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In his 2000 memoir, “Kitchen Confidential,” the late chef Anthony Bourdain didn’t mince words when he described people dedicated to plant-based diets. “Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn,” Bourdain wrote.
Sitting in one of the Madison area’s only vegan and vegetarian restaurants — Surya Cafe, located inside Perennial Yoga in Fitchburg — chef Lauren Montelbano smiles in response to Bourdain’s quote. As a vegetarian since the age of 18 and a vegan the past five years, Montelbano understands the restaurant-world’s attitudes toward these dietary restrictions, but also mentions that a lot has changed since 2000. “It’s crazy how far we’ve come in 19 years,” she says. “Even in the last two to three years.”
The percentage of people who self-identify as vegans in the United States has risen from 1 to 6 percent in the past three years, according to a recent article in the New York Times. This increase is reported even as some see the switch to veganism — actively avoiding the use of animal products for food, clothing or any other purpose — as an extreme measure. The rate of vegetarianism has more or less stayed the same since the mid-1990s. While vegans and vegetarians still represent a small portion of the U.S. population, the biggest shift in recent years might be that people are eating less meat overall, as opposed to nixing it from their diets altogether.
There is mounting scientific evidence that eating animals has severe implications for the environment and the global economy. According to the United Nations, one-third of farmable land on earth is used to grow feed for livestock. The production of nonorganic feed (corn and other grains) requires huge amounts of fertilizer, fuel, pesticides, water and land. The process produces nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas. Additionally, if all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, it could feed nearly 800 million, reports ecologist David Pimentel of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Cities like Los Angeles, New York and Seattle have long catered to people who follow plant-based diets. Portland, Oregon, is considered a vegan mecca, with vegan barbecue joints, doughnut shops and all-vegan grocery stores. But even cities in the Midwest have evolved to embrace plant-based diets. Minneapolis has a vegan butcher, Detroit was named one of the top 10 vegan-friendly cities in 2018 by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, and Milwaukee now has four all-vegan restaurants.
So how does Madison — a city that touts its progressive values and sustainable food culture — not have a more robust vegan and vegetarian restaurant scene? One of Madison’s vegetarian restaurants, The Green Owl Cafe, has been for sale since February 2018. Madison has no all-vegan restaurants, although Surya Cafe is set to become Madison’s first when it opens a second location in the Garver Feed Mill building in summer 2019. Montelbano senses a shift in our local culture toward more vegetarian and vegan options at restaurants — “I had an Impossible Burger at Dexter’s Pub the other day!” she says — but Madison still has a long way to go. “I don’t go out to eat as much as I wish I could,” Montelbano says.
In Madison, opening a restaurant serving a small audience is kind of a leap, she says. “It’s maybe been only the last four years that veganism has gained popularity. To take the risk in opening a business just dedicated to a niche market that is maybe 2 percent of the population at best — it’s risky business.” Montelbano says it works for her because she has a passion and personal investment in operating a vegan restaurant. “Vegan eating and eating for health are my jam,” she says. “That’s what makes me tick as a chef.”
Jennie Capellaro, owner of The Green Owl Cafe on Madison’s near east side, first opened the vegetarian restaurant in 2009. “It was a great initial response,” Capellaro says. The Green Owl still serves vegetarian fare 10 years later, but Capellaro is looking to sell the business with the hope that it will stay a vegetarian eatery. It’s always been a bit of mystery, Capellaro says, that there aren’t more vegetarian restaurants here. “Madison has the understanding that there are vegetarians who are part of our community, and you can almost always find vegetarian options on menus, but it’s limited and that is what bothered me,” she says. “When people come here and realize they can order anything off the menu, they are so happy.”
David Oliver, chef of downtown restaurant Natt Spil where nearly half of the menu is vegetarian, thinks restaurants have embraced the plant-based food scene. “Madison takes for granted how special this place is,” Oliver says. “It all comes from the farmers’ market, Odessa Piper [founder of L’Etoile] and the hippies in the ’70s. All of the restaurants that exist have the vegetarian market covered.”
When asked about Bourdain’s opinion on cooking for vegetarians, Oliver doesn’t skip a beat. “I love Tony with all my heart, but he’s indicative of chefs who came up in the ’70s and ’80s,” Oliver says. “Not everything has to be rubbed in bacon fat.”
Looking forward, Montelbano says she’s excited. “I think we are at a breaking point right now where the climate is changing,” she says. “I think I entered the scene here at the right time.”
Here’s a few local places with vegan and vegetarian options.
Madison Magazine publishes "Meatless Madison," a series of articles published on Mondays featuring vegetarian and vegan options in Madison.
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