BEING A VEGETARIAN is a doddle, because there are just so many edible options out there if you include dairy and eggs in your diet. Being a vegan on the other hand is a little tougher, particularly when it comes to eating out.
Eating in as a vegan is easy enough, although you do need to be vigilant because food producers will hide dairy in just about anything if they can. Even my beloved Vogel’s bread has skim milk powder buried in the depths of the ingredient list. Still, once you discard that type of sneaky food, veganism is a smorgasbord of gourmet glory – consider just the stir-fry, pasta and salad selections that anyone with a smidgen of imagination can concoct in short time, and you’ll be overwhelmed by choice. Unless you want to eat out, that is.
Here’s a generalisation that I’ve some up with in the last six months – the more upmarket the restaurant or venue, the less likely they are to display any imagination when it comes to catering to vegans. Stick to virtually any Asian or Indian restaurant, especially at the cheaper end of the scale, and you’ll be spoiled for choice. Head off to a fancy eatery and you’re likely to get a quizzical look from the waiter before he or she mutters something like “I’ll ask the chef.” Usually you’ll get offered a pasta or a faux-risotto, knocked up in a hurry and seldom likely to reach the level of taste sensation. Of course you’ll get charged the full whack of a conventional starter and main meal, regardless of the quality or quantity of what you were served.
For example, I attended a gala dinner at The Langham in Auckland recently. Despite telling them well in advance that I was a vegan, no provision was made for a vegan starter or desert, and two of the wait staff on the night seemed convinced that the salmon was in fact the vegetarian starter. Long story short, no vegan starter eventuated (maybe it’s still on its way). My main course was delivered late, and a vegetarian colleague got his main course ten minutes after that delayed start. The main course was a risotto. Well, it may have been meant to be a risotto, but when someone as limited in the culinary arena as myself could whip up a better meal in ten minutes, you have to wonder what the chef was thinking, or not thinking. With enough salt (i.e. a lot) it was vaguely palatable, but a bowl of overcooked, luke-warm rice with a single plum tomato and one Portobello mushroom plonked on top is hardly in keeping with the level of the venue or the event. Dessert? What dessert? If you weren’t happy with a plate full of dairy treats, then you had to be happy with nothing.
This is pretty normal for this kind of affair, but it’s also common in many Auckland cafés, where the best that they can come up with is mushrooms on toast, sans cream, which usually taste of little more than balsamic vinegar (and yes, I make a tasty vegan mushrooms on toast at home, so I can do better in most cases).
Catered events involving finger food are often even worse. If you’re lucky, there’ll be some kind of cheese-based canapé, but ask for something vegan and you’ll get “the look”. At a recent high profile technology launch event that I went to with Gary Steel, not only were there no vegan options, but the waiters all had issues with short-term memory loss, and insisted on not only offering us the meaty choices over and over but seemed to take a strange pleasure in holding massive platters of pork buns under our noses for prolonged periods of time. How many times do I need to say “No thanks, I’m vegan” before they understand that I won’t be having any pig or cow? How hard is it to chop up some veggies and place them around a bowl of good hummus?
Some will no doubt say that I’m a cheeky bastard for having the audacity to complain about meals that I haven’t even paid for, but someone has paid for them. Surely that someone, whether they’re a PR agency or an industry body, would like to know that everyone from the hardcore carnivores to the gluten free and lactose intolerant eaters – hell, even the vegans! – are being looked after properly?
As for the meals that I actually pay for, well I just vote with my wallet and my voice. I’ve pretty much given up on café food. There’s so much good food out there that I’m just not inclined to compromise. I can eat like a king at Jai Jalaram Khaman in Sandringham (reviewed here) or at Thai Zap 4 near work for far less than I’d pay for a plate of shriveled up mushrooms or a soggy roasted vegetable sandwich at a typical café. I also tend to talk up the positive experiences and to hammer the daylights out of the negative ones at every opportunity.
It really doesn’t take much for a chef to make a vegan happy, so I’m baffled why few bother to try. Laziness? Lack of education? Not enough demand, or perhaps it’s due to a simple lack of feedback? Is the thinking something like: “If they eat the muck I served them, and they didn’t complain, then it must be okay, and anyway, let them eat a lettuce leaf”? If so, then it’s worth letting the restaurant management know that the meal was lousy, that you’re not coming back, and that neither are your friends; at least, if they want to eat with you. There are more and more vegans popping up every day, so sooner or later these places will wake up to the fact that they’re losing business, and after the last few years of the GFC, who can afford to do that? ASHLEY KRAMER