Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Why some vegetarians believe in 'don't ask, don't tell'

Posted By on Wed, Dec 1, 2010 at 1:00 PM

Fat_City_refried_beans_thumb_220x158.jpg
Refried beans can be the ultimate mystery dish.
Chef and culinary consultant Bonnie Winston can take the tiniest taste of long-simmered beans in a Mexican restaurant and tell you if they've been cooked in lard. "If the beans are really flavorful," she says, "there's probably lard in there."

I have several vegetarian friends in Kansas City who take a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to some seemingly meat-free dishes. It's easier to pretend the beans in a Mexican restaurant are lard-free, particularly when dining with a group of meat-eating friends. 


"Soups are always a tough call," one of those friends tells me, "since they're usually made with chicken stock."

And then there's the whole pie crust issue. What's a serious vegetarian to do? And if they ask, does the restaurant staff actually tell the truth?

 "Things have really changed in American restaurants," says chef and cookbook author Lou Jane Temple, who once owned Cafe Lulu in midtown. "Fifteen years ago, when I was running a restaurant, we only had one completely meat-free dish on the menu: black beans and rice. If I served a butternut squash risotto, it always had a little chicken stock in it. That's how I make risotto. I hope my servers would tell that to customers. Today, they would because I think restaurants are more honest and up front about ingredients.

"But don't go to a Mexican restaurant in Kansas City and assume that the refried beans are not made with lard," she adds.

Marshall Roth, the chef and co-owner of Dog Nuvo, recently added soups to his menu and tries to always have one vegetarian choice -- made with vegetable stock.

"I always appreciate when customers ask what the ingredients of anything I make. I'm not a vegetarian, but I respect their beliefs. I have a meat-driven restaurant, obviously, but I try to have one soup that vegetarians can eat. Unless you're making a clam chowder or a chicken soup -- where those ingredients are the dominant flavor -- you can use a vegetable stock. But pumpkin soup? That needs to be all-vegetable, right down to the stock.

"Twenty years ago, it might have been offensive to some chefs to have a customer ask about the ingredients of a dish," Roth adds. "But things have changed dramatically. We've all figured out that we're in a service industry and it's all about serving a diverse clientele."

And does Dog Nuvo have a vegetarian hot dog yet?

"Well, we're still working on that," Roth says.

(Image via Flickr: emdot)

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