Posted by: Antonia Ciccolo | July 30, 2010

Vegan Surprise at a Team Dinner

I had never felt so disconnected to my Italian roots until I went to an Italian restaurant in the Galleria area of Houston as a vegan this past week. On Tuesday evening, I ended up at Piatto Ristorante for dinner, joined by my consultant colleagues at my current client, and another few practitioners working on a different Houston client. There were eight of us in total, and all parties (except me) seemed extremely concerned about finding something/anything vegan on the menu that evening. As we perused the menu, and our server joined us for specials, the Partner (the senior most person at the table who we call Doc because she has a PhD and is absolutely brilliant), immediately inquired about the vegan appetizers. “I’d like to order some appetizers for the table, but which of your appetizers are vegan?” The server looked at her blankly and said in his thick native accent, “I would recommend the fried calamari.” She repeated back to him, “vegan,” and then looked my way for an explanation. I immediately chimed in a little embarrassed, “Doc, don’t worry about me, I’ll find something on the menu to eat.” She ended up ordering the calamari and a few other meat and cheese appetizers for the table to share and the server scurried away.

About ten minutes later, the same server approached the Doc with a pad of paper and a pen and whispered something in her ear. I was two seats over but had an idea it was something to do with the vegan conversation that he didn’t understand beforehand. After a few quiet exchanges between Doc and Server, she took the pen and wrote on the page, “vegan.” He smiled, nodded his head, and left her side. Meanwhile, I was scrutinizing the menu for any hope of something to eat that night, without seeming too complicated. But I think it was just a little too late for trying to prevent complications. When the server returned to take our entrée orders, he came over to me and asked, “So what can’t you eat?” I felt like I was making a shopping list on the way to the grocery store, “meat, fish, dairy, egg, butter…” I started inquiring about potential options: “does your pasta have egg?” Yes, he responded. “Could you do a plain salad?” Maybe. Finally he cut me off and said, “how about we just put a lot of vegetables on a plate in some olive oil.” No butter, he confirmed. I agreed enthusiastically, that sounded great.

When the appetizers came out, my manager, who was sitting to my left (Joey K as we call him), leaned over and whispered, “not vegan, not vegan, not vegan, not vegan…” as he pointed to each appetizer on the table. When the bread basket came around, he handed it to me and said, “I wouldn’t if I were you, it’s probably made with egg.” I agreed with him and was happy he could joke about it with me. I put him at ease by telling him I wasn’t that hungry and had no problem waiting for my vegetable medley.

When my dish came out – a heaping display of broccoli, string beans, asparagus, zucchini, squash, and eggplant, prepared with some garlic, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste – the table oo’ed and ah’ed at the creation. “I wish I’d gotten that!” another manager (who we call Nikki Shoes) said from across the table. At that very moment, I felt like a normal person, eating a normal portion of food, and all colleagues could relax and enjoy their meals.

Right when I thought I was in the clear of all vegan concern, the dessert plate came out. Again, Joey K leaned over and said, “Damn, you can’t have any of those.” “Nope,” I agreed. Instead I told the group what my preferences would have been if I were able to taste the desserts, as they selected four of the eight desserts presented. When the dessert plates arrived for all to share, the server was so thoughtful and surprised us with a mini bowl of sliced strawberries with a little fork and placed this special dessert in front of me. The consultant crowd loved the gesture (as did I, of course) and they didn’t feel nearly as bad about eating the brownie with ice cream, the tiramisu, the butter cream cake, etc.

At the end of the night, I realized that veganism is much more than just a diet, it’s a lifestyle. It’s a part of someone (similar to religion) that others feel they need to satisfy in order to show respect for that person. If I had merely said, “I’m on the South Beach diet and can’t have carbs,” I wouldn’t have gotten nearly the same concern. But since it is a lifestyle, everyone around me feels they need to understand it and accommodate it to respect and relate to me as a person. I’m so lucky to have such a great project team who is willing to go the extra mile to make sure I’m content. The night ended with my local consultant colleague, sitting to my right (who we call Freddy), telling me he wants to take me to the best vegetarian restaurant in Houston next week, and I can’t wait.

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