Sunday, March 11, 2012


Remember the food contest I entered last spring? I placed 2nd in the competition, losing to a collard chip.  Admittedly the second place prize package was pretty sweet, including several gift certificates for some really nice places and restaurants.  I'm still working my way through those certificates. We even just recently made time for a nice lunch at a higher end restaurant in Key West, courtesy of one of those lovely certificates.

I don't want to name the place, because I have less than good things overall to say about it.  I will start with the good, which is the location.  It was lovely.  Perfect actually, unless I consider the food.

The excursion started with a walk down by the docks.  While passing through, we saw another couple pointing and acting really exited about something in the water.  Upon further investigation, I saw it was a manatee!  The manatee was taking water from a hose that was adjacent to the dock.  Here's a slightly out of focus picture of the manatee.  Sorry its out of focus, but I have a new camera, and I'm still learning on it.  So far, I don't really care for it, especially since I lost my manatee photo op to a blurry photo.

This is only the second time I've ever seen a manatee in the Florida Keys!  His head is in the upper right corner.  He was really big, and beautiful!

After the manatee excitement, we made our way to the restaurant. When we arrived, I was delighted by how beautiful the place was. We were seated at an outdoor table, overlooking the open water. The weather was unbelievably perfect for this lunch.  A light breeze rustled through the palms overhead.

We had called ahead, asking if vegan concerns could be accommodated.  We were assured yes, indeed that would be no problem. If only that were true.

Our server was polite, and attentive, but not well educated on vegan concerns.  This is something I encounter from time to time, and I think its most unfortunate.  A few months ago I was out with a group of people for a birthday celebration at a restaurant.  When it became apparent that the server there also had no idea what vegan was, someone said to me I should "lighten up" about my dismay.  I was happy there was someone sitting next to me to defend my position, although that should not be necessary.  I feel that in today's day and age when a peanut can kill someone, it's important for a wait staff to be well trained.  Total vegetarian food is something much more mainstream than it used to be. It's annoying to me especially because I work so hard when guests here have special needs.  I understand how difficult it can be while eating out, and I work exceptionally hard when there are those considerations. Thus, I expect the same when I'm on the other side of the table.

Back to the story at hand.

It took several conversations and a few trips back and forth on our server's part for clarity on cocktail ingredients. After our drinks arrived, we earnestly began scanning the food menu.  It was absolutely pitiful if one was a vegan, which both of us are.

When our server again returned, I told him how I noticed there were things like salmon, chicken and other animal items on the menu available to choose from in things like wraps or salads, so I wondered if tofu was available.  He said they do make a tofu breakfast, it is served with salmon.  He asked if I would like that.  I reminded him that I was vegan, and said salmon was not an option. We had another conversation about asking what possibly could the chef do for me with tofu, and he went off to do more checking.  We happy vegans chatted as we toasted the beautiful day with our beverages.

This little bird was flitting all around us.  He went from the chair next to me, to the sand, back to the chair, then on top of this tiki torch across from us.  He was another highlight, I suppose he was wishing for some crumbs?
When our server returned, he indicated that the chef said it wouldn't be a problem to do a tofu dish completely vegan.  At this point, I had visions of marinated tofu over baby greens, maybe some fresh sliced veggies on the plate, tropical salsa, or maybe rice would be there instead of greens.  I didn't ask too many questions, as I find my best experiences when eating in restaurants are when I let the chef create what inspires them; as long as it is vegan.

The other happy vegan ordered a modified wrap off the menu.

We were left once again to ourselves and our marveling at the beautiful afternoon we were relaxing in.  We watched the nearby tables receive their food, served actually in a novel innovative way (I don't want to say how, it may reveal the restaurant...) and we were pretty excited.  Remember.... our lives (especially mine) revolve so much around food.  Its a real treat when others prepare and serve food for me.

Our food arrived.  It was not presented in that novel and innovative way, not at all.  It came out served by someone other than our server, plopped in front of us.  I looked at the plate before me in disbelief. Dear hearts, believe it or not, on my plate was a pile of cold, naked cubed tofu.  Unseasoned.  Unmarinated. Unloved. Un-ANYTHING.  I believe it had been frozen and thawed (that is fine in my world, in case you didn't know, when you freeze, then thaw tofu, it changes the texture and makes it perfect for absorbing marinades).  The thing is, when you freeze and thaw tofu, you MUST press it.  It is truthfully like a very firm sponge.  It holds a lot of water.  This tofu had not been pressed.  It had been cubed into really cute squares, which when I pressed down on them, left little teeny puddles on my plate.  Also on my plate were capers, some baby greens, tomato halves, and one other thing I cannot recall.... nothing to speak of, and I am being very honest here.

I was crestfallen.

There was nothing to help along my out of the box, into the freezer, onto my plate, cold naked cubed tofu.  It sat in the middle of my plate, about the the size of an ice cream scoop.  It looked sad, pitiful, and most especially.... nasty.

I think the first thing anyone learns about tofu when you open the box is that it's nasty by itself.  But, tofu has this amazing ability to take on the flavors of that which is put with it.  It's actually a little miracle food in my opinion.  So many delicious dishes can be prepared with all the different types of tofu available; I love working with it because of its versatility.  I was actually insulted that a chef thought that what they plated for me was acceptable. I wondered how would they feel about that food if it was presented to them, especially because any chef MUST be a foodie, right?  I felt completely devalued as a customer, and sad because there was very little thought or caring about the food on my plate.  I'm so sure of this because I cook and plate food every day with love and care.  I know what a plate that has love as the main ingredient should look like; I also know what it looks like when it doesn't.  My food was nothing more than an afterthought.

Food is a celebration.  Food is nourishment.  Food is life.

It was obvious to me that whoever was in the kitchen at that time was completely unable to literally think outside of the box (of tofu). The other happy vegan's food was what I wish I ordered.  Not because it was innovative, but simply because it was something far more edible.

I pushed my food around on my plate.  I seasoned it with salt and pepper.  I dumped the leavings from my salad plate onto the unloved cubes and mixed them in hoping something would improve.  There were no miracles to be worked on that plate by that time.

I was still hungry when the server took my sad plate away.  The other happy vegan even remarked "you didn't finish your food."  To know me is to know that I do not send food away. Its either eaten, or taken home in a box for later.

I was thankful that I had food to eat; I am thankful I am not in a situation where I am starving, or do not have nutritious food available to me daily.  I do, however, still have certain expectations when I am dining out.

As I was drinking my frosty drink (sans dairy), the other happy vegan noticed a nearby table being served creme brûlée.  He mentioned that used to be a favorite in his pre-veg days.  We were asked if we'd like to see a dessert menu, when I again reminded our server we were vegan.  He said something like "hmm, that might be a problem," but brought the menus anyway.  It WAS a problem, there were no choices for us, and we were left alone in the sunshine with our beverages.

We eventually finished our drinks, and made our way home.  I fixed up a batch of kale chips for me, and went about some chores, doing a lot of thinking.  It is no small wonder that there are so many people who are scared away when anyone says "vegan" food.  I'd be scared away too if I thought vegan food was truly represented by my naked tofu lunch. The thing is, that is NOT what vegan food is about.  Vegan food nourishes our bodies, but not on the backs of the death of other creatures.  Vegan food is colorful, flavorful, and beautiful to behold. Vegan food is love, abundance, creativity and celebration.  Vegan food is where it's at.

To that chef who prepared my lunch; if I had the guts, I'd invite you to my home and cook a meal for you.  And dearest chef, I'd suggest you bring a notepad.

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