Why The Best Chefs Fail to Satisfy Vegetarians

 Raw Avacado Taco

Vegetarian prowl for fine dining.

By Kevin RR Williams

DINING Twice daily, my cats gobble down meat-flavored kibbles. With abrasive tongues, their palates are not as punctilious as other mammals. Since felines have an inability to taste sweetness, their cravings are more primal. [1] These carnivorous pets are generally considered to be finicky, but if we feed them the same thing at timed intervals, they become creatures of habit. There is a vast difference between cats and vegetarians.

Vegetarians don't eat meat. We avoid meat broth. And yes, chicken counts as meat. Vegetarians, though, consume more than vegetables.* We require nutritionally balanced meals. This means dishes should include protein, grains, fruits, vegetables and calcium, according to ChooseMyPlate.gov. Often, entrées are too high in carbohydrates. For example, a nearby soul food veggie plate includes macaroni and cheese, red beans and white rice, green beans, yams and cornbread. Meow! Even a cat could taste all that sugar converted from the simple carbohydrates. [2]

We Have Met The Enemy And He Is Not Tofu

 Finicky cat

Have you ever watched a kitten honing its stalking skills. With lowered head, it twitches its hips before leaping to pounce… on a leaf, blowing in the wind. Proud of its catch, it prances back to drop the gift at the feet of its caregiver. The effort does not appear to be commensurate with the reward. In this respect, sometimes, it seems like kittens are preparing the food in restaurants.

Whether they've worked their way up from short-order cooks or attended acclaimed culinary schools, chefs who aren't themselves vegetarians can indadvertedly offend the palates of animal-preserving patrons. How? Restaurants may store microwavable frozen veggie patties for the occasional vegan who "likes that kind of stuff." Uh, uh. Vegetables sealed in boiling bags can easily be plopped into hot water. No, thank you. Excuse me server, was that cherry tomato you dropped onto a handful of "pre-washed" mixed greens intentional? And what a magnanimous gesture, offering to serve any entrée on the menu without meat (for the same price). Will that really transform it into a vegetarian dish? What these solutions have in common is that they lack effort and erroneously assume the vegetarian palate is uncultured.

 Fried Tofu

Contrary to popular belief, vegetarians enjoy flavor. Have you ever taken a bite of unseasoned tofu? You instantly realize that it has half as much flavor as egg whites. It's about as savory as unsalted grits. Bland taste is the reason why meat eaters look at us like we've just clawed their sofa when they exclaim, "You like tofu?" Some salad bars and chefs include chunks of raw, unseasoned tofu as vegetarian options. Please tell me that somewhere on this earth, such culinary crimes are met with stiff punishment. Tofu, like hominy, needs to be shown some love before dishing it onto a plate. When marinated for as little as 20 minutes, tofu becomes a conduit for flavor.

Firm tofu nuggets can also be battered with cornstarch and fried. Note: In this form, they may resemble crunchy kibbles but they morph into sponges for marinara or dipping sauces. There are an infinite number of ways to prepare tofu. But tofu is not the only plant-based protein available. The Detox Diva lists tempeh, seitan, lentils, hemp seeds and quinoa, among others. [3]

Eleven tips to satisfy vegetarian and vegan diners…

It Makes Purr-fect Scents

Let the childhood memories fill your nasal passages with the aroma of fresh-baked recipes when you visited your grandmother's house. Likely, there were no processed foods — just time-honored ingredients. Grandma may not have been a vegan but vegetarians long for that enchanting feeling when visiting restaurants. The dining experience begins with the eyes. Our sense of smell enhances the perception of taste. Here are a 11 tips to keep vegetarian dishes from falling short of expectations:

  1. Offer distinct dishes for vegetarians, vegans and raw vegans.*
  2. Don't rely on meat-flavored protein. Longtime vegetarians don't crave it.
  3. Table condiments don't make up for bland food. Remember who's the chef.
  4. Taste the food. Would you enjoy eating it? "Layer the flavors" is culinary 101.
  5. Go beyond salt. Season with aromatic fresh herbs like fennel, basil, and thyme.
  6. When produce is the star of the dish, obtain it from local growers if possible.
  7. Vegetables can be sautéed, roasted, fried, grilled, steamed, blanched or raw.
  8. Blanched veggies like carrots and broccoli are vibrant and great on salads.
  9. Favor tree-ripened organic tomatoes over the tasteless supermarket variety. [4]
  10. Increase portion size, compensating for the absence of more filling meat.
  11. Make the food look appetizing with vibrant colors and creative plating.

Marking Our Vegan-Friendly Territory

A growing number of restaurants in metropolitan areas are elevating the flavor profile of vegetarian dishes. Consider the Blue Plate at Green Temple in Redondo Beach. It's a meatloaf-style homemade veggie patty and mashed potatoes smothered with mushroom gravy with broccoli like your mamma used to make. Transition from the 105 to 110 freeway 26 miles northeast, near downtown Los Angeles, and walk through a curtain on the third floor of the Little Tokyo Shopping Center to be transported into a serene world of vegan, macrobiotic, gluten-free organic Japanese cuisine at Shojin. You must try the Spicy Shiso Tempura.

Drive three miles northwest of Shojin to Echo Park (still Los Angeles county) to an area that is becoming a vegan-friendly restaurant row. Satisfying a mixed crowd of omnivores and vegans with an upscale ambiance is Mohawk Bend on Sunset Boulevard. Do you have a taste for a Baked Tart with thyme, garlic, rosemary potatoes, roasted tomatoes and smoked vegan mozzarella? Then I hope you've made reservations at least a day in advance before heading next door to a quaint cash-only vegan Mediterranean restaurant called Elf Cafe.

Travel further east on Sunset a few blocks to arrive at one of my favorite dining spots, Sage Organic Vegan Bistro, where you can enjoy Almond Ricotta Ravioli in fennel lavender marinara. If it's breakfast time, try the spinach avocado and walnut sausage florentine with hollandaise sauce and tofu egg. (Chef Greg Arnold offers up tantalizing weekly vegan creations.) Hop on the 5 freeway, 40 miles south to Costa Mesa and discover an "artistic collection of organic living cuisine (raw foods)" at 118 Degrees (closed). Here you can be delighted with a raw vegan "fried" avocado (rolled in flaxseed and dehydrated) tacos with tahini cheese by Chef Jenny Ross (photographed by diner Priscilla Willis of shescookin.com).

If your encounters with vegetables have always begun with a can opener, it's difficult to comprehend why anyone would eliminate meat from their diet. I'll save the animal cruelty pulpit for another time since you've been kind enough to read this far. But to the oft-asked question from omnivores, "What do you eat?!" I enthusiastically respond, "Great tasting healthy food." Thank you chefs, for delighting tastebuds and serving vegetables with panache, sans the Fancy Feast®[5]

* For simplicity, vegetarians and vegans are not repeatedly distinguished throughout this article. With variations among these two groups, a vegetarian consumes dairy and infertile eggs and possibly wears leather goods. Vegans consume nor use any animal products. The author is a vegetarian who also enjoys well-prepared vegan dishes. ^

Tags: foodies, gastronomy, registered dietitians

  1. Strange But True: Cats Cannot Taste Sweets. scientificamerican.com ^
  2. Do Carbohydrates Convert To Sugars? livestrong.com ^
  3. Where’s the Beef? Top 7 Plant-Based Protein Sources. thedetoxdiva.com ^
  4. Why supermarket tomatoes tend to taste bland. article.wn.com ^
  5. Satisfying the Occasional Vegetarian. food-management.com ^