Too often during a busy restaurant service someone with a dietary restriction will throw a wrench into what was a properly working machine. It’s not that we chefs don’t understand allergies, special diets, dislikes, special requests, and lifestyle choices, but when your choices, desires, and needs unnecessarily become our problem and the problem of a dining room full of guests, then it becomes an issue.
We chefs think fast on our feet and can work with what we have prepared to fulfill special requests without much trouble. The issue becomes unsettling when a kitchen is asked without notice to prepare a dish that doesn’t exist on the menu, and the prep hasn’t been done for that dish. For example, I was once asked to make demi glace without onions for a steak the diner was ordering. I don’t always expect every diner to know the process of each dish and its components. But I do expect them to understand when I tell them what they are requesting isn’t possible. I explain that the next time they’re planning to come in, they can let me know ahead of time and I’ll have both the time and product to make them something good. And I even give out my cell number.
When a server enters the kitchen during a busy service and says, “We have a vegan on 12, she would like to know what you can make her,” I get a bit annoyed. Not because we have a vegan on table 12, but because more often than not, the kitchen is unable to put together a suitable dish. Simply taking whatever vegetables you have in-house and grilling them does not constitute a proper dinner. I would rather put together a well-composed entrée for someone so they don’t have to be disappointed in their dining experience.
It has been suggested to me in the past that it would be smart to keep some items around just in case you get a request for a vegan meal. That sounds good, but when you consider that only .5 percent of the population has chosen a vegan lifestyle, it negates the possibility of having good quality fresh ingredients on hand to work with on a consistent basis. One of the things I insist on is fresh, quality ingredients, otherwise it’s not fair to you, the diner.
The most difficult meal to make well off-the-cuff is a vegan meal, at least for me. As I mentioned, simply grilling some vegetables is a cop-out and does not offer a proper dining experience. I use a lot of animal products and believe in their use. I cook fries in duck fat; I glaze vegetables in butter; I use lard, bacon fat, and rich stocks.
What I’ve done over the years is allow some individuals to shine a poor light on all vegans, giving me a real distaste for the chosen lifestyle. It’s not only unfair to ask a kitchen to work an unreasonable request into a smooth flow, it’s also selfish. I’ve had vegans and vegetarians (and others with dietary restrictions) call ahead to let the kitchen know they’d be in that evening and they’d appreciate if there was anything I could do. My error is that I judged all vegetabletarians based on the actions of a few selfish ones. This is a mistake people make with many groups and it’s just plain ignorant.
As I thought more about this subject I realized that not only should to accept vegans with an open mind, but I also owe them my gratitude. My daughter Stella has a severe dairy allergy (the carry an EpiPen kind of allergy, not the “I don’t like onions” kind of allergy). Thanks to a higher demand for products that are dairy-free, Stella can enjoy things like Ben and Jerry’s ice creamish kind of stuff and home-made pizza with Miyoko’s Creamery’s Fresh VeganMozz, an excellent product that melts beautifully. Tonight we’re having Beef Stroganoff made with WayFare’s vegan sour cream, also an excellent product.
While we do not keep a diary-free house, we do use a lot of products that are substitutes for the real thing, and do some pretty darn good cooking with them so Stella can enjoy dinners as much as the rest of the family.
Given proper planning, I can make tasty things like vegan-friendly scalloped potatoes, mac n’ cheese, and even vegan demi glace and am happy to do it. But please vegans, don’t ask for a special meal in restaurants at 7:30 on Saturday night. The few of you that do it are spoiling an otherwise happy lifestyle for the majority of your brothers and sisters who are, as I’ve come to realize, very nice people. Real people.
Again, thank you vegans for allowing me to cook for Stella, and welcome to my world and thank you for allowing me into yours.