Last week chef Laura Goodman posted a couple of tipsy comments on Facebook and Twitter and reaped the social media whirlwind. “Spiked a vegan a few hours ago” she said on Facebook. “Pious, judgmental vegan (who I spent all day cooking for) has gone to bed, still believing she’s a vegan” she posted on Twitter. Not surprisingly, there was an outcry.
Laura, who co-owns the restaurant with her partner, was bombarded with hate mail and death threats and was forced to resign. Her partner said that Laura didn’t actually put meat into a vegan’s food, but that one of the vegan party herself ordered and ate a pizza which wasn’t vegan.
Whatever the truth, I’m sure Laura deeply regrets her ill-advised post. But what’s going on here? Why is there such hostility to vegans in the restaurant industry?
There is no doubt that veganism is now a thing. I don’t believe it’s a fad – it’s a sea-change. Regardless of animal welfare or health concerns, the earth cannot keep producing meat at current levels: the environmental impact is devastating. We are all going to have to change our diet and shift further along the veggie spectrum.
But my experience of the restaurant trade, in general, is that they’re not keen on vegans. I recently went with friends to a Bristol restaurant I had heard great things about. We booked weeks in advance and asked, on booking, if they could accommodate a vegan. They could, they said, and certainly they did. The starter and main course were a revelation – thoughtful, balanced, subtle, sustaining. I was so thrilled I thanked our waitress for their consideration. Her response was to ask me not to tell my vegan friends as they didn’t want to encourage customers like me. A little later, when the dessert menu arrived, I asked if there was anything on it that I could eat she said, dismissively, “No, that’s as far as it goes.”
Whilst society is gradually coming to terms with veganism, the restaurant business has a way to go. And I can understand why. It’s not just that there is a focus on (and sometimes perhaps a fetishisation of) meat and animal products. The business is hard, the margins are tight, competition is fierce and customers can be rude and demanding. A request for vegan food needs to be accommodated into the workings of a probably already stressed kitchen.
Most chefs have been trained in the art of preparing meat and fish as the focal point of meals with vegetables as side orders. Vegans are asking them to perform tasks they haven’t really been trained for and probably don’t do that well. All chefs like to turn out good food and for many, vegan cooking is out of their comfort zone. Also, vegans are not necessarily the biggest spenders; perhaps we’re taking a table which might have generated a bigger bill.
But the world is changing and restaurants have to change if they want to stay competitive. An increasing number of people are going vegan or looking for less meaty options. A single vegan in a larger group will influence the choice of restaurant – they will go to a place that can satisfy all of them.
That said, vegans need to shape up too if we want to be welcomed when we go out to eat. We’re the ones asking for change so we need to be thoughtful as we try to encourage it. So here is my short guide to vegan/restaurant etiquette.
Call at least a day ahead to ask if the restaurant can accommodate you.
Don’t ask for vegan food and then eat food that isn’t vegan (the same, incidentally, goes for gluten-free or any of the other dietary requirements).
Spend a bit more – maybe order a decent bottle of wine – and leave a decent tip.
Thank them – hopefully you won’t get the response I got.
Be nicer to vegans.
Make sure your staff know what vegans can and can’t eat – you’d be amazed how many don’t.
Don’t fob them off with the vegetarian option without the cheese – give it some thought.
If you’ve been given some advance notice, use it to get some flavours infused into some vegetables or pulses.
Be prepared to move away from such a reliance on animal products generally and try new some new techniques. Who knows? It might be fun and it might give you a competitive edge.
And I’m sure you wouldn’t dream of it, but don’t spike the customers’ food.