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Daily Archives: November 20, 2009

Accomodating vegetarians

We’ve discussed vegetarianism (with admittedly broad strokes). Now we discuss how we at non-vegetarian restaurants accomodate those with vegetarian needs.

The first think that a waiter should do is have a strategy in his or her back pocket. Most restaurants can accomodate vegetarians even if they don’t explicitly provide for them on the menu. I’m sure that most vegetarians are tired of having to choose a salad as their only menu choice, so it’s a good idea for the waiter to find out from the Chef what options the waiter has to accomodate the vegetarian diner. Most restaurants don’t train for this specific point, so the clever waiter will know the ins and outs of the ingredients that the kitchen uses, and be able to advise the guest about options that might not be readily apparent. For instance, if the house marinara doesn’t include chicken stock, you can use it to build a nice vegan-approved pasta. Not every vegetarian might think of this since some restaurant marinaras have some chicken stock. And this brings up an important point – don’t just assume that something does or doesn’t have some sort of animal product just because it usually does or doesn’t. For instance, some vegetables might actually have been cooked in chicken stock or a soup might have started with a roux, which has butter as the main ingredient even if it’s advertised as a vegetable soup like a “vegetable gumbo”. Even “vegetable soups” are often chicken or beef stock-based. So, if you don’t know for sure, ask the Chef.

If you find out which things actually have absolutely no animal products, this means that it’s good for vegans as well as any other type of vegetarian. However, you will find other products that vegetarians who eat dairy and eggs can enjoy as well. For instance, the Chef might be able to quickly knock off a pasta primavera (a cream-based vegetable pasta) for many vegetarians, but not for vegans. Or the Chef might have an alternative pasta primavera that avoids dairy by using soy milk or by just making an olive oil based sauce.

Obviously, a go-to is creating a vegetable plate out of side dishes. These are often times boring plates that are tolerated by vegetarians as a “last resort” sort of thing. anything that you or your Chef can do to avoid just putting three globs of veggies on a plate will set you apart from the average restaurant. Find your Chef in a quiet moment and ask them what they would suggest as a go-to plate in the event that you have to serve a vegetarian. Tell them that you’d like to have something a notch above the average to offer. Perhaps you could play on greed by pointing out that you can get a premium price for a premium product.

One key is identifying the level of vegetarianism of the guest. Don’t assume anything. Be specific about what a guest will or will not tolerate. Sometimes you have to dig for the info. I’ve even had some “vegetarians” say that they didn’t mind that the soup had chicken stock. And I mentioned in my first post the guest who claimed to be a vegetarian and didn’t seem to even eat seafood based on her comments but,  as it turned out, was fine with seafood. You have to ask direct questions.

Yes, it’s a bit of a pain-in-the-ass to consider all of this. Yes, the Chef isn’t particularly happy to get out of the routine because anything that the kitchen has to do that doesn’t follow a set recipe has a risk of not being very good as well as throwing a little sand into the well-oiled gears that the kitchen runs on.

But think of the benefits to you and the restaurant. If you can accomodate a vegetarian in a group of diners, you send the signal that the restaurant is a quality establishment that is geared toward customer service and has a kitchen that is better than the usual cookie-cutter operation. Even if you work at Chili’s or a fancy steakhouse, you have options that you might not have considered. And by asking your Chef in advance what he or she can provide off-menu, you might be doing them a favor by getting them to have something in their back pocket as well, something that they can go-to without having to build it on the fly in the middle of the rush.  

Yes, there’s a downside to this. It might send the signal to non-vegetarians that if the Chef can do that for their friend, they can put together special dishes for them, or this gives them license to modify dishes however they want. That is certainly a risk. Plus, you don’t want to be an annoyance to the Chef.

But I think the upsides to accommodating vegetarians outweighs the inconveniences. I think it’s good policy for any restaurant to take as good care of their vegetarian clientele as they do their regular guests. If the waiter anticipates the vegetarian guest, it’s not nearly the hassle if it’s just dropped on them in the middle of the rush. The smart waiter will be prepared and won’t be thrown for a loop in the middle of the rush.