Friday, June 22, 2012

My short, happy life as a vegetarian

What it's like working in a vegetarian restaurant.

Posted By on Fri, Jun 22, 2012 at 3:13 PM

Yes, man can survive on veggie burgers and iced mead.
  • barry.pousman
  • Yes, man can survive on veggie burgers and iced mead.

Writing about the new Cafe Gratitude and its affirmation-heavy, hippie-dippy vibe brought back all kinds of memories for me about the cute little macrobiotic restaurant in Indianapolis where I worked as a waiter in the early 1980s. It was a combination folky art gallery and dining room operated - like Cafe Gratitude - by a husband-and-wife team: he was the chef; she was the manager. I vaguely remember getting the job as a server because I knew someone who already worked there. She had told me that the job was so incredibly laid-back and nonstressful that it would seem like a vacation compared with the uptight, rigid, humorless corporate chain-restaurant job I had recently quit. (A job where my sanity was sorely tested by the requirement to sing the peppy, hand-clapping "Happy Birthday" song way too many times; I had started hiding in the bathroom to avoid the grim duty.)

Young vegetarian waiter...with an attitude.
  • Young vegetarian waiter...with an attitude.
I'm not surprised the owners of the macrobiotic restaurant hired me - I had lots of restaurant experience - but I'm surprised they kept me on. I stumbled into the place bleary-eyed and hung-over for most of my lunch shifts during my first few months, took way too many smoking breaks, never took the task of setting up the salad bar "in an artistic manner" very seriously, and kept hiding the cassette tape of Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" when I couldn't stand hearing it on an endless loop. An ideal employee, I wasn't.

And if patrons asked me specific questions about a macrobiotic diet or about the brilliant man, Michio Kushi, who introduced the concept to the West, I wouldn't know what to say. I may have been serving bowls of brown rice, cups of bancha tea, coriander-scented tempeh burgers and bowls of miso soup to my customers - but you don't think I actually ate that stuff, do you?

But after a very short time, I became a convert. The food at this restaurant was very good and not very expensive, and I was, of course, always broke. Before I knew it, I had stopped eating meat completely and all dairy products, too. The chef taught me how to make tempeh burgers, veggie burgers and all the house-made dressings on our salad bar.

I didn't stop smoking or drinking, naturally. But instead of throwing back shots of hard liquor, I was introduced to the glories of "all-natural" honey wine, mead, which wasn't nearly as delicious as Jack Daniel's (and the hangovers were far worse), but it was a pretty color and a nice addition to a simple meal of buckwheat noodles and steamed kelp. But booze isn't exactly sanctioned by the macrobiotic way of eating. "Wines and alcohol are very yin," the restaurant owner scolded me. "They overstimulate the mind and the body."

The list of banned stimulants included coffee, chocolate, spices and street drugs. I gave up everything except chocolate. And liquor. And coffee and, oh never mind. I never adopted the diet as a religion, mind you, although I could certainly make a persuasive argument to my customers on the wonders of steamed vegetables and nondairy desserts after a while - it helped that this restaurant served a glorious fresh apple and tofu "custard" pie that was amazingly good. (I'm still trying to re-create the recipe, which is what I should have stolen from the kitchen before I left, instead of a handful of carob brownies.)

I remember feeling slightly betrayed by the restaurant's owners when they made the decision to add fish and meat - organic chicken and beef - to the menu. And wine and beer! The theory was that they were losing customers when the meat-eating boyfriends of vegetarian females wouldn't go with them to a restaurant that didn't serve a steak and a Budweiser. It was smart thinking because our business increased dramatically, even if some of the more stringent regulars left in a huff. "I'm going to report you to Michio Kushi," one woman snapped at me.

"And I'm going to report you," I fired back, "someplace. For being a bad tipper!"

Unlike the shiny happy servers at Cafe Gratitude, this restaurant was staffed with a mostly sullen bunch. There was the willowy, extremely beautiful waitress who came up with one fabulous, outrageous excuse after another not to show up to work. She once toyed with the idea of telling the owners that she had to miss a shift because she had been abducted by aliens. She didn't use the excuse, but a couple of weeks later, I did. There was also the high-strung, middle-aged server who came to work one night wearing a white oxford shirt stained with blood. It seems he had sent away for a do-it-yourself nipple-piercing kit and hadn't followed directions properly, or something. He was sent home to recover and bleach his shirt. No one likes to see blood in a vegetarian restaurant.

I gave up my macrobiotic diet not long after moving to Kansas City. I was getting bored with grains and rice and apple juice anyway, and my doctor told me that I had lost too much weight and needed to add "a little meat protein" to my diet. I ran out and immediately ate three White Castle double cheeseburgers. I've never looked back, although there are many days I think that maybe I should. Is it too late? And would I have to give up barbecue and Little Debbie Snack Cakes?

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