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Gourmet Vegan?


BeefCheeks
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Maybe it's harder for vegan chefs to get the necessary qualifications?

Speaking from my personal experience, it's almost impossible to make it through culinary school as a vegetarian, much less a vegan. As a matter of fact, I left behind my vegetarianism on the day I started culinary school. Most vegetarians who want to go to culinary school end up doing a pastry program, and I befriended several vegetarian pastry students while I was in the culinary program at my alma mater. (As a recent ex-vegetarian, I was sensitive to making sure they had good food choices whenever we were feeding the pastry folks.)

The reason why my particular program would have been difficult to pass as a vegetarian or a vegan? Even if you don't taste foods, you're going to be graded on how they taste. Some people claim they can work wonders with animal foods without ever sampling them (Indian chef Suvir Saran is in this camp), but I personally find this hard to get my brain around. Also, the pressure on a vegetarian or vegan culinary student would be relentless to say the least--there is very little tolerance for people with these diets in most culinary schools. Finally, the vegetarian or vegan student would be expected to prepare animal foods just like everybody else--and they certainly couldn't pass any respectable program without doing so. (Most of the vegetarians and vegans I've known don't exactly feel like grilling a steak or trussing a chicken when they're in the kitchen.)

Could a vegetarian or vegan student make it by working through the restaurant world to earn their stripes? Good luck. As we've discussed on this thread, there aren't exactly great vegan restaurants in every town training the next generation of vegan chefs. And if you think the attitude in culinary schools is anti-vegan, wait till you see what most restaurant cooks and chefs think of people who make those dietary choices.

As I reflect on this question, I think lack of training may be a significant reason for the lack of great vegan restaurant food.

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It's nice to see more and more Vegan options in Chicago. I'm not Vegan but I think people that are should have the option while dining out.

"And in the meantime, listen to your appetite and play with your food."

Alton Brown, Good Eats

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Maybe it's harder for vegan chefs to get the necessary qualifications?

Speaking from my personal experience, it's almost impossible to make it through culinary school as a vegetarian, much less a vegan. As a matter of fact, I left behind my vegetarianism on the day I started culinary school. Most vegetarians who want to go to culinary school end up doing a pastry program, and I befriended several vegetarian pastry students while I was in the culinary program at my alma mater. (As a recent ex-vegetarian, I was sensitive to making sure they had good food choices whenever we were feeding the pastry folks.)

The reason why my particular program would have been difficult to pass as a vegetarian or a vegan? Even if you don't taste foods, you're going to be graded on how they taste. Some people claim they can work wonders with animal foods without ever sampling them (Indian chef Suvir Saran is in this camp), but I personally find this hard to get my brain around. Also, the pressure on a vegetarian or vegan culinary student would be relentless to say the least--there is very little tolerance for people with these diets in most culinary schools. Finally, the vegetarian or vegan student would be expected to prepare animal foods just like everybody else--and they certainly couldn't pass any respectable program without doing so. (Most of the vegetarians and vegans I've known don't exactly feel like grilling a steak or trussing a chicken when they're in the kitchen.)

Could a vegetarian or vegan student make it by working through the restaurant world to earn their stripes? Good luck. As we've discussed on this thread, there aren't exactly great vegan restaurants in every town training the next generation of vegan chefs. And if you think the attitude in culinary schools is anti-vegan, wait till you see what most restaurant cooks and chefs think of people who make those dietary choices.

As I reflect on this question, I think lack of training may be a significant reason for the lack of great vegan restaurant food.

It's an interesting situation, to be sure. I had a few vegetarians in my group, and while they were not exactly singled out it could not have been easy for them.

Here's the thing: no matter what your personal dietary choices, chances are that most culinary grads will be cooking for omnivores. That means preparing non-vegetarian food, and that means needing to taste what you cook. It is possible for a gifted cook to work "by touch" without tasting (a Jewish classmate turned out the best Portuguese pork-and-clam stew in our group, without sticking a spoon in it once), but it's still doing things the hard way.

I have no particular axe to grind on this issue, but I am a big believer in tasting what you cook. Ultimately, I guess everybody needs to make their own decisions.

I have no issue cooking vegan for anyone who comes through my restaurant...in fact, next summer (peak season) I plan to have at least one dish in every course that is vegan-friendly. To those who aren't looking for it, they'll just be lighter dishes; to the vegan it'll be "Hey, I can order right from the menu!"

“Who loves a garden, loves a greenhouse too.” - William Cowper, The Task, Book Three

 

"Not knowing the scope of your own ignorance is part of the human condition...The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.” - psychologist David Dunning

 

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That's funny because I have noticed the same thing - my favourite restaurant here is a Buddhist vegan restaurant. I had the same suspicions when it came to the fake meats, but even my omnivorous (and meat-loving) husband said it was some of the best Asian food he'd ever tasted.

If I were the cynical type, I'd suggest it could only be that he hasn't eaten enough Asian food yet. No disrespect to your husband, just a recognition of the enormous variety and superb quality of Asian cuisine at its best. My own impression of the mock meat in Chinese Buddhist food is that it's palatable, in fact, quite tasty sometimes, but as to whether it's "convincing" - certainly not. It might convince a lifelong vegetarian determined to be hoodwinked, or someone who hasn't eaten any meat in years. But the nearest it comes to real meat is a vague resemblance in taste and texture. Very vague indeed, if we're honest about it. (I could elaborate, and will if necessary, but I think this point is so obvious that it barely needs explaining.)

Another problem for me with Chinese vegetarian food is that garlic and onions are prohibited. Almost inevitably, it's pretty bland. If I were to look for good vegetarian and vegan food, I think Indian cuisine, and specifically South Indian, is one of the few that is really worthwhile.

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One of my friends who went to the San Francisco Green Festival came home with a brochure from this new business: http://hungry-vegan.com/

She prepares vegan meals and ships a week's worth of meals to her customers. Looking at the menu, the food clearly is striving for flavor and deliciousness over health or asceticism. It's an interesting business idea, and kind of illustrates the point that there are people looking for "gourmet" vegan food and there are people willing to produce it. And no, I haven't tried it, so I have no idea how well the food actually ships and keeps.

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But 20 years from now, I assure you nearly every one of your vegan grad-student friends will be eating meat -- or at least fish. The people who stay vegan through careers, parenthood, the degradation of the body and all the other realities of adult life are, in my experience, overwhelmingly the hardcore, righteous vegans: the ones for whom "rich, fulfilling food" is low on the list of concerns, and may even be antithetical to the mindset.

I'm willing to wager that 20 years from now there will be a common term for the person who chooses to eat primarily non-animal-derived foodstuffs and also considers "rich, fulfilling food" a priority. "Vegan" may have accumulated too much militant, ascetic baggage to be that term, but to imply that gourmandism requires the consumption of animal products ignores the increasing numbers of non-hardcore among us who try to prepare exceptional vegan/vegetarian food on a daily basis.

Edited by markemorse (log)
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But 20 years from now, I assure you nearly every one of your vegan grad-student friends will be eating meat -- or at least fish. The people who stay vegan through careers, parenthood, the degradation of the body and all the other realities of adult life are, in my experience, overwhelmingly the hardcore, righteous vegans: the ones for whom "rich, fulfilling food" is low on the list of concerns, and may even be antithetical to the mindset.

I'm willing to wager that 20 years from now there will be a common term for the person who chooses to eat primarily non-animal-derived foodstuffs and also considers "rich, fulfilling food" a priority. "Vegan" may have accumulated too much militant, ascetic baggage to be that term, but to imply that gourmandism requires the consumption of animal products ignores the increasing numbers of non-hardcore among us who try to prepare exceptional vegan/vegetarian food on a daily basis.

Markemorse, many thanks for that spirited response to that closed-minded post.

In my family, we have experienced all that was listed: parenting, aging, etc.

We are all in basically good health, and stayed vegetarian (no fish of course)

though we are not vegan (we also don't base our meals on eggs, cheese,

butter etc.).

Guess what? Our food philosophy is: "if it's not tasty and fulfilling,

we ain't eating it". We're not about a sawdust-based deprivation diet.

And thanks to my desi heritage, I'm actually familiar with how to cook

and eat vegetarian without dying in the attempt.

And we LOVE it when restaurants actually have vegetarian choices.

It's easy in much of the US, South Asia, East Africa. Europe (outside of UK)

can still be a real pain, because of the vegetarian=fish notion.

I am sure if we traveled to China, Japan, Korea etc. we'd be sunk.

Even if something unforeseen makes me switch to meating, the last

thing I will eat is fish, as even in my non-veg younger days I hated

the stuff - it smells bad.

Plus the environmental destruction that accompanies fish/seafood

industries nowadays (e.g. the 'slash and burn' approach to shrimp farms

in SE Asia: destroy the mangroves, put in a shrimp farm, in 5 years

that farm can no longer yield and the area is destroyed, so move down

the coast and repeat; etc.) is unconscionable. I don't know why people

eat those products - maybe tickling their tastebuds is the highest priority

contrasted to any thought or ethics whatsoever - and using the cheap

shot of calling others 'hardcore' or 'deprived' seems a way to justify themselves.

It's interesting how on that whole hog farm/pollution thread, not a single

person seems to have thought of the idea of (gasp) eating less pig!

Eating meat was sustainable when people ate small quantities occasionally

(e.g. Easter lamb; TG turkey; etc.) rather than honking big meat hunks

front and center of every meal plate; and people actually act baffled

when environmental and occupational havoc follow.....

Edited by Milagai (log)
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But 20 years from now, I assure you nearly every one of your vegan grad-student friends will be eating meat -- or at least fish. The people who stay vegan through careers, parenthood, the degradation of the body and all the other realities of adult life are, in my experience, overwhelmingly the hardcore, righteous vegans: the ones for whom "rich, fulfilling food" is low on the list of concerns, and may even be antithetical to the mindset.

I'm willing to wager that 20 years from now there will be a common term for the person who chooses to eat primarily non-animal-derived foodstuffs and also considers "rich, fulfilling food" a priority. "Vegan" may have accumulated too much militant, ascetic baggage to be that term, but to imply that gourmandism requires the consumption of animal products ignores the increasing numbers of non-hardcore among us who try to prepare exceptional vegan/vegetarian food on a daily basis.

Markemorse, many thanks for that spirited response to that closed-minded post.

...

using the cheap shot of calling others 'hardcore' or 'deprived' seems a way to justify themselves...

This was my primary objection to the post I responded to: the dismissive implication that if you're not using animal products, you're not really eating...

(then there's the suggestion that this kind of daily commitment is just too hard to stick with through the "realities of adult life"....an excuse that can pretty easily be extended to cover any kind of socially responsible behavior, but whatever...that's for another forum :raz: )

Edited by markemorse (log)
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It's interesting how on that whole hog farm/pollution thread, not a single

person seems to have thought of the idea of (gasp) eating less pig! 

Eating meat was sustainable when people ate small quantities occasionally

(e.g. Easter lamb; TG turkey; etc.) rather than honking big meat hunks

front and center of every meal plate; and people actually act baffled

when environmental and occupational havoc follow.....

"Eating less pig" is a vegetarian's agenda. About as welcome to a meat eater as advice to a vegetarian would be to eat less soy-based food, or fewer eggplants.

I also believe that that rosy view of traditional levels of meat consumption wouldn't hold up for long under close examination. No doubt people ate far less meat on average. But seven months separate Easter and Thanksgiving, when people could indulge in "small quantities" of meat. When was that, and which people? Eating meat, and lots of it, whenever possible, has a long history in my part of the world, and I think yours too. The usual limiting factor was poverty, not lack of desire - or any interest in health.

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"Eating less pig" is a vegetarian's agenda. About as welcome to a meat eater as advice to a vegetarian would be to eat less soy-based food, or fewer eggplants.

I know many meat-eaters who understand the importance of eating less meat--for both environmental and health reasons. I also know many vegetarians who question their consumption of soy, and would welcome (or, at the very least, be receptive to) the suggestion to "eat less soy," provided that it was delivered along with a clear and convincing explanation as to why.

You seem to be setting up an overly simplistic binary: Vegetarians vs. Meat-Eaters, where:

Vegetarians = a homogenous group of people with the same desires, interests, needs, motivations, etc.

Meat-Eaters = a homogenous group of... etc.

In reality, these groups are made up of widely different people, with wildly differing reasons/desires/motivations for eating what they do. By describing these groups in this way, I hope I've illustrated why writing off "eating less pig" as "a vegetarian's agenda" is a bit too much of a knee-jerk reaction. Instead of being so quick to categorize (and consequently reject) that advice, it might be worth trying to understand why such advice might be given in the first place.

To bring this back on topic: I think many of the disagreements in this thread stem from the dead-ends that such essentialist thinking can create. Of course there can be delicious vegan cuisine. There is nothing essentially non-delicious about veganism.

That being said, vegan cooks and restaurants obviously face some fairly significant obstacles. Consequently, the more interesting questions to ask might be "Why do we not see more fine-dining vegan restaurants?", "Why do many vegan restaurants tend to produce blander food than non-vegan restaurants?", and so forth. My favourite commenters in this thread have ignored the essentialist problem, and have answered these questions instead, suggesting an absence of formal vegan cooking schools, a lack of opportunities to test recipes on a large audience, etc., as possible reasons.

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I know many meat-eaters who understand the importance of eating less meat--for both environmental and health reasons. I also know many vegetarians who question their consumption of soy, and would welcome (or, at the very least, be receptive to) the suggestion to "eat less soy," provided that it was delivered along with a clear and convincing explanation as to why.

You seem to be setting up an overly simplistic binary: Vegetarians vs. Meat-Eaters, where:

Vegetarians = a homogenous group of people with the same desires, interests, needs, motivations, etc.

Meat-Eaters = a homogenous group of... etc.

Fair enough. It was unintentional. My understanding of meat eaters and vegetarians is more sophisticated than that, certainly, and is not that much different from your own view above. My reaction, I suppose, was to the slightly patronizing way the point was (gasp) put, and what I really meant was that when a vegetarian advises a meat eater to lay off the pork chops, and gets in a dig at the same time, it isn't really impartial advice. And that a meat-eater doing likewise to a vegetarian...you get the idea.

Instead of being so quick to categorize (and consequently reject) that advice, it might be worth trying to understand why such advice might be given in the first place.

A fair point again, and when the advice is sensibly and thoughtfully put, I tend to do just that.

To bring this back on topic: I think many of the disagreements in this thread stem from the dead-ends that such essentialist thinking can create.  Of course  there can be delicious vegan cuisine.  There is nothing essentially non-delicious about veganism.

I agree there too, although the limits imposed by veganism are extremely wide. I have seen some vegans try to deny this, but I think they are simply wrong. Those limits do create problems by restricting the range of people who will adopt a vegan diet in the first place, and setting greater challenges in preparing good and varied food than the rest of us have to face. Even having eaten a lot of Chinese Buddhist vegetarian food over the years - I think a lot of it is actually vegan, but we'll call it vegetarian - I don't think I can recall a single truly outstanding meal. It was often very good, but very good I can get anywhere....

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My reaction, I suppose, was to the slightly patronizing way the point was (gasp) put, and what I really meant was that when a vegetarian advises a meat eater to lay off the pork chops, and gets in a dig at the same time, it isn't really impartial advice. And that a meat-eater doing likewise to a vegetarian...you get the idea.

Yes, I can now see why you had that reaction. At the same time, gasp or no gasp, I think that Milagai's point is quite insightful. In the Pig thread, JohnL's post (

# 35) seems to suggest that given our need for lots of pig, we must simply accept some of the frightening consequences of large-scale pig farming. Although some commenters debate with JohnL, nobody does mention the possibility of simply "eating less pig".

I agree there too, although the limits imposed by veganism are extremely wide. I have seen some vegans try to deny this, but I think they are simply wrong. Those limits do create problems by restricting the range of people who will adopt a vegan diet in the first place, and setting greater challenges in preparing good and varied food than the rest of us have to face. Even having eaten a lot of Chinese Buddhist vegetarian food over the years - I think a lot of it is actually vegan, but we'll call it vegetarian -  I don't think I can recall a single truly outstanding meal.  It was often very good, but very good I can get anywhere....

Again, yes--I think you are right that these factors (many dietery limits, the vegan lifestyle being only feasible for small groups of people) explain, in part, the tendency towards non-gourmet vegan food. But I still stand by my argument that these factors do not, in any way, mean that gourmet vegan food is impossible--and won't, even, someday become more common.

Edited by MaggieL (log)
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