elect to not worry about it. (And actually requests to leave something off mostly help a restaurant’s bottom line.) Believe me, I’m never going to be offended if I’m asked to pay for extras. And naturally I’m going to tip a little extra if a restaurant has been accomodating.

Artistry – Now we come to the real rub. Many chefs feel that their dishes are exactly the way they want them to be served, and believe that any change would compromise their vision. Now as a cook myself, I can really, deeply relate to this. And I think it is mostly egotistical bullshit.

Oh I’ve got a vision for my food, and I really want you to dig it, to swoon at my feet in ecstasy, and to give you a new appreciation for an ingredient, technique, flavor, whatever that you have never tried or never liked before.

Here’s the deal. Some diners really want that, to enter the chef’s world and have a new experience. In fact that is always me, as long as it is vegetarian I want to try it. I like everything. But many people don’t feel that way, and what is the big deal if they want to come to my restaurant and just eat something they know they enjoy? I haven’t compromised my integrity. I’ve offered my vision to people that want it, and made as many people as possible happy.

So to the chefs who refuse to leave the kale off the plate of a pregnant woman who can’t stand the smell, or the ones that won’t leave the sopressata out of the saute for the otherwise vegetarian tagliatelle, I say get off your high horse. Of course it is your choice, you don’t have to do it and I don’t have to eat at your restaurant. But I sure wish you would reconsider.

There you go my Gnomey friend! A little rant back atcha.

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Posted by Michael Natkin on Thursday, May 22nd, 2008 in Weblogs.

15 Responses to “On “On Vegetarians””

  1. May 22, 2008 at 4:38 pm #

    I was fine up until the “I have no issue, fundamentally with vegetarians.” I have no issue, fundamentally, with gay people. Or brown people. Or Jews.

    Gee. Thanks. Glad we’re allowed to live. Or something.

  2. May 23, 2008 at 9:13 am #

    Oh come on, now, that is not at all how I meant it! I was clearly trying to differentiate my nitpicking from an overall dislike of the concept of vegetarianism.

    And I won’t even touch with a ten-foot pole the difference between being gay or black or born with a tail and choosing not to eat animals. Judiasm, depending on if your Hitler or if you are a Jewish kid trying to marry a non-jew and convience your Jewish mother it’s okay, falls somewhere in between those.

    Out of respect for Michael, if you feel the need to respond to this please do so on my blog so as not to clutter his blog with our bickering.

  3. Hank
    May 23, 2008 at 5:06 pm #

    re: egotistical bullshit.

    This is exactly how a true artist should be; so proud of his product that he will not have it altered lest it compromises his vision. Granted there are varying levels of restaurants. If you want to hold the ham on your moons-over-my-hammy, it’s probably not a big deal. But chefs at fine dining establishments are artists just the same as painters, writers, film-makers, architects, sculptors, etc. When a diner asks the chef to alter his/her creation to appease you own personal culinary restriction, you are asking someone to make a compromise to their vision, and you should recognize it as such. It is the equivalent of asking Van Gogh to change the color of the sky in starry night because it clashes with your sofa. Or the christian group that cuts the bad stuff out of feature films because it offends them. Sure it may not be a big deal for you to make the request, but it sure would be a big deal to the artist who created the work.

    Most successful dishes at a fine dining establishment attain a perfect level of balance between its ingredients that can be easily be upset if any one element is added or removed. What you think is an insignificant request, can actually be quite significant to a trained chef and should not be taken so lightly by one who claims to have an appreciation for great food.

  4. Michael Natkin
    May 23, 2008 at 7:23 pm #

    Oh, I understand the argument. I just don’t agree with it.

    It is pretty much every cook’s fantasy (including mine some of the time) to have the “sit down, shut up, and eat” restaurant. The idea that you can execute this absolutely pure vision of good food, which only you and your select few can appreciate. The customers should be so lucky as to kiss your ring, much less think they can ask for a substitution in your dishes.

    I suppose there is a place for this sort of thing at a tiny handful of restaurants. In fact, I love them.

    But the vast majority of restaurant food is so far compromised that a comparison to Van Gogh is absurd. The choice of ingredients is compromised by availability and cost. The choice of preparations are compromised by the skill of the team and the cost of labor. Virtually every restaurant menu includes at least one “bail out” dish (hint: look for the chicken) that is meant to offer a safe choice to less adventurous diners. And guess what: at most of your high end restaurants, Van Gogh isn’t even in the kitchen. He (or she) is off in Las Vegas, plotting how to build a 400 seat version of their vision which they can somehow convince themselves isn’t compromised.

    Actually, I think the Van Gogh analogy is flawed in another way. A better comparison would be an architect. What would you do if your architect absolutely refused to use the door hardware you want? Not discuss it, try to convince you of an alternative or anything else, but just 100% insist that it was their way or the highway? You’d fire them on the spot and laugh as the door hit them on the way out.

    Even El Bulli, arguably the most influential restaurant of our time is willing to do a completely off-menu vegetarian dinner. Of course they can afford it, with one cook per customer, but they aren’t too proud to do it.

    So ok, if I walk into a 30-seat (or less) place with top-notch food and a chef who actually makes it, and they feel strongly that they only want to serve the dishes the way they designed them, I can totally respect that. I might not be back if they won’t serve me something I can eat, but that’s life.

    But for all of the other normal places that refuses substitutions not because of possibility but for the purity of their vision, I still say: BS.

  5. May 23, 2008 at 9:30 pm #

    Michael, I am SO with you.
    I am not a particularly picky eater in general, except that I am a pescetarian, and there are a few strong flavors that are not to my taste (I am a super taster).

    More recently I have made some dietary changes that restrict certain other ingredients, and so now I *seem* like a picky eater.

    I am also an artist, and a chef (albeit self taught). When I have a dinner party I do make sure to ask if people have specific dietary needs including religious, health, or ethical needs. I see no problem with this at all. I also have no problem if someone doesn’t want to eat my food for one reason or another. I try to accommodate as much as possible, I would never not invite someone based on their beliefs or food allergies (unless it is so strong that the scent would be dangerous of course).

    I also agree that it is egotistical bullshit, and I am an artist in the non foodie sense as well. Many artists who are working and actually get paid, do so because they are creating something that their customer wants. They get hired to do statues of certain people, to photograph certain places for patrons, to paint murals with a theme. Yes, their artistry is involved, but the one who is paying ultimately makes the decision about what goes on. A chef who cooks food that never gets eaten is not a success. And a chef who insists on using avocado or wasabi in a dish without compromise, will not be feeding me. Eventually a painting might be purchased, but only by someone who appreciates it. Chefs do not have the luxury of being so picky, their art will go bad, it will not get better after they die. They cannot search around for a buyer. There are those who would trust a chef, even though they don’t like a particular ingredient. But I promise you, no matter how you disguise it, I hate avocado. So leave it outta my food.

  6. Hank
    May 24, 2008 at 1:55 am #

    It is amazing to me how little respect you have for Chefs and Architects. I think what we have is a fundamental different in what an artist actually is. To me chefs, as in architects, do not merely provide a service as directed by the client. They are artists; and artists create. They create based on years of training and life experiences. This is the privilege you are paying for. To experience the creations of another. Not to have someone execute your own personal vision as the client.

    To take your architect analogy one step further; if you want your architect to spec the door hardware that you select; you should never have hired an architect in the first place, a contractor would do just fine. A contractor’s job is to execute your vision. An architect is hired to provide his years of training and experience to design a product for the client. With this process comes an element of trust. Trust that the architect you hired can accomplish all the elements that the client is looking for in the final design (including the door hardware.) If you do not have that trust in your architect, you should never have hired him in the first place.

    One need not go to a restaurant that serves the kind of food you do not enjoy eating; only to request that the artist change his product to satisfy your needs. Ferran Adria, to take your example, offers a vegetarian menu. A menu that is entirely orchestrated as a multicourse meal that celebrates the meatless ingredients. thomas keller does so also. These menus are for from proof that these chefs are bending to the will of the client. They are, in fact, creating using other materials that they enjoy using.

    The actual comparison would be to order the normal (meat-included) degustation at el Bulli and request that the egg yolk in the golden egg be substituted with tofu. This act might make you stop and think, but you probably would not think twice about asking for them to hold the pork belly in some dish at Sitka and Spruce. Why would Matt Dillon not deserve the same respect you give Ferran Adria?

    So where do you draw the line between the places of esteem that deserve your respect for their vision and the “normal” places? One would think that if you chose to dine there, then you have hired that particular artist for the night. Does it matter if the artist is Jean Georges or the kid working the line at the Olive Garden?

    Your insistence to go to a restaurant that serves food you do not wish to eat and ask for substitutions would be the equivalent of hiring Tadao Ando and telling him that you hate concrete, and love Northwest Craftsman style.

    Imagine the response I would get if I ordered a dish at Carmelita and requested that the portabello be replaced with kobe flatiron. Yet you vegetarians are horrified when restaurants don’t bend at your whim.

    BTW, as anyone familiar with the restaurant world knows, Ferran Adria, Thomas Keller, Guy Savoy, Alain Ducass, and the rest of the Van Goghs of the culinary world are not cooking on the line. Just as Rem Koohaus was not sanding drywall at the library. But their vision is present in the product created.

  7. Anonymous
    May 24, 2008 at 7:33 am #

    Well, I don’t think we have to beat this into the ground, but you raise interesting points so let’s look at them.

    My understanding is that El Bulli doesn’t officially offer a vegetarian menu, but will make one if you ask. Maybe I’m wrong. I didn’t cite Thomas Keller as an example because I know that is on their normal menu.

    I can’t imagine hiring an architect for a house I was going to live in that didn’t want any input from me at all. If I hired an architect, I’d be hiring someone as a partner to take my vague, ill-formed ideas about a space and apply their expertise in partnership to make it perfect.

    Sitka and Spruce is exactly what I had in mind when I said I respect this argument from a 30-seat (or less in this case), relatively uncompromised place with the chef on the line. They don’t make subs, and that means that generally have very few vegetarian items, which means I don’t go there often. But that’s cool. I like it when I do go.

    Yes, I think it *absolutely* matters whether it is Jean George or the kid at Olive Garden. The kid at Olive Garden is not an artist, he’s a craftsman (on a good day). Even if he takes some pride in putting his Fettucini in Mortar Paste on the plate, I’m really not worried about hurting his feelings by asking him to leave off the ham.

    The Carmelita argument is totally specious. In the original post, I clearly specified that subs have to be within reason of possibility. I would never expect a restaurant to, say, add asparagus to a dish if they didn’t have it in the house, and I’m pretty sure Carmelita doesn’t stock flatiron steak.

    The “you vegetarians” arguments is bogus too. Believe me, I routinely check menus and don’t go to places that probably aren’t going to make something good for me. If I look a menu online and see: filet, chop, whole fish, and nothing else – I’m giving it a miss. The exception is if on say a business trip I need to go to that kind of a place with a group. Then I’m going to go there, and ask for a vegetarian dish, and be thrilled if I get anything better than a sad primavera.

    By the way, my favorite way to get a vegetarian dish in a restaurant that doesn’t offer one is to say “can you ask the chef to make me a great vegetarian entree, whatever they think will be delicious?”. So if anything the chef has the option to exercise their creativity more than usual. Sadly, a lot of waiters are scared to take that message to the kitchen, so they just want me to come up with a specific request.

    In many cases these days, Keller, Savoy etc.’s vision isn’t even directly present in the product. They fly in for a day a month to see what their executive sous chef has designed. That’s cool by me. But to think that it somehow hurts them if for the ten minutes between when it goes from being mise en place to down the hatch, “their” dish that they have never seen is altered is silly to me. They won’t even ever know it happened.

    So bottom line to me is, you wanna go around letting other folks tell you exactly what to eat, drink, and live in, that’s your privilege. You can be my best customer someday. In the meantime, I’m going to ask for what I want.

  8. Hank
    May 24, 2008 at 9:07 am #

    The bottom line is, it seems to me, about the basic issue of respect. You respect certain chefs like Matt Dillon enough to not attempt to compromise their product, but lack that same respect for the kid at the Olive Garden, Frank Savoy, Cory Lee, and countless others. So (as I asked before) where do you draw the line? Maybe the Jean Georges/Olive Garden example is too polar for you. Does it lie somewhere between Restaurant Zoe and Coastal Kitchen?

    I ask you, what is more egotistical: not wanting to compromise your vision to create that which your were trained and hired to create; or the lay-person directing a trained professional to alter his creation for your own personal gain.

    Also, just to be clear, “Trust that the architect you hired can accomplish all the elements that the client is looking for in the final design” is not the same as, “didn’t want any input from me at all.” You also have very little respect for what an architect does, but that is a whole other argument for a different website.

  9. Michael Natkin
    May 24, 2008 at 9:38 am #

    Well, I think we’ve probably beat our respective arguments into the ground at this point. We can agree to disagree.

    Darn, ok, I can’t resist a parting shot. Does a hair stylist fit your definition of an artist too? They do mine. But that won’t stop me from asking for a little more off the top if it doesn’t look right to me when they are done. Do you walk around with a bowl cut if that is what your stylist thinks is your best look?

  10. Anonymous
    May 24, 2008 at 9:56 am #

    The key is to hire artists that you trust. Just as I won’t hire micheal graves because I hate postmodern crap, I also wouldn’t go to the green zebra if I was craving meat, or choose a hair stylist that would have me walking around in a bowl cut.

    Let’s not forget that it is you who chooses to be picky with what you eat. Why should your choices be forced onto others who do not agree with your vision, only to be called egotistical when they do not accept your demands? That’s what I call egotistical bullshit.

  11. Michael Natkin
    May 24, 2008 at 10:29 am #

    Oh well, I think we’ve both had our say. Thanks for the entertaining debate. If anyone else manages to read through all this, I’d love to hear your comments. (Or you too Hank, if you have more).

  12. Anonymous
    May 24, 2008 at 10:46 am #

    Just the parting concurring remark that I also enjoyed this debate. I didn’t want to come off as insulting (in your home no less),but just wanted to voice a differing opinion, albeit in strong voice.

    thanks!

    For the record, my numerous vegetarians also take your side.

  13. Anonymous
    May 24, 2008 at 10:47 am #

    Just the parting concurring remark that I also enjoyed this debate. I didn’t want to come off as insulting (in your home no less),but just wanted to voice a differing opinion, albeit in strong voice.

    thanks!

    For the record, my numerous vegetarian friends also take your side.

  14. Silver
    May 31, 2008 at 10:49 pm #

    Oh gosh, a chef is an “artist” (apparently even at Olive Garden) and can’t be asked nor expected to compromise at all but a vegetarian is making a choice which deserves no respect no matter the reasons for it (and there are plenty), doesn’t need to be one (according to some people), so should just deny who they are and shovel down whatever crap someone else put together from a “vision”?

    I should have to travel to Chicago and spend a $100 a plate to indulge because a chef can’t/won’t be bothered?

    More like can’t be thoughtful or respectful, believing that only goes one-way (their way).

    Not only is that pompous, pompous, pompous but it shows how limited they are that they can’t manage to actually create outside the social bounds they insist in perpetrating which they then blame on those who have diets too “difficult” for them to tackle. That’s why we get the moniker isn’t it? To cover for the restrictive inadequacies of the chef.

    It’s not as if one has to be a vegetarian or vegan to enjoy meals without animal products. Lots of people are limiting their intake for a plethora of reasons that are hard to mock into compliance with Europeanistic crowd dominance, and those (paying) customers would love to be inspired.

    We wouldn’t need to make special requests if there were choices available for us to make.

    I’m sorry but I should have to stay home (or worse, in the car) while my buds go in and enjoy a meal? Or do I need to do as I did before being true to myself in taking on the full designation of “vegetarian” and order a meal with flesh that was then scraped off at the table onto my companions’ plates as I begged them to give me their veggies? That’s a vision?

    Long, dark, narrow, tunnel vision… a chef wearing an apron, toque, and blinders.

    Or maybe it’s a good thing if your guests are reduced to sitting at a table in your place chewing only on dry bread (or nothing if gluten-intolerant) while most everyone else is eating (even if they aren’t happy either)? Is that really hospitality success?

    Exclusion is something to aspire to?

    No, that’s just narcissistic idiocy and a gastro-megalomaniac need for control that requires the customers to do the actual catering; adjusting to the abusive dogma of the narrow-minded, stubborn hosts who think way too much of themselves essentially demanding their customers go elsewhere to find something better.

    Might want to remember too that Van Gogh was suffering from a mental illness who committed suicide after living off his brother for many years. What kind of spectacular dish could you make with your left ear?

    Maybe we’ll all finally see your incredible vision decades after you are dead too. :]

    ====

    Thanks Michael, I do appreciate the thought provoking reads and proof that Taylor Clark’s article is indeed still relevant despite our modern “progressive” times.

  15. Anonymous
    June 2, 2008 at 3:46 pm #

    Wow! Such misplaced vitriol I have not seen in some time. Let’s not forget who the restrictive one is in this relationship. It is YOU who has chosen certain dietary restrictions. It is YOU who has chosen to dine at certain eating establishments. Yet it is YOU who has the audacity to call out chefs for not saluting at your command. Far be it for me to go into your place of business and tell YOU how to do YOUR job, based on MY narrow system of beliefs. There are plenty of restaurants that will bend to your every whim, (I’d say 90% of the restaurants in Seattle). But single out the one whose vision of good food does not parallel yours, and it’s “narcissistic idiocy”? How “progressive” is that? How thoughtful and respectful are you being?

    Let’s be perfectly clear here; no one is telling you what you can or cannot eat. It is you who is attempting to tell someone else how to do their job.

    Does reading any of this actually provoke any thought in you, or just reinforce your narrow beliefs that everyone should bend to your will?

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