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Oct 26, 2008 10:37 AM

Shouldn't food service professionals "get" vegetarian?


Ok, I realize this is likely to spur some anti-veg backlash, but having just returned from a week long, food included conference, am for the umpteenth time wondering why so many professional cooks just don’t seem to “get” what vegetarian means. I’m talking in relation to the food guide, not simply “meatless”.

I’m one of those “meat free” people who doesn’t typically make a fuss, am more than happy to eat a slice of bread for a meal at someone’s home, and enjoy many meals in restaurants that are meat free, but not necessarily balanced. This is ok for occasionals, and I can make up for it. I’ll even very occasionally eat fish, and I am , by no means, a picky eater. I realize it's a pain in the butt to a lot of people, and I regularly apologize for it. Really, i'm not trying to be difficult !!

I understand that it is difficult to feed a couple of hundred people and keep everyone happy. I also understand that the resulting food is quite often, not great. But this is a location where people go on conferences and training for weeks on end. Is it too much to ask for some protein?

The kitchen was advised well ahead of time that there would be vegetarians in the group (I was one of a few). While the carnivores in the group enjoyed a wide selection of dishes and various proteins in the buffet line, there were no vegetarian mains, only once a meat-free pasta option, and only once fish which I didn’t eat (it looked repulsive, but I was at least happy to see it there, for some variety).

Twice during the week, there were asian dishes, typically dishes that can quite easily be and often are by their own right, vegetarian. Once, there were burgers, but no veggie burger substitute. That one, I thought, seemed rather obvious to me, wouldn’t have even required an entire stand-alone dish.

I was quite excited to see a tofu hot and sour soup…..which was swimming in beef. I spent the week living off of rice, potatoes, cheese (which many veg’s won’t eat), salads/veg sides and the ever present chick pea in the salad bar. I ate eggs every morning for breakfast just to make sure I had at least some protein (you have to eat a lot of beans, eggs and cheese to get the daily requirement so easily gotten from eg. Tofu). I love chickpeas, but not for two meals a day, every day.

This might also be ok, if you’re in the “eat to live” category, which I’m not. I could regale you with other such occasions, and the interpretations of “vegetarian” which ended up on my plate (one example was the canned baked beans over pasta meal….WTH)

Needless to say, I felt ill and bloated by the end of the week, tired of eating the same thing day in day out, and couldn’t wait to get back to my own cooking. I wasn’t the only one. And no we did not have the option to go elsewhere.

I understand that not every person understands or wants to know how to feed a vegetarian, but shouldn’t a food service professional know how to do this, and provide balanced meals? And God forbid, with some variety?

  1. every year I go on a week long catered trip, at a boy scout camp of all places. We are most definitely NOT there for the food (the camp is located on Santa Catalina Island adjacent to world-class scuba diving). However, even though the food is nothing to write home about, every single meal's main course has a vegetarian alternative, (ie veggie burgers if the main dish is burgers, vegie sauced pasta, vegie chili on chili night, etc. Most of those vegie main courses are also vegan.

    Why? because the various groups who attend the camp when the boy scouts aren't there (typically, we will be one of several groups in camp) and who purchase the catering, insist on it and put it in the contract.

    The caterer deserves some of the blame, but I am sure they 'get it', they just don't have sufficient motive to do something about it. I'd join forces with the other vegetarians and ask your employer to intervene. If your job is secure, I'd even consider submitting a claim for meals eaten elsewhere since they couldn't accomodate you. (too late for this time, but to be considered for the next time).

    Advising the caterer isn't enough. When I have done event planning for my work, I have put it in the agreements that XXX number of vegie options will be available.

    1. Don't take this as anti veg - and also don't take it as an excuse for poor planning on the caterer's part.
      There are so many varieties (or degrees) of vegetarian (at least it appears that way to a full on carnivore like me) that if it is left strictly to the food professional to come up with acceptable vegetarian alternatives, they may fail completely in satisfying the non meat crowd.
      The caterer "SHOULD" know that at a minimum vegetarian attendees means to provide main as well as side alternatives.
      In situations like this it is important for the person or group hosting the conference to get input from the vegetarian(s) on what is acceptable fare. They need to relay this to the food service provider - not just a general "there will be some vegetarians".
      The food service provider should also ask for detailed input from the host in the case of general statements - Questions like "Vegetarian or Vegan?", "Strict or loose adherence?", "Is seafood acceptable or not?" and VERY important "How many vegetarians will be attending?"
      Without some fairly detailed input, the non meat eaters may be in for a crapshoot.

      3 Replies
      1. re: hannaone


        You took the words out of my omnivore mouth. What is the line about being a "level nine vegan - one who doesn't eat anything that casts a shadow?

        Given my dietary habits, I should be less concerned about level of vegetarianism and the foods offered, except that we host a lot of major functions. My assistant, and my wife's always get full disclosure on our guests' requirements beforehand. Each restaurant is given full instructions. To date, none has let us down. Heck, wife has some food allergies and we do a lot of "chef's tastings." With notice, all have come through.

        Now, we've hosted tables at charity events, where the folk did not respond to the question. Imagine the kitchen staff, when serving 1200 to try and create something just for this one person. Also, most events like this are on a tight cost budget, so they cannot be expected to have X different levels of vegetarian plates, in case someone wants them.

        I used to see similar, back when there were meals served on airplanes. People would demand a Kosher, or Veg plate, when we were in the air. Back when I first began flying, I learned that one could specify their food, from within several choices, before hand. Imagine the stewardesses (that's what they were called back then) trying to scramble around and "create" a special meal, when all they had to work from were other regular meals.

        Now, if a caterer does not listen to the needs of the guests, or the host/hostess is not sensitive to them, there is no excuse. Gotta' get with the game plan.


        1. re: Bill Hunt

          Yes, the one making arrangements should make sure that their needs are met. I agree; put it in the contract. If yours is not the only group being served that day, ask about typical menus. If they don't meet your needs, go elsewhere. Let the catereres KNOW EXACTLY what you expect, and vote with your feet if they don't provide it. (For example, it amazes me that so many people consider "vegetarian" to include fish. I would NEVER make that assumption, but I can only assume that a caterer might since so many of you do...).

          OTOH, the caterer should know their audience. I was once on a flight from Dubai to Mumbai. Just about every person on board was Hindu (Indian workers returning from the oilfields to their homes during a holiday period). British Air loaded several hundred meals, and all but two were beef (DH and I had pre-ordered the two vegetarian meals...we ended up giving them away). OK, maybe folks should have pre-ordered, but these were people who rarely fly, and BA should have known better.....

          1. re: janetofreno


            You make a good point about fliers, who have not done this most of their lives.

            It has also become easier, with on-line booking, to request a special meal, IF one is being served.

            Years ago, before the Internet, we'd get the "Seafood" dinners on our flights to HON, if we were not upgrading to, or buying FC. These were the better on UAL. Then, they went to imitation "seafood," and we quickly stopped that practice.

            For general group dining, I think that the onus is first of a host/hostess, and then on the diners. Too many complain that they did not get such-n-such and since they only eat_____, the hostess is responsible, or the restaurant. When pressed, they too often admit that they did not tell anybody, but:

            1.) any good host/hostess should know all guests' dietary desires
            2.) all restaurants should be able to accommodate anybody's special request, at a moment's notice.

            Heck, there are enough people, who RSVP'ed for the salmon, and then changed their mind to the chicken, just before the mains are served.

            I will have to say that my wife is much better at knowing the food dislikes of our guests, but then her assistant is better than mine - wait, you didn't see ME type that...


      2. While the folks who run the conference center could certainly prod the people who planned the conference to select balanced vegetarian items, ultimately the people who are putting the conference on are making final selections about the food.

        It may very well be that the food service professionals said to themselves "screw it, they'll find something" but it may also be that the people planning the conference didn't think it important enough to either pay a bit extra to have more complete entree choices available or more likely said to themselves "screw it, they'll find something."

        You're right, cooking for vegetarians in a healthy way requires some planning and thought and foresight. It also generally costs more than just cooking for omnivores. That is, cooking two kinds of things costs more than cooking one kind of thing, not that food vegetarians eat is necessary any more expensive than what omnivores eat. In my experience both handling the food service side of the catering/banquet stuff and also handling the conference planning side almost everyone says "screw it, they'll find something."

        Most of the time, conference planners focus on the animal protein (should we have chicken and beef or chicken and pork) and figure if there's salad and/or pasta without any actual meat on it that vegetarians will be fine.

        2 Replies
        1. re: ccbweb

          I agree with much of what you should say but would like to note that I have planned or overseen the planning of many, many meetings and conferences, have always asked that the contract include veggie alternatives, and have never been charged more or have been told that it would cost more to include a certain number of vegetarian mains.

          I am not convinced it really does cost more, or that cost was a major factor in this instance: sure, you have to make more types of things, but particularly if you are talking about a venue that already does that (OP mentioned a buffett) the vegetarian options aren't going to cost more than the meat alternatives, and the vendor can make less of the meat alternatives.

        2. Interesting topic. While I'm omnivorous, there are times when I just don't want meat, and that means having side dishes for a meal. It's unfortunate, however, that most people, when they think of a meal, center that idea around the animal. So, no-meat eaters are eating around the periphery. Have you EVER seen an ad for a restaurant that doesn't talk about the meat? No. It never, ever happens.

          But, there are so many fabulous things that can be prepared even vegan, so I do blame the caterer for lack of creativity, especially when they have been told in advance.

          1. I should clarify and indicate that this was not a catered event, nor was it in a hotel. It's an on site kitchen in a large facility expressly for the purpose of training etc. So while i know SOMEONE has to approve the meals eventually, I know this having planned similar events myself, but i'm thinking this type of facility doesn't have the same kind of oversight meals wise, as say in the case of a two or three day event.

            And I do understand it costs a little more, but that is in part what bugged me about this. The HAD the tofu there, then cooked it in beef. Obviously they had an endless supply of chickpeas, which would have been fine alongside the curries in the form of a chana masala.

            to answer susan, my employer does not allow me to claim for it. as far as anyone's concerned it seems, as long as i can eat SOMETHING be it a potato, a green salad, or what not, i'm being accomodated.

            My thoughts during these times are often on those who have religious observances or allergies.

            Glad to hear this is not the standard everywhere.

            1 Reply
            1. re: im_nomad

              It doesn't matter that it was a dedicated training facility: my answer stands. Someone at your company undoubtably signed an agreement for the provision of meals to your group. My employer quite simply will not pay for food service unless there is a signed agreement in place (and the agreement can specify what is included), regardless of the location or type of event. At my employer, which I don't think is unique in this regard: there are ONLY two ways that meals can be provided: 1.) someone pays for it personally and gets reimbursed, or 2.) a signed contract is in place with a food service provider, caterer, hotel or restaurant.

              However, I can believe that the employer won't allow you to claim other meals if they have an agreement that meals will be provided (my wouldn't either): and my point in suggesting that, assuming your relationship with your employer is otherwise good, would be to make a point and to let your employer know you weren't happy, not to actually get reimbursed. Obviously, that type of point works better if you area valued and preferably a long term employee, which is why I said it was only something to consider if your job was secure. That said, have you told your employer how you feel about what was provided? Does your employer know you were unhappy and didn't feel good about or as a result of the alternatives? If not, I would definitely let your employer know, preferably in conjunction with as many others as feel the same way as possible. They can do something about it if motivated to do so.