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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.


Vegetarians fall into different categories.

The strictest is the vegan movement. Partly political, partly dietary and partly a moral system, this food philosophy forbids the consumption of any animal products, animal by-products and food processed with animal products (the use of fish bladders or egg whites in the fining of wine, for instance). A true vegan extends this into other areas of life such as the wearing of leather or the avoidance of things like soap, perfumes and other products that might either utilize animal products or are a by-product of animal testing.

As strict as this sounds, there are still shades of veganism. While honey is an animal by-product, some vegans accept its use. Some vegans absolutely have to be sure that there are no animal by-products in anything that they consume or use – others don’t necessarily have to examine every point in the production of a food item because there are some food products that have incidental contact with an animal by-product and sometimes it’s just impossible to assure that no such by-products have been used. There is a sub-set of the vegan movement that promotes the exclusive consumption of only raw foods.

Some vegans are very militant – others are more into it simply as a healthy lifestyle choice.

All vegans are vegetarians, but not everyone who calls themselves “vegetarians” are vegetarians. However, many “true vegetarians” don’t consider themselves vegans, which is as much a political movement as it is a lifestyle choice. They simply avoid any animal product or by-product.

A “true vegetarian” doesn’t eat meat in any form. However, a “true vegetarian” might consume honey. It gets a little trickier when it comes to poultry “by-products” like dairy and eggs. There are lacto-ovo vegetarians who eat both dairy and eggs. there are lacto-vegetarians who eat dairy but eschew eggs (because, let’s face it, eggs are “meat”, right?) Obviously, an ovo-vegetarian will eat eggs but not dairy.

Then you have “pescetarians”. They aren’t true vegetarians for obvious reasons. Fish is meat. However, many of them consider themselves vegetarians who “happen to eat fish”.

There are “vegetarians” who don’t eat red meat but will eat chicken or pork. It is fairly rare for these folks to actually call themselves vegetarians, but I’ve actually seen it on the rare occasion. 

These various ideas about what makes one a vegetarian can make things tricky for the waiter.

In the next post, we’ll talk about what you should do as a waiter to try to accomodate vegetarians of all stripes in your restaurant.


Waiters are often confronted with the issue of vegetarianism.

I’m sure the term “issue” would be considered a pejorative term by vegetarians of all stripes. And I sympathize. But it’s the “all stripes” part that makes it an “issue”.

So, let’s stipulate that I’m not calling vegetarianism itself the issue, only the different ways that people categorize themselves as vegetarians and how restaurants that don’t primarily cater to vegetarians accomodate those that have different needs than what the menu was designed for.

This was brought home to me just last night.

I had a guest who said that she was vegetarian and wondered if we had something other than seafood or meat as an appetizer. We have a side dish that we can prepare that would work great in that context. The thing is, there’s cheese on it. So I asked her, “Is cheese a problem”? She said no. So I mentioned this special side dish that we can do and that I’ve incorporated into my normal spiel. I also asked if she’d simply like a small plate of freshly steamed or grilled vegetables. She said that she would get back to me.

What was her final choice?

Crab cake.

Yes, my head literally supn 360 degrees on my shoulders and driblets of pea soup starting dotting the walls.

In the next post, we’ll explore the different levels of vegetarianism.

After that, we’ll talk about ways that you as a waiter can help a vegetarian of any stripe receive at least an acceptable meal.

So stay tuned kids – excitement will ensue.

Thanks to for this nice image.

Cookbook of the day – The Original Thai Cookbook

thai cookbook

The Original Thai Cookbook

by Jennifer Brennan

Publisher Perigee; Reprint edition (31 May 2002)

ISBN 10: 0399510338

ISBN 13: 978-0399510335

This book claims to be “The first complete, authentic Thai cookbook published in America”.

Since it was first published in 1981, I suspect that this might very well be true.

And you should pick it up.

Half recipes and half cultural and historical overview of a very interesting country in Indochina, this book will inform your culinary education and compliment the book True Thai by Victor Sodsook that I’ve previously reviewed. His book is mostly recipes, but this book has a lot of “background info”.

You’ll learn how the cuisine of Thailand is bound by the logistics of their native kitchens, and you follow the evolution of a cuisine that has many parents due to its history of being ruled by various regimes and peoples. You’ll learn little tips like simmering chili paste-infused coconut milk uncovered instead of covering in order to prevent curdling.

And you’ll have plenty of recipes with which to compare with the True Thai cookbook and you’ll discover which ones you favor over the other. If you are a vegetarian, you’ll find plenty to work with here.

What you don’t get is a bunch of pretty pictures. This book is all business.

Thai Fish Soup

Cookbook of the day – The New Professional Chef


The New Professional Chef

by The Culinary Institute of America


  • Publisher:Van Nostrand Reinhold; 6 Sub edition (November 7, 1995)  
  • ISBN-10: 0471286796
  • ISBN-13: 978-0471286790

    This is the basic textbook of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). It’s big and expensive. I don’t recommend buying it new, but you can sometimes find it at used bookstores for $20 – $30.

    Obviously, it has a lot of basic information about things that a chef needs to know about nutrition, safety concerns, kitchen tools, food prep and food ingredients. However, I think that some of the other books that I’ve recommended that focus on specific things like ingredients, cooking techniques for specific cuisines, etc. is money better spent.

    I’m recommending this book to those who have the occasional need to produce food for large gatherings. if you occasionally throw large dinner parties, patio barbecues for family and friends, or do the occasional catering gig, this book is invaluable because it had many many recipes for basic sauces, stocks and classic dishes that are designed for 10 or more people.

    Most restaurant chefs in quality restaurants keep this volume handy, and it’s a short-sighted professional caterer that doesn’t also use this volume often. It’s also useful for the non-pro as well, but only if you cook for large families and gatherings occasionally.

    Food item of the day – ghee

    I’m surprised that more American households don’t have ghee in their pantry.

    What’s ghee, you ask?  Ghee is clarified butter that has had the milk solids and excess moisture removed through cooking. The milk solids sink to the bottom, the water rises to the top and the middle layer is removed and allowed to cool. Once cooled, it has the texture and body of a soft butter spread. If prepared properly, it can be stored in an airtight container and doesn’t have to be refrigerated.  It has a sweet, nutty flavor that goes well in a lot of cooking, plus, it has a much higher burning point than many oils, so it’s useful when frying. It’s also considered a little healthier than many poly-unsaturated oils. It’s a “saturated oil”, a non-trans fat. It’s basically the essense of butter.

    I like it because it can be stored in the pantry and doesn’t have to go in the cooler. It’s always at room temperature (read spreadable) and I actually prefer the flavor to regular butter. It’s a staple of Indian cooking (the name ghee is derived from Sanskrit). Naan bread is best when made with ghee. Ghee is also a great substitute for oil when making rice. I like to use on bread and toast just as I would regular butter.

    Ghee isn’t difficult to make at home but you have to use typical canning techniques to avoid contamination. I prefer to buy it. It’s a little expensive but it goes a long way because it’s more concentrated a flavor than butter is. This is the brand that I find most often, but there are other brands that you might see in international markets:


    Stay away from “vegetable ghee”, which sounds healthier because of the name, but isn’t because it’s a trans fat, which we know isn’t very healthy at all. It’s actually less healthy and is used because it’s cheap. You can be sure that it’s real butter ghee if it has “cow” somewhere on the label. the Ziyad is made from butter, so it’s good to go.

    Ghee – it’s something you should consider making a special place in your pantry for.

    Cookbook of the day – Splendid Soups


    Splendid Soups: Recipes and Master Techniques for Making the World’s Best Soups

    by James Peterson

    Publisher: Wiley (September 22, 2000)
    ISBN-10: 0471391360
    ISBN-13: 978-0471391364
    Once again, I don’t have the most current edition of this book. I have the 1994 edition, which clocks in at 100 less pages than this new edition. Mine has a different cover as well:



    I’m assuming that Peterson has added some modern variants of classic soups, as he has presumably done with the updated edition of his Sauces book that I reviewed yesterday. This could be considered a companion edition to Sauces, but even this earlier edition has a wider scope than Sauces, with non-Western ingredients such as bonito flakes, Udon noodles, miso, and various soups from the Far East and other places included in this edition. You’ll find soups from India, Japan, Morocco, Thailand and other far-flung corners of the globe.

    This is another of Peterson’s “reference” works. As such, you won’t find a single photograph. It’s all recipes, tips and techniques. Some recipes are for intermediate or advanced cooks, but even the beginning cook can find a lot of practical advice on soup-making that will help them move past the basic into the more advanced levels of cooking.

    If you have Peterson’s Sauces, this should sit next to it on your bookshelf.

    Blackberries are the new black

    Apparently, blackberries are the culinary rage of the summer of 2009.

    Apparently Palm Steakhouse predicted this last year when they introducted their “Gentle Palm” cocktail, the marriage of Jack Daniels and blackberry (with a generous amount of the perennial favorite, strawberry).

    Personally, I’m intrigued by the idea of adding blackberries to barbeque sauce. And, having experimented with whole strawberry tempura back in 1980 (they are awesome especially when slathered with a sweetened cream cheese dip but a little hard to eat because the battered and fried strawberries are insanely hot when you bite into them) , I’m now officially wondering if it’s possible to do the same with blackberries. If they were able to be fried quickly without losing their integrity, they might be great little things to pop into your mouth.


    Photo courtesy of

    © Karen Bergeron

    Cookbook of the Day – Jeremiah Tower Cooks


    Jeremiah Tower Cooks

    by Jeremiah Tower

  • Publisher: Harry N. Abrams; First Edition edition (October 2, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1584792302
  • ISBN-13: 978-1584792307
  • After there was Julia Child, Paul Bocuse, Pierre Franey and Jacques Pepin and before Thomas Keller, Paul Prudhomme and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, there was Alice Waters and her chef Jeremiah Tower. Her restaurant Chez Panisse was legendary in the Bay Area and became famous nationwide through the Chez Panisse Cookbookand other writings. The restaurant, which opened in 1971, is credited with creating “California Cuisine” and Tower is considered its Godfather. He is the creator of the “gourmet pizza”, a concept later taken to massive heights by Wolfgang Puck and others. Even though Waters’ and Tower split less than amicably and the two have traded barbs in print and through the press, I suspect that Ms. Waters has more respect (if not affection) for her old head chef than she’s willing to admit (and vice versa).

    Tower became one of the earliest “celebrity chefs” in America (transplants like Child, Graham Kerr, Bocuse, Pepin and Franey notwithstanding). He did it without having a cooking show or a raft of popular cookbooks but did it though is association with Waters and his subsequent restaurants Sana Fe Bar and Grill and his most famous joint, Stars. He was (and is) legend in the culinary world and this cookbook will show you why.

    If you’ve read any of my cookbook reviews, you’ll know that I treasure a cookbook that opens the door to a chef’s inner workings. The best cookbooks written by chefs are more than just the sum of recipes, but almost manifestos of their cooking philosophy and the passing of house secrets that can transform the readers’ own culinary efforts. And this book has it in spades.

    A book that has the outer appearance of an artsy-fartsy coffee-table book, you’ll find the insides almost utilitarian, with sparse illustrations and a matter-of-fact look and feel. It starts with Chapter One, ” Delights and Prejudices”, with the admonition that errors and improvisations are allowed (his individual gourmet pizza was the result of a happy accident). He runs the gamut of a glossary of cooking terms and phrases and a concise list of techniques that are used through the book. And his description of “salt and pepper to taste” is very blunt – that’s exactly what he means.

    His 250 recipes are fresh, healthy and mouthwatering, just what you’d expect from the best California cuisine.

    As we are on the cusp of summer, I can’t recommend this book more highly, nor is any other cookbook more appropriate to this time of year. You’ll learn many quick tips and insights about combining food in palate-pleasing combinations. You’ll discover that great food doesn’t have to involve jumping through hoops.

    But let’s let croc-wearing Mario Batali have the final word:

    Jeremiah Tower became my instant hero the first time I set foot in Stars, three days after it opened. To this day I consder him my ultimate mentor, and his voice, style, and opinions the arbiters of taste and truth in the restaurant world. The recipes and words within this book are timeless classics, as is Jeremiah himself. I love this guy. 


    Cookbook of the day – The Joy of Japanese Cooking


    The Joy of Japanese cooking

    by Kuwako Takahashi

  • Publisher:Shufu No Tomo-Sha (September 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 4079751508
  • ISBN-13: 978-4079751506
  • This is one of those standard reference works that non-native Japanese cooks should own. For such a compact volume, there’s an amazing amount of information – from nice photos and line drawings of various ingredients to various cuts employed in Japanese cooking.

    The book  does have some flaws according to at least one person in Tokyo, a couple of which are a rather inaccurate English translation at times and the lack of  a Japanese name index. Also, they point out that there are sometimes inconsistencies in measurements. Both metric and non-metric measurements are given, but sometimes you only get one or the other. The last drawback that this reviewer points out is the use of the occasional “non-authentic” ingredients in certain dishes. I don’t find the measurement issue of much consequence. Most of the time, it’s something pretty trivial like using cups instead of ml for liquid measurements or teaspoons and tablespoons, but weights are usually given in both standards. Obviously, the authenticity and translation is something that I can’t judge. I realize that calling dishes “casseroles” might startle a Japanese speaker familiar with English (I have a hard time myself using the word casserole with any Japanese dish), but I suspect that it’s not that big of a deal in the long run. There are some Japanese dishes that would be hard to name in an English context. I think that you basically just to have some common sense about it. 

    Having noted these reservations, I still heartily recommend this book for anyone interested in exploring Japanese cuisine. The section on sushi is helpful and the last section is devoted to “menu planning” with some timetables for assembling a large meal.  I think the best part of this book is the detailed cutting techniques that the Japanese use to prepare their food. The line drawings and instructions are clear and concise. And the book is fairly compact and easy to use in the kitchen. Many books that try to cover a cuisine that has a lot of unusual ingredients and techniques ends up being the size of a refrigerator. Not this book. There’s a lot of value packed in a small space.

    This is the cover for the paperback:


    If you can get the hardcover, I’d recommend it. It’s got a good feel to it. I think that both editions might be out-of-print, but Amazon has lots of NOS and used copies from their associated vendors.