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VOL. 126 | NO. 105 | Monday, May 30, 2011

Rise of Vegetarianism Means More Choices

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

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According to a study commissioned in 2008 by Vegetarian Times, 3.2 percent of Americans – about 7.3 million people – follow a vegetarian-based diet. About 1 million of those people are vegan, meaning that they avoid eating not only animals but animal products. Another 10 percent, about 22.8 million, said that they “largely follow a vegetarian-inclined diet.”

Kristie and Adam Jeffrey run Imagine Vegan Cafe at 2156 Young Ave.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

That’s a lot of broccoli and tofu.

On the other hand, those figures amount only to slightly more than 13 percent of the population; pork-rind eaters are still the majority.

Motivations for vegetarianism fall into four primary categories: health and weight-related issues; environmental concerns; food safety issues; and animal welfare. The reasons matter only theoretically, though, when vegetarians and vegans sit down to a meal, their main interest being the food itself and how appropriate or authentic it is.

Matters have gotten easier for vegetarians in the past few years as dining in this country has become more diverse and not only because of the proliferation of establishments that focus on vegetarian fare. Indian and Southeast Asian, Ethiopian and Mexican restaurants offer a variety of vegetarian dishes, though not necessarily vegan, while because of increasing awareness of the needs of vegetarians many neighborhood and bistro-style restaurants provide a selection of vegetarian dishes.

What happens, however, when vegetarians go to what we’ll call “mainstream” or even more expensive white-tablecloth restaurants? Will they have to make do with yet another bowlful of thrown-together “pasta Primavera” or the “chef’s vegetarian special” that turns out to be whatever vegetables can be steamed in the kitchen that day?

Those questions bring us to the true topic of today’s column, which is: Must restaurants nowadays try to be all things to all people? Being cognizant of the realities of American dining habits today, must restaurants make the effort to accommodate all customers of whatever social/cultural/ethical tendency?

Kristie Jeffrey, owner with her husband, Adam, of the recently opened Imagine Vegan Café in Cooper-Young, said, “You wouldn’t expect a steakhouse to serve a vegan entrée. If they do, kudos to them for their versatility, but it seems to us that this should be an exception, not an expectation.”

Similarly, she said, “Just as a rock ’n’ roll musician should not be expected to release a country or bluegrass record, a vegan restaurant should not be expected to serve animal products.”

In other words, diners going to restaurants that have a narrow focus by their very nature should not anticipate an all-encompassing menu.

Cedar Lorca Nordbye, associate professor in the Department of Art at the University of Memphis, describes himself as a vegetarian who is “not militant or indignant.”

Nordbye sees fine dining or gourmet restaurants as “a kind of art studio or a theater, and they shouldn't be mandated. I think that chefs should begin to adjust their menus, not based on the needs of vegetarian diners but on the same kinds of ethical considerations that artists deal with. Chefs should recognize that they play an important role in shaping culture, and they should model meals that do not need to have an unsustainable focus on meat. Restaurant proprietors should inspire compassion in their diners by treating meat not as a quotidian unconscious staple, but as something that involves some sacrifice and is special.”

While the menu at Restaurant Iris is definitely meat-centric, with bacon and pork belly galore, owner and chef Kelly English said that the kitchen is willing to do just about anything – conceding the fact that “if you try to do everything you’re nothing to anybody” – to accommodate patrons.

“My goal is to make people happy,” he said, “and have them enjoy the experience. People go out to eat to be entertained, besides which they’re more knowledgeable now about what and why they eat, so you have to be able to address that diversity.”

Vegetarians, English said, “provide an opportunity to be creative. When people have any sort of dietary concern, for whatever reason, it gives the kitchen a chance to use what’s there to make something more appealing than the old standby beans and rice. Vegans, I’ll admit, are a little more difficult, but we welcome the opportunity to create for them too. They should call ahead.”

Ben Smith, owner and chef at Tsunami – we’re doing an Overton Square/Cooper-Young thing today – echoed English by saying, “No restaurant can be everything to everybody. If they try, they’ll kill themselves.”

But, “what a restaurant can do and should do is identify its base concept and stick with that,” Smith said, “but also be willing to extend itself to accommodate peoples’ tastes. It’s possible to do that without backing away from your ideal. You have to build a trust factor with the customer so they know that the restaurant is able to move in new directions that build on the kitchen’s talents and philosophy.”

Cooking for vegans, Smith admitted, “is a big stretch for many chefs because our whole education is geared toward protein. I mean, it says something about the restaurant industry in America that vegetables are listed as ‘side items.’ Cooking for vegans requires a different mind-set, but it’s increasingly important.”

Smith described eating out as an exercise that could help diners see the experience in a radical light.

“When you go in a restaurant,” he said, “don’t think of the menu as a document of dishes set in stone, Think of it as a list of ingredients and use it to make a meal that fits your taste and dietary habits. All of a sudden you’ll see the meal as a different expression of your needs and the restaurant’s abilities.”

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