Friday, July 10, 2015

FOCUS: The Vision of a Restaurant

“Well, the restaurant was decorated with paintings from local artists, and it had every form of tofu imaginable: fried, baked, pan-seared, boiled, and diced. Most of the dishes were pan-Asian except for the souvlaki. And they used free range arugula…whatever that means.”

Describing vegan and vegetarian restaurants in concise language is challenging, particularly since each restaurant has it’s own distinct personality. I’ve often wished for a short hand method of description; something I could use to convey a mode or primary focus without describing the menu in painstaking detail.

Below is my best attempt at a classification system that goes beyond the absolute identifiers, such as carnivorosity (vegan, vegetarian, etc.) or cost-structure. This system attempts to identify the mode of the restaurant. The menu may change monthly, weekly, or daily, but the basic FOCUS should never change without changing the fundamental nature. McDonald’s, to use a very non-vegetarian example, may come out with a new menu item, but that item will always be prepared quickly and priced cheaply. The McPorterhouse Steak would not be within McDonald’s FOCUS. I realize that any attempt at classification is a fiction, and an incomplete fiction at best. However, these FOCUS descriptors are meant to provide a high-level framework and context for each restaurant. No restaurant should require more than two descriptors. Any more, and the restaurant sounds unfocused. Or you sound unfocused, and the best I can do for you is recommend a good therapist.

In alphabetical order, these categories are: ANALOG, COMFORT, ECLECTIC, ETHNIC, EPICUREAN, and WELLNESS.

ANALOG – Some restaurants are hell bent on bringing veganism/vegetarianism to the masses by substituting meat analogs (e.g. tofu, seitan, tempeh) in standard meat dishes. Although these restaurants may also be described by another FOCUS descriptor, their mode tends to be ensuring that every dish has an identifiable non-dairy protein source.

COMFORT – I sometimes refer to these restaurants as “fried tofu” restaurants. Their focus is to create modern versions of comfort food standards, sometimes, but not always maintaining the high fat, high salt, and high simple carbs of the original. I have had an incredibly passable baked mac and cheese at one of these restaurants, and I chose to believe that it was a much healthier version than the original.

ECLECTIC – Some restaurants pride themselves in exploring the borders of imagination found in vegetarian cuisine. The primary goal here is creativity, looking to either recreate standard dishes in a completely new guise or create novel dishes that combine fruits, vegetables, grains, sauces, and spices in new and exciting ways. I had an incredibly addictive kale slaw at one of these restaurants believe it or not.

ETHNIC – These restaurants focus on a particular ethnic or cultural cuisine straight and simple. Often these cuisines lends lend themselves to vegetarianism or veganism because the standard ingredients are already heavily based on vegetables and grains. Sometimes these cuisines are vegetarian as part of a religious or cultural code. Indian restaurants are prime examples of ethnically-focused cuisine.

EPICUREAN – These are your high brow restaurants, committed to fancy ingredients, skilled preparation, and artistic flair. Vegetarianism, while strictly maintained, often takes a back seat to the gourmet experience. The owners of the establishment are not focused on saving the world; they are focused on getting the best return on their investment from their cooking school tuition.

WELLNESS – Finally, these restaurants are committed to the health and wellness of the patrons, the planet, or, if at all possible, both. The menu or restaurant Website typically outlines the health benefits of the food, either in its preparation (e.g. steaming vs. frying or using heart healthy oils), its ingredients (e.g. incorporating superfoods, such as kale, broccoli, blueberries, or almonds), or in its farming practices (e.g. using organic produce instead of pesticide-laden conventionally grown produce). Although the food at these restaurants may be delicious, the style, flavor, preparation, and context are all secondary to nutrition.

These FOCUS categories are subjective, not objective descriptors, but they should provide me an additional tool in my writing armamentarium. Just in time, too. Frankly, I’m getting sick of finding new synonyms for “delicious.”

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