I am abhorred, embarrassed, and ashamed of everyone after this week’s “Meat Natalie” or “finally a vegetarian episode” of Top Chef. While they all seemed to approach the challenge with a positive attitude, I am floored that this episode only furthered my thesis that somewhere in the cultivation of “chefs” they ALL develop the equation that “vegetarian” equals “vegetable” totally eclipsing the rest of the edibles spectrum. It is akin to the cognitive aptitude of 8 year old Janey asking “Are you going to marry a carrot?” to Lisa Simpson. As any child would tell you, the best vegetarian food is pizza and mac & cheese… not that I’m saying that is what the chef’s should have done, but the basic elements of these two enticing entrees, starch and cheese, only appeared in a smear of lentils and a defiled polenta, aka the technical grain. As Kevin said: “Cooking vegetarian food can be challenging because when you eat meat it leaves you feeling satiated and it’s hard to replicate that with a plate of just vegetables…” JUST VEGETABLES! I couldn’t agree more…
This challenge should have been easy, the only restriction was no meat, a mere portion of a single food group, which is hardly the wildest elimination challenge… in fact, it should be something they have all experienced before. As Gail Simmons said in her blog entry “we re-created a scenario that regularly occurs in most restaurant dining rooms: a demand for one superlative vegetarian dish that tastes and looks as delicious as anything else on offer.” A review of the Craft Steak’s menu confirms that the kitchen should have been teeming with rice, pecorino, fresh buffalo mozzarella, blue cheese, yukon and fingerling potatoes, but instead they fought over tiresome eggplants and mushrooms so that they could present the dismal parade of vegetable melees. The winner of which was a pabulum of smoked kale/mushrooms/turnips, a threesome this vegetarian does not want an invitation to.
Natalie Portman offered no inspiration or direction other then “I love food” and “I’m a vegetarian,” the chefs may as well have received their directives from a chimpanzee… and based on their performance, I think that maybe what actually happened. I mean banana polenta… come on, how is that NOT monkey food?! To add insult, she brought nothing to the judge’s table… oh, except some drug dealer joke that was so funny when I was in 8th grade. My eyes rolled as though they were trying to release the mousetrap when she made the “as a vegetarian it’s hard to get protein” comment. Anyone who says this – or swears that as a vegetarian they suffered a protein deficiency so now they HAVE to eat bacon, you know, for “health” – is CRAZY; protein intake is directly related to caloric intake not meat intake. If you have a protein deficiency due to diet then you’re not eating enough calories to maintain your health and you are probably suffering from a much bigger problem than being vegetarian… like poverty, war, or stupidity.
There is a lot of whining from the peanut gallery of the internet (myself included) but there is on questions being as by commenters that I would like to refute: “Why didn’t the chefs venture into more ethnic cuisines?” Apparently the people asking this missed the whole point of the challenge – to take over the menu at Craft Steak. Can you imagine going to Bouley and being served Indian Food?! Of course not! This challenge was about creating a vegetarian meal utilizing the provisions at a steakhouse, and anyone who faults the chefs for not serving enchiladas or curries or tempura or whatnot should have their computer taken away… or at least have their browser locked to the wasteland of their peers at Yahoo Answers.
Vegetarian does not equal vegetable… it drives me nuts when chefs assume a “vegetarian dish” must be vegetable based. This works the other way too; I would never assume a “vegetable dish or tasting menu” is vegetarian because frequently enough it is not. The world is filled with an overwhelmingly diverse offering of grains/pastas, beans/legumes, and dairy that vegetarians thrive on! It also drives me nuts when the vegetarian dishes are some dreary rendition of the following:
- Veggie or Grilled Portobello Mushroom Burger
- Mushroom or Eggplant Anything
- Roasted Vegetables with rice or couscous
- Tofu steak
- Ravioli or Risotto
- Overpriced and Meager Salad
Recently a friend alerted me to an episode of Hell’s Kitchen where the notorious vegetarian basher Gordon Ramsey asks the contestants to cook a “stunning vegetarian dish,” but not before saying “There is no bigger pain anywhere in the world than a vegetarian” – and why is it ok to openly offend 3% of the US population! We are a group the size of all Asians or Jews in America, just imagine the backlash if he had made an equally disparaging comment about them… but anyways – the despondent look in the chefs eyes were soon matched by mine after I hear the horridly stereotypical and boring dishes they came up with:
- Mushroom Crepe over Beet Carpaccio
- Mushroom Stuffed Eggplant with Brown rice and Mushroom Sauce
- Grilled Eggplant Lasagna with Tofu and Mozzarella
- Polenta Tower with Goat Cheese and Roasted Red Peppers
That menu sounds like an utter gag fest! Here’s my quick revision:
- Crepes filled with Brown Butter Mushrooms and Herbed Goat Cheese with Wilted Spinach
- White Bean, Wild Rice, Arugula, Pine Nut and Pecorino Stuffed Zucchini
- Butternut Squash, Kale, and Sage Lasagna with Béchamel Sauce
- Parmesan Polenta and Grilled Asparagus and Scallions in a Pool of Pesto
A recent conversation with a friend made me realize there maybe a disconnect between how to “deal” with a vegetarian when dining out and how such treatment makes them feel. First off, my BIGGEST PET PEEVE of non-vegetarians is when they point out what dishes don’t include meat on a menu. I know they are just trying to be “nice” because they are “worried” I’ll have nothing to eat, but it is embarrassingly patronizing. It’s tantamount to saying “You’re on period… hey look you can have chocolate cake as an entree.” A vegetarian can scan a menu better than anyone (except vegans because they have mad skills), and I find that I am more knowledge about foods that are customarily meaty or unusual terms for animal protein then most omnivores.
My next pet peeve is when a dish at a restaurant is actually called “Vegetarian Pasta” or a sandwich at a deli is called a “Meatless Panini”, this implies the food is somehow a lesser creation or is missing an otherwise important element. It’s more appetizing and inclusive to give these foods names that appeal to everyone and actually describe what the fare is, like “Pappardelle with Lemon, Baby Artichokes, Asparagus, and Parmesan” or “Caprese” – doesn’t that sound better!
I struggled with a name. While I am still uneasy about the regionally of this blog vs. the general nature of the title, Vegetarian Foodie, I can no longer ignore the other side to the vegetarian foodie existence not being covered in the other blogs to my satisfaction: Dinning out with a passion for refined cuisine and an unwillingness to sacrifice excellent food for the sake of vegetarianism. Because, yes I’m a vegetarian, but I’m not a tree hugging salt of the earth hippie. I don’t do yoga, I don’t grow my own food, I don’t want my sandwich on whole wheat, and I am certainly not accustom “not as good” food for the sake of my morals; because I didn’t become a vegetarian to make any statements, I was merely an inquisitive 12 year old to whom it made sense. I am just like anyone else with a refined palate and passion for dining out, but I don’t eat meat, and I refuse to settle for the lame ass “seamed or roasted vegetable” “grilled portabella” “veggie burgers” offered by feeble chefs because they feel they need to make a vegetarian concession – although there are exceptional examples of each of these dishes.
Some people ask me if I think it is fair for a vegetarian to give a bad review to a restaurant that otherwise serves delicious meaty dishes – it depends. The majority of food I eat is not vegetarian, but it does happen to be vegetarian, and this is why I think it is fair for ME to pass judgment. I believe it is impolite to force a chef/restaurant to change a dish to my (or anyone’s) liking and it is unfair to be upset if this dish isn’t good. But if a restaurant chooses, on their own accord, to include meatless dishes on their menu then I consider them fair game. It is a waste of my time and money for a chef that is incapable of cooking vegetarian to offer it – a bad vegetarian dish on a menu is not compassionate, it is greedy.
So, I seek to show you just how good vegetarian dining can be! Or as someone who had known me for years once said “Wait, what! You’re a vegetarian, but your food always looks so good!” Um, yeah, I know!