Turning the Table

» June 24th, 2013

Asheville, North Carolina is a laid back town surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, an endless maze of trails, and some of the best microbreweries in the country. Typical of progressive towns with an emphasis on local culture, it also has quite the little foodie scene, tinged with a not unexpected North Carolinian adoration of pork.

Fortunately, the place is also quite vegan friendly (in this way it reminds me of Austin, meat-loving but well veganized). Nearly every restaurant menu I studied had a “V” designation (and GF=gluten free). The small café in my hotel lobby served a tempeh wrap. Even the nearby camp that’s been harboring my daughter for the last three weeks is vegan friendly.  None of this would have possible a decade ago and I take some comfort in chalking that up to progress.

Not everyone is so up to speed, though.  Languishing in the dark ages is a much-venerated Asheville restaurant called Table.  Praised for its support of local organic farms and artisanal (blah blah) methods of food production, Table impressed me when I ate there last year for its willingness to prepare a decent vegan option despite a menu that lacked one (I was dragged there with a group who’d read about it in Gourmet or some such and just had to go). This year, my friend had an interest in returning, leaving it to me to make the reservation as he was in route, which I was happy to do.

Until I called. The exchange was pleasant until I asked if vegan options would be available. “No, not really,” I was told. “Really? Nothing?,” I said. The man’s voice turned cold. “No, really. Nothing.” And that was the end of that.

I hung up the phone wondering how a restaurant as critically acclaimed as Table, in a town as open-minded and veganized as Asheville, could be so rudely indifferent to potential patron prepared to drop serious bucks on a serious meal (the friend I was with is a wine guy and would have chosen very well). I mean, it’s not as if the place didn’t have vegetables and a little olive oil and salt in the kitchen—ingredients that any real chef could buckle your knees with.

The hostility, I decided, had to be a cultivated attitude of defiance against anyone who dared tinker with the menu. Out of curiosity I checked the Google reviews of Table. I know these are generally meaningless scribbles from anonymous “critics,” but I must say that I found myself nodding in agreement when one woman recalled, “I told the waiter I didn’t eat pork and wanted to leave the sausage off my plate and asked if I could substitute something else. He said the amount of sausage was so miniscule it wouldn’t matter.” Another: “Thanks for making me feel like a dirty peasant unfit for polite conversation. I am a local organic farmer. Jacob [Sessoms] is the rudest chef I have ever done business with. Take your money elsewhere.”

Yes, do so. Like down the road  to, say, the Asheville Brewing Company, where I spent about a quarter of what I would have spent at Table, drank the best black IPA I’ve ever had, and indulged in a simple vegan house salad and a bowl of delicious rice and beans marked on the menu with a V. Whatever you do, if you live in Asheville or visit the town, avoid the hype and experience of Table, encourage others to do so as well, and find a place that at least respects people who want eat with some discrimination.




11 Responses to Turning the Table

  1. Ellen K says:

    Bummer! I’ve only had two actively veg-hostile restaurant experiences, one in Seattle (!) and the other in Cambridge, MA (!). As balance, though, I’ve been surprised a few times with mind-blowing meals in places I least expected it.

    Mercy for Animals produces a thorough 24-page restaurant outreach guide which is great to give/send to chefs/managers. It explains all the whys and hows and commercial benefits of vegan offerings. I’m not sure how to attach it as a pdf here (just tried dragging and didn’t work). If anyone wants it, try their website or let me know and I can post it here if given instructions.

    As I’m late to the party, and assume you (James) are not reading comments from Saturday still, just an alert that I put a couple of links for fish pain and teaching children on Saturday’s salmon post, which I hope are helpful.

    • Ellen K says:

      and added another “can’t we all get along?” article from Pam Popper on yesterday’s doubt post, which I also hope is helpful.

    • Hi Ellen K – Here is the link. http://mercyforanimals.org/VRGFRNational.pdf
      I just got the magazine yesterday that you were featured in (to other people here it is Vegan Health & Fitness – http://www.vhfmag.com) and shared it with my non-vegan husband, who is interested in rowing. Very good article and so inspiring! Thank you.

      • Ellen K says:

        Hi Jennifer,
        Thank you on all counts! Yes, it’s a blessing to have a fully on-board vegan supporting husband in Charlie , who has inspired a lot of other guys on the water.

        To anyone: I’ll be at AR this weekend in WashDC at MFA table if not in a seminar — come say hi as I’d love to meet other EP fans in person.

  2. Nadine says:

    I just want to point out that in many other countries, the chef is supreme and the customers second. You can’t dare to suggest substitutions as it’s an insult to the chef and the restaurant. Perhaps this restaurant is headed by someone from a different culture/tradition?

  3. Dylan says:

    There is good vegan food to be had in Asheville but beer should be #1 priority.

  4. Pauline says:

    Agreeing with Nadine. It is rare (in my experience) for people here in the UK to ask for an alternative dish to be prepared from scratch. Could also be a cultural thing (too much diffidence or natural reserve). I just make sure I cast my eye over the menu before I go to check that there’s at least one thing that could be readily adapted. Eating out is often a bit of an unkown quantity in the way it wasn’t in a past life as a vegetarian. Veganism has a long way to go here before it catches up with vegetarianism to be in any sense a cultural norm. Vegetarian options are often proudly proclaimed on the menus. But, veganism: what’s that?

  5. I think your experience reflects the limited capabilities of the restaurant and the chef. On their website it states that they are a small restaurant. Depending upon how small and how much cold storage they have might determine how much flexibility they have with the menu. Also, obviously, is the attitude of the chef. For example, I frequented a restaurant pre-vegan days that became increasingly anti-vegan after they began to announce on their menu their relationship with a local pig and dairy farmer. This place is small also.

    There is a cookbook out called Great Chefs Cook Vegan by Linda Long. Ms. Long’s theme is how creative omni chefs love to cook vegan because they consider it a real challenge. This quote from the intro, “they often commented that they get bored preparing animal products over and over as there are only so many ways to work with them; but plant foods – vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts and seeds – provide endless options for fabulous dishes.” Each chef is accorded a space to present 3-4 courses and a paragraph or two explaining “Why Vegan?”. Note that the ethical part is never addressed but at least they are challenged to do so. I remember this book when eating out at an omni restaurant. Ms. Long says that the chefs usually create a recipe within a recipe and have a tasting menu for their staff before they even present something. Chef Thomas Keller said that he would need a 3-day notice to prepare a vegan meal.

    • Ellen K says:

      I need that book; thanks for the tip.

      And to Nadine and Pauline too: as a former pro-pastry chef, and frequenter of European restaurants, I get it about the potential awkwardness or inappropriateness of asking for a fully customized meal from scratch (now I just request whatever vegetables they already offer, just with finishing butter and cheese left off).

      But still, you never know what seeds of change might be planted by a friendly request or suggestion: they might realize what they’re doing, not just (un)creatively but ethically. One of the key points in my own vegan conversion was reading about the celebrated Parisian chef Alain Passard of l’Arpège, who had become the “prophet of la cuisine légumière”: he said he ‘didn’t take any pleasure any more in eating meat’ and that ‘blood and animal flesh’ had stopped being a source of information. ‘I no longer wanted to be in a daily relationship with the corpse of an animal. I had a moment when I took a roast out into the dining room and the reality struck me that every day I was struggling to have a creative relationship with a corpse, a dead animal. And I could feel inside me the weight and the sadness of the cuisine animale.’

      • Nadine says:

        Ellen thank you for sharing. A powerful realization for the chef. I still ask for substitutions or custom meals and have had very pleasant experiences so far including the chance to talk about why I don’t eat butter or cheese with chefs, which I hope might plant a seed.

  6. Hi James,

    I’m sorry you had such a bad experience at Table. Next time you are in Asheville, we hope that you will join us at Plant Restaurant – the only totally vegan restaurant in Asheville owned by three ethical vegans (my husband and me along with our partner and chef, Jason Sellers). Jason is an amazing chef and we have received great reviews. I’m also a animal rights advocate and appreciate all of the work you do on these important issues.
    Nadine and Jennifer – to respond to your comments, I know the owner/chef of Table and he is not of a different culture but happens to be very anti-vegan and anti-animal advocacy. He helps run a small festival in his neighborhood and, in the past, kept animal rights groups from being allowed to participate. Yes, it is a hassle to accommodate everyone’s different needs – especially on a busy night – but even though we are also a small restaurant (about the same size as Table) we strive to make any change that a guest requests (except of course to add an animal product to the dish :) ).

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