Anthony Bourdain knew how to cook up a storm on the screen as well as behind the counter. One of his most iconic quotes, taken from his famous “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” essay, published in The New Yorker’s 1999 Annals of Gastronomy, demonstrates this with the delicacy of a meat cleaver.
“Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans … are the enemy
of everything good and decent in the human spirit. To live life without veal or chicken stock, fish cheeks, sausages, cheese, or organ meats is treasonous.”
21 years later, this quote – arguably his most famous – is still trotted out by modern publications (DMARGE included) to add a bit of ~edge~ to proceedings, in a culinary landscape dominated by flabby opinions and half-strength wine.
To understand its true meaning, DMARGE hit up some of Australia’s (and the world’s) top foodies.
View this post on Instagram
Matt Preston, award-winning food journalist, restaurant critic and TV personality told DMARGE exclusively that, despite its fame, this isn’t his favourite Bourdain quote.
“Bourdain loved to go the vegetarians and the vegans. That is definitely not my bag.”
“I preferred something he told me about the responsibility of being a meat consumer… basically that everyone should look their dinner deep in their eyes once a year if they wanted to eat meat.”
Ben Groundwater, an Australian columnist, feature writer and host of Traveller’s Flight Of Fancy podcast told DMARGE that Bourdain was, he reckons, being facetious.
“I think there’s a bit of tongue in cheek going on here – Bourdain knew how to stir up the ‘enemy’. But I think what he is saying is that the consumption of animal products – meat, stock, butter, lard etcetera – for him is an intense pleasure, the stuff life is all about, the greatest and most enjoyable thing you can do.”
“Food like that is celebration; it’s pure joy. Anyone who would consciously turn away from that, I guess [Bourdain was saying], is rejecting that basic enjoyment.”
Doug McNish, a Toronto-based vegan chef and author of Eat Raw had a different take.
“I think that Tony Bourdain was missing out on something,” Doug told DMARGE.
“The truth is that now vegans can (and do) have all the same amazing flavours and texture as their traditional counterparts these days. When you compare the vegan foods that were available then vs. now, I’m sure he would not have said the same thing, simply because we have so many more options now.”
Brett Jeffrey, chef at Sydney French restaurant Bistro St Jacques, however, told DMARGE not all recipes can be recreated with equal vigour.
“Yes, [using animal products] makes a difference, especially with pastries and baked goods. While you can substitute vegetable shortening for butter you do not get the same results or flavour.”
“Butter is also essential for a lot of sauces (e.g. a bordelaise sauce). As for meat stocks they give soups, sauces and braised dishes a full-rounded depth of flavour profile (what the Japanese call umami) that you just don’t get from vegetables alone.”
Vegan chef McNish agreed butter is a great provider of flavour, but pointed out it’s not the only one.
“It is no secret that fat = flavour, and we as chefs literally pay our way through life with flavour. [But] today there is so much more known about vegan products and we are able to create so much that we may have not been able to create 10 years ago.”
“Butter is a saturated fat. Saturated fat makes things taste good. If you remove saturated fat from a recipe and do not put something similar back in, you will have a sub par recipe. Today we know that coconut oil (I like using refined coconut oil) is a form of saturated fat and it makes things taste equally if not more delicious!”
As for why we often see so much disdain towards veganism from some chefs and foodies, McNish said there’s more to it than people jumping on the Bourdain train.
“Anything that goes against one’s beliefs or counterculture is generally looked at with disdain at first.”
“The word vegan has had some negative connotations over the years because of the idea of a hippy, or a mean hardcore activist throwing paint on people wearing fur coats.”
Gary Prebble, the owner of Bistro St Jacques, offered another reason.
“There can be a lot of moral vanity attached [to veganism]… But on the other side, a lot of chefs cannot produce interesting vegan dishes, so probably a bit confronting.”
Beyond taste, another common reason many foodies turn their nose up at veganism is the lack of obvious history and culture.
We put the question to vegan chef McNish – do humans need a bit of tradition to keep us sane?
View this post on Instagram
“While traditions are important, I believe that they should not necessarily include ones that cause harm or pain in any way at all. There are traditions that have been around for many hundreds of years (human sacrifice for example) but just because they are done, does not mean they are right.”
To the same question, travel journalist (and tapas lover) Groundwater responded “yes and no.”
“We certainly cling to tradition in times of turmoil, and now is one of those times. But there’s fulfillment to be had in personal progress as well.”
On this topic, Matt Preston points out not all vegan cuisine is lacking in (what we might stereotypically view as) culture.
“Over the three years researching potential recipes for ‘More I drew on those cultures where lack of coin, issues with dairy consumption and cultural or religious factors influenced a diet that was more vegetarian or vegan.”
“I would argue that India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan are awash with dishes that are culturally valued or adored above their role in nutrition. Whether that’s mustard oil in potato mash with green chilli and coriander in Bangladesh or daal in India (and elsewhere). In fact, chase the ingredient and you find dishes that take on huge significance all over the world – like hummus or ful medames in the Middle East.”
Suffice to say: there’s more to veganism than air fried tofu in Newtown. And even then, our experts agree: time-on-the-planet isn’t the only thing that makes a dish ‘cultural.’
In fact, the very concept of culture, the way it is often bandied around, is flawed, Preston told us.
“Too often ‘cultural’ value is hijacked by naff marketeers (like the commercial salt cod fritters of Lisboa) and the dish bastardised by commercialisation.”
“Food is a key to a place, the people and their history. I’m as interested in this as the role a dish or place plays in the life of the person I am with, or the place where I am. I see there is more interest in this micro approach than naff authenticity claims for who, say, made the first chicken rice.”
Likewise, Groundwater told us food doesn’t have to be old to be cultural:
“If a country or a city has begun embracing veganism in a real and organic way, going to that place and eating that food is most definitely a cultural experience. It’s just not traditional.”
“To me, culture is the here and now, it’s what people are interested in, what they’re eating and what’s popular right now. If a food scene has a history of innovation, which it does in, say, the Basque Country of northern Spain, then I would consider a movement towards veganism a very real part of that culture that travellers would want to experience.”
Restaurant owner Prebble told DMARGE the same: though (by definition) today’s nue-age vegan food can’t be considered traditional, there’s no reason it can’t make a cultural splash. Why? For him, a “groundbreaking dish” has “a special combination of elements including flavour, texture, aroma and taste that leaves a lasting impression.”
So: can vegans and non-vegans happily co-exist in the restaurant industry moving forward?
View this post on Instagram
McNish told DMARGE he thinks they already are: “I was in Australia for business about a year and a half ago and nearly every restaurant I saw in Melbourne and even in the outskirts had a vegan menu in addition to their traditional menus.”
Groundwater, likewise, told DMARGE: “I think they will co-exist, as long as we can get rid of the tribalism.”
“My hope is that there’s a movement more towards ‘flexitarian’ diets, where people cut down on meat and other animal products, without feeling the pressure to label themselves entirely vegan. That’s a more inclusive and reasonable way to go.”