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.