Animals and the Restaurant Industry

Next month I’m signed up to renew my Food Handler’s Certificate here in Toronto.  It’s not a difficult course – it’s one day of training with a multiple choice exam at the end.  Once you pass, you get a little card and pin and the Certificate is valid for five years.  The point of the course is to learn proper food handling, e.g., required cooking temperatures, how to avoid cross-contamination, how to store foods properly, and so on.  It’s a useful thing to have should I ever return to the restaurant industry and this will be my fourth time taking it but my first as a vegan.  It’ll be an interesting day in that over half of it will be spent learning the proper techniques for preparing and cooking dead animal parts. Yay.

There is no vegetarian or vegan equivalent to the Food Handler’s Certificate so even if you work at a restaurant that does not serve animal flesh, this is the only way to get certified.  Since it’s only one day, I’m just going to learn what I have to to pass the test and immediately throw out any of the stuff that is irrelevant to me (and try not to scream as various animals are objectified for eight hours).

I will always have a soft spot for the hospitality industry.  My first job was in a kitchen and I learned skills that still come in handy today.  It taught me a lot about myself too – that I enjoyed cooking and physical work and it taught me stamina and how to work under stressful conditions.  After several years, I also learned that it takes quite a toll on your physical and mental health and it taught me how to abuse alcohol as a way to cope.  I also learned that the health, safety and pay of most workers was not a priority.  Paid sick days were unheard of (still are) and we learned to work sick so we didn’t lose a day’s pay – not a great practice for people handling food that is being served to the general public. Yet in spite of the drawbacks and failings of the service industry, some of the most amazing and creative people I’ve ever met are within it. The camaraderie of a kitchen is the closest I’ll ever come to understanding what it must be like to be in an army unit.  I think that’s why I’ll never be able to leave it for good. You have to be a little bit crazy to enjoy it because no one’s in it for the salary and benefits!

There is also a tremendous amount of snobbery attached to food and I know most chefs and foodies still cling to the belief that true cuisine must involve the use of animals.  There are restaurants that take that view to the extreme and like a giant culinary middle finger, flash themselves to the world as somehow new and inventive, like the restaurant in L.A. called, Animal, which goes out of its way to use various animal parts (how about the tongue of a baby male cow served with the eggs and ovaries of a female salmon? Doesn’t sound quite as good as “Veal Tongue and Salmon Roe” does it? Bunch of wankers).  My point is, the restaurant industry needs to get with the times not just with wages and worker safety but with animal rights.  Just because they are in the business of selling dead animal parts and by-products doesn’t make them exempt to the consequences. In fact, it makes them even more accountable to my mind.

There have been small strides made: some chefs no longer serve bluefin tuna on their menu because these fish are now endangered. Others refuse to serve fois gras because force-feeding ducks until their livers are diseased has long been exposed as cruel and we absolutely do not need to be eating that.  Then there are restaurant owners that just say, “Fuck it”, and convert all their restaurants to vegan ones! Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, my vegan hero of the week: Ravi DeRossi.

DeRossi has been a restauranteur for eleven years in New York and is in the process of converting at least three of his restaurants to all-vegan cuisine, with the plan to eventually convert the remaining 12 as well.  He was raised vegan but, according to a post in New York Eater, “falling into the hospitality industry…he got ‘sucked into’ eating and drinking everything.”  But DeRossi had long been aware of the, “environmental impact of meat and restaurants, as well as the impact to animals,” and it had been weighing on him enough that he decided to finally do something about it.  It’s a ballsy move, even for blue-state New York, but I was absolutely delighted to read this wonderfully encouraging news (and immediately wished I lived in New York).

One restaurant of his already went animal-free on Valentine’s Day and the next will be re-opening in the summer with a brand new menu. I wish him all the very best and am grateful for people like this who are not content to just rely on their past success but are willing to take bold, new chances.  These are the kind of leaders that will help to change the industry from the inside out.

Someone get this man a cape!

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