When I first became vegan people would look at me as though I had two heads and had just landed from outer space. But then that was 35 years ago! Back then just being a vegetarian was thought to be weird enough and restaurants were only just getting their own heads around courgettes and tomatoes in cheese sauce which, for a long-time, was the height of sophistication on vegetarian menus.
Things have improved massively since then, without a doubt. We have come on in leaps and bounds with food in this country, not just for vegetarians and vegans but our cuisine has improved tenfold, in general.
Products like the Beyond Burger from the US which is now on sale at Tesco is a plant-based burger that ‘bleeds.’ Unlike controversial lab-grown meats that use animal stem-cells, these types of alternatives make it easier for people to move away from eating meat without feeling deprived.
There are currently around 22 million flexitarians in the UK, those who enjoy meat but want to reduce their meat consumption. It’s about making the change for them so easy and tasty that there will come a point when they don’t even remember they are not eating meat.
With the popularity of annual events like Veganuary which has been running for a while now, the vegan movement is steadily growing and savvy restaurants have woken up to the fact that they need to offer vegan options. As more people show an inclination to drop meat from their diet for health or ethical reasons, alternatives like this in restaurants that still look like meat, lead the way to showing how it can be done.
Considering that the chances are in a group booking there may well be one vegan, if catering for them is a hassle for the chef, they may well decide to take their party somewhere else because these days they do have choices.
That said, even though restaurants are getting better all the time at offering vegan menu items, the same common problems still occur time and again.
Here are six ways that restaurants can improve:
1. Vegans take a lot of effort trying to make meals tasty. There are so many ways common items on a menu in a non-vegan restaurant could easily be veganised. Just removing meat, fish, and cheese from a dish and not substituting something else but still charging the same is, to say the least, annoying. A plate of vegetables is often smothered in butter to give it more flavour. It’s not fair to just remove the butter and give a vegan a boring plate of boiled veg. There are lots of ways to add flavour, all it takes is a bit of thought. If I order a salad with the feta removed, I really appreciate when a restaurant then adds more alternatives such as olives, sun dried tomatoes, seeds, asparagus, broccoli - anything really that complements the dish and recognises that one of the main ingredients has been removed.
2. Offering vegan menu items that are similar to non-vegan items can result in confusion amongst staff. I ordered a vegan margarita pizza recently which came with cheese. The problem was there was a vegan and non-vegan margarita on the menu and they looked the same. The vegan dish needs to look and sound completely different and serving it on different plates goes a long way to cutting down on genuine mistakes by the staff, often due to nothing more than human error.
3. While genuine mistakes do happen, what is completely unacceptable is that some people in hospitality still think it’s funny to sneak non-vegan ingredients into meals served to vegans. Butter in vegetables where they think you won’t notice is common. I have lost count of the number of times I have enquired if vegetables are cooked or dressed in butter, only to be told they weren’t but when they arrived they were so obviously cooked in butter. I always ask for butter to be replaced with oil and that’s why eating out in Italian restaurants is a winner for vegans because for every dish where the British cook will reach for the butter, an Italian will always naturally gravitate towards olive oil.
4. I worry about having vegan food prepared in non-vegan kitchens. Food hygiene rules should prevent cross contamination, but we have to accept it happens. Hands go from meat and dairy to handling vegetables. The staff doing it often don’t even give it a second thought as they are mainly focused on the end result, i.e. a meal served without meat or dairy. But restaurants need to have a clear policy that vegan meals are prepared at a separate station so there is no opportunity for cross-contamination.
5. A big, big no, is frying vegan food in fryers that also fry meat and fish products. If restaurants are doing this the customer needs to know so they can make an informed decision. This needs to be clearly identified on the menu.
6. Coffees can be a minefield. I have lost count of the number of times I have taken a sip of my soya latte only to discover it was made with milk. Yes, people can make mistakes and the server can easily just take the wrong drink. But, again, having different cups for soya milk drinks and milk would hugely minimise the chances of the wrong drinks arriving. It’s so obvious and easy to sort this.