The Vegan Experience

The Vegan Experience: The Three Types of Servers

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Editor's Note: Welcome to the third year of The Vegan Experience! All month we're exploring the vegan lifestyle, from dining out to eating in, developing a slew of delicious recipes for vegan appetizers, snacks, and entrees along the way. For more posts in the series, check here!

I had an early morning breakfast with some old friends on Monday morning. The location? A certain East Village institution known for the awesomeness of their pancakes and pastries. The five-block trek through foot-deep slush and a heavy snowfall meant I walked through that door with a hearty appetite. Having been through the vegan mill a few times, I know that breakfast is the most difficult meal to eat out. No eggs, no butter, no pancakes, no french toast, no pastries—usually you can't even find oatmeal without milk or butter in it. I was fully prepared to enjoy a meal of toast with jam or perhaps some fried potatoes and a salad if I was lucky.

What I wasn't expecting was what I ended up getting: absolutely nothing. Let me explain why.

Now, anyone with dietary restrictions—be it vegan, vegetarian, a shellfish allergy, or perhaps a low sodium or gluten-free diet—knows that there are two types of servers in restaurants.

The good ones are the well-informed or, at the very least, the willing-to-find-out. These are the ones who will take the time to understand your dietary restrictions, talk to you abut the menu (in a non-judgmental way), and steer you towards menu items that may work for you. Not sure if that pasta dish is made with butter? They'll offer to ask the chef and see if he/she'd be willing to make it with olive oil instead. They'll go above and beyond to see if they can rustle up some fresh fruit or berries so you don't have to sit around while the rest of your party eats their cake for dessert.

The other type of server is the kind who finds your dietary restrictions a chore. They'll tell you the Brussels sprouts are vegan, only to let you discover for yourself that they're flavored with honey (or worse, bacon bits). They'll forget that the potato pancakes are bound with eggs, or that the squash tacos come with a sprinkle of cheese.They aren't common and tend to be employed in the kinds of places that take so little pride in their work that you probably don't have a reason to eat there in the first place. Hopefully you'll never run into this type of server, whether you're a vegan or not.

But this Monday, I discovered the third type of server, the type I now believe is the most insidious: the overly cautious server.

It went down like this:

"What will you have?"

"Do you happen to have anything vegan?" I'd spied a couple things on the menu that looked promising, but wanted to take the server's suggestions.

"I'm sorry, we're just about the most non-vegan restaurant around. Nothing here is vegan."

Hmm, interesting. "What about these, the french fries?" I ask, pointing on the menu.

She doesn't look down, and I'm not even sure she heard what I said—she'd already started shaking her head no before I got to the second word of my sentence. "I'm so sorry, we don't have anything."

That's it, end of conversation. I suppose I could have pressed her a little harder, asked her to talk to the cooks, see if they could do something, but I was too meek to ask. I let it be and settled down to watch while the rest of the table dug into their meals.

Of course, the server was wrong. That bread on my buddy's plate? I saw the package through the kitchen pass: Eli's sourdough, made with nothing but flour, salt, yeast, and water. I probably could have eaten it with some of the jam on the table. Sure, french fries might be cooked in beef tallow or lard, but when was the last time you saw that? I don't buy it, and it seems highly unlikely to me that the fruit plate I noticed too late on the menu as we were settling up our tab had meat or dairy in it. Perhaps some honey? Still, nothing that couldn't be left off.

But here's the thing: Even after seeing the bread and knowing that it was vegan-friendly, even after my friend offered me a slice, I felt almost embarrassed to take a slice and start eating it in front of the server, like it would offend her somehow. Here was someone who was so understanding of my dietary restrictions that she wouldn't even risk the possibility of offending me. Wouldn't it be rude of me to then turn around and start eating something that she assured me was not vegan, even if I knew that it was?

You know how when you travel to a foreign country or you're a guest in someone's home, you feel an obligation to eat what is offered to you, even if under normal circumstances it may not be your top choice or go against your typical diet? This was the flipside of that situation. I didn't want to not refuse the food that wasn't offered to me. It's a strange situation to be in, and not one I anticipated. I suppose I should just get over it and not worry too hard about offending others. It's not worth my breakfast to do so. But...it's not easy.

Have any of you, vegan or not, been in a similar situation?

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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