Why haven’t more restaurants given vegetarian food a real place on the menu? Why is vegetarian cooking somehow not seen as serious, or even good cooking?
For many good reasons, there has been a great deal of talk lately about why we should be eating less meat. As a consequence, you’d think restaurants would be adding more vegetarian dishes to their menus – after all, when we were supposed to eat less beef they hurriedly added chicken – but at least where we live it seems it’s all talk and no action. (For all our harping on culinary traditions, Boots and Bowtie also realize we have a responsibility to think of the planet, and the few of its citizens who pay attention to us.)
Generally, chefs here go to great lengths to combine and list all the many ingredients in a dish, even if present in homeopathic proportions. Hence “carpaccio of tuna, cucumber and saffron on a gateau of cod liver and shiitake with a horseradish-port sauce and balsamico”. Clearly our chef has an active and creative mind. However, he or she will probably have provided only one appetizer and one main course without meat in it (by “meat” I mean flesh of anything that once swam, walked or flew). Too often it’s something uncaringly thrown together and given a prosaic name like “vegetarian pasta” (possibly to keep it open as to what goes in it; a few of these I’ve tasted seemed like they were a way to use up leftover vegetables.) Why is there such a lack of imagination in the token vegetarian main course? They look over at the next place and copy what they’re doing; last month everybody had slices of eggplant rolled around cheese, and this month everyone has goat cheese in puff pastry…(Would it kill them to offer both?) Why is it so hard to concoct another item or two without meat in it?
It could be meat’s higher social status. Meat takes more resources to produce. Being able to afford it says something about you, so eating it in a restaurant is a way of shouting it to the world. In many places people make lovely vegetarian food at home, but the restaurants are all meat ‘n’ potatoes. Going out is a special occasion by definition and restaurants want to cater to this perceived need. But that doesn’t explain why there can’t be one more thing on the menu.
The flip side of the status aspect is that from the consumer’s point of view meat could be value for money. This is a valid point. Meat is expensive but highly perishable so it needs to “move”, therefore restaurants mark it up less. Faced with choosing a poached quail egg and two hazelnuts on top of a wisp of salad for dinner (please, somebody tell me why I should be impressed by this latest token veg option among our upscale restaurants) versus, for just a couple of euros more, a hunk of venison or duck breast with some deep rich sauce, any price-conscious omnivore in their right mind will go for their money’s worth. If only out of sheer profit motive, you’d think that a restaurant would put another veg item or two on the menu and listen to the money rolling in.
It could be the protein hype*. The meat producers have managed to convince us that we need lots of protein at every meal or we will waste away. Keep in mind that as raisers of cattle they are experts in bullshit. The truth is it’s easy to get plenty of protein from vegetarian food.
It could be that vegetarianism is associated with the hippie days and avant-garde chefs don’t want to be seen as living in the past. Chefs are also by and large a macho lot and the stigma of quiche still apparently bothers them. Ironically, these cutting-edge creatives are afraid to look too “alternative”. But what better opportunity to make a statement?
Since we’re in northern Europe, the legacy of the anthroposophic “reform” movement of the early 20th century may be partly responsible. It – laudably – advocated a chemical-free agriculture in harmony with natural cycles, but its labor-intensive nature made it very expensive and its spiritual aspect made it esoteric. When we arrived here in 1989, the natural-foods shops were all “reformhuizen” located in the tonier neighborhoods. If you walked into one you might get a curious stare, as if the staff were making sure your aura met their high standards. They weren’t bent on converting people, and so they’ve remained on the sidelines.
This has fueled a perception among the larger public that vegetarians and the health-conscious in general are sensitive and usually troubled souls who mustn’t get too excited. For example, most organic yogurt in supermarkets here is labeled “extra mild”. Since we really want to get through your browser’s profanity filter, my real reaction (abbreviated WTF?) must be translated to: huh? Are the health-conscious so innately sickly that strong flavors would put their delicate systems out of whack? Is this some enduring specter of Calvinism reminding Holland’s veggie burghers (sorry) that they mustn’t rouse their baser instincts? What are they afraid of? Also, the term “vegetarian” is now being used to describe something done in a wimpy manner. For example, “vegetarian singing” lacks the requisite energy of regular singing. When I hear this in person I am glad there are gun-control laws.
Then there are the people who call themselves “vegetarians” to signify they’ve stopped eating red meat, but eat fowl and fish. I mean, did I miss a memo? The word “vegetarian” means someone who does not eat meat/fish/fowl. Maybe these folks have confused some chefs to the point where they think their fish dishes are actually fine for vegetarians. More than once after asking if there was a vegetarian option, I’ve been asked if I might not like to try the fish. Once we reserved after phoning and actually confirming that they had some vegetarian options, which on our arrival turned out to be fish. Name on request. (Then there are the Chinese restaurants which under “vegetable dishes” list things like “broccoli with pork”.) But I’m still not convinced.
The sad result of all this is that restaurant vegetarian cooking in most of the West tends to be dull, safe, and not fun. (And dull is not the same as subtle; subtle would be great.) That quail-egg-on-salad thing is from real life; we were having the “chef’s surprise” deal that evening so for the same considerable amount of money, Mr. Bowtie had a steak with wild mushroom sauce. I ask you.
In a world where dinner is defined as meat, vegetarian cooking is by definition missing something. At best, you’re making a weak lemonade with the lemon of your self-imposed limitation. So as far as I’m concerned, there is no good reason why there can’t be more good vegetarian food in restaurants, unless it’s that good vegetarian cooking is more difficult. There, I’ve thrown down the glove. C’mon, I dare you.
Please chefs, take a lesson from the many cultures over the years who have developed delicious, nutritious, fun recipes without meat – and then let your imagination run wild. Hindu culture has made vegetarian cooking into an art form, to name but one inspirational tradition. Our European forebears may have had a regular meatless night (maybe for when the money ran out) that we prefer not to think about in this age of prosperity, but which could be resurrected about now.
As a chef, if you are short on ideas you could offer a pasta substituting something like cheese or tofu for the meat, alongside the one with meat. But substituting real meat with fake meat won’t really satisfy you. Abandon the idea that meat is the central item around which you build a meal, and go crazy. (Two tips: it doesn’t need to be complicated, and it doesn’t need to be extra mild!) If you can be so creative with ingredients, you should enjoy this little challenge. Please note I’m not asking you to eliminate meat from your menu, just to give those of us who don’t want to eat it a little choice.
* It comes down to putting the right amino acids together, and not necessarily even in the same meal. For more information see http://www.vegsoc.org/info/protein.html.