Cranberry sauce. Green bean casserole. Mashed potatoes.
For most restaurant foodies and home cooks, Thanksgiving may be synonymous with turkey , but for vegetarians and vegans, the holiday can be fraught with trouble from the get go. With so many classic dishes built from ingredients outside their chosen diet (like turkey and turkey broth, butter, and cream soups), vegans especially can be left with little to celebrate.
Enter Vegan Thanksgiving, a growing phenomenon but not nearly as new as one might think.
Mark Rasmussen, executive chef and vice-president of recently opened Violette’s Vegan in Las Vegas, Nevada, is embarking on his new restaurant’s first vegan Thanksgiving celebration this Thursday, but this is certainly not his first ever vegan take on the holiday. Rasmussen is the author of the 2001 cookbook, “Veggie Works Vegan Cookbook,” and a thirty-year veteran in introducing vegan cooking to the Jersey Shore. Now, he’s helping bring vegan cuisine to the Entertainment Capital of the World.
“I think my style of cooking has always lent itself to be a bridge between the mainstream diet and the stricter vegan diet,” shared Rasmussen. “I’m a big believer that all flavor comes from the vegetable kingdom originally. We know it as corn-fed or grass-fed beef or whatever, but it all comes from vegetables originally. We concentrate vegetable flavors and achieve meaty flavors that way.”
And developing a menu that’s going to appeal to a wide variety of customers is always a challenge. Meeting that challenge for over 32 years is the nationally (and internationally) recognized Chicago Diner in Chicago, Illinois — a meat-free restaurant specializing in comfort food dishes. The restaurant has hosted its own vegan Thanksgiving every year since opening, with modern classics like the Veggie Roast and Lentil Loaf taking their place alongside other recipes rendered vegan for those looking to eat healthier and more ethically.
“It’s about balance.” Michael Hornick, vice-president and general manager of The Chicago Diner, said. “How many seitan items? How many tempeh items? Tofu? Pure vegetable? And really making sure we have a nice variety. It’s the same with a beer list. We can’t just run IPAs, even though IPAs sell really well. We need to make sure we have a nice balance of different types of beer.”
At the end of the day, however, it’s about quality and consistency for Hornick. “No one should be able to taste our desserts and say, ‘Oh yeah. That’s vegan.’”
Guess who’s coming to dinner
Rasmussen has only seen Vegan Thanksgiving increase in popularity over the years, having held the event at his restaurants since 1994. This year, however, is the first for Violette’s Vegan, and the chef and his staff are ready for a cross section of customers who have different needs. “In most of my restaurants, I have more omnivores than I do vegetarians.” Rasmussen related. “I try to appeal to what everybody likes. We also have a lot of fresh food and appeal to a wide variety of tastes.
“But this is Thanksgiving. It’s about comfort food. We have always had a very accepting, open, and eager customer base interested in having Thanksgiving with us. And then there are a lot of people who get a portion of or an entire vegan Thanksgiving dinner to-go and take it to their relatives’ homes. While everyone else is having their dinner, our customers can have their own vegan dinner,” said Rasmussen.
It’s been really important to Hornick that the Chicago Diner provide options for its customers on what could also be a really stressful holiday.
“There are some people who have families that know to make sides vegetarian,” said Hornick, “so the entree is really all that’s needed. Some other people may be going to an aunt’s house and know that there’s going to bacon in everything, so they would get the whole meal for one. Or, it’s families that are saying, ‘Hey. This is our whole meal. Let’s get the family pack and get sides by the quart.’ And they make their entire meal from that.”
Rasmussen agreed. “It’s a combination of different approaches.”
So, how do vegan chefs manage Thanksgiving for their guests without putting its star player, the turkey, into play?
“We’ve been doing a couple of classics year after year. We’ve just changed the names a little bit.” Hornick related. “Originally, we called it the Tofu Turkey Roll, which is seasoned tofu filled with traditional stuffing. The name ‘Veggie Roast’ seems to be sticking around, although ultimately, our goal is really to season it and make it taste like turkey.
“Another dish we’ve been doing for awhile is the Wellington. It is so delicious, it’s unbelievable. Seitan in puff pastry done with a mushroom demi-glaze. The flavors are fantastic and they happen to reheat really well. They finish so nicely and crisp just like they were out of the oven originally.”
It’s not all about the turkey — or its protein equivalent, anyway.
“We want to feature the feast itself, comprised of all these different, wonderful components.” Rasmussen described. “The protein portion of it is not the most important part. The turkey is not the most important part.
“People like to think of all the different fixings, the pies and all the sides, as part of one big feast. And you only do some of these things once a year and you look forward to them. Who doesn’t like stuffing with gravy, and how often do you eat that?”
And then there are the desserts. The Chicago Diner has become known for these delectable delights, and no one gets more excited about them than Hornick himself.
“We have our cocoa mousse cake, a carrot cake (which definitely falls into those autumn flavors), and a caramel crunch torte. Our cheesecake we make during the fall is our Pumpkin Chocolate Cheesecake. It’s kind of a mix between a pumpkin pie and a cheesecake. It’s a little bit richer than a typical pumpkin pie,” Hornick described.
And not to break too far from tradition, Hornick also makes sure they have plenty of whole, traditional pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving to meet demand as well.
The main event
With Rasmussen and the team at Violette’s Vegan prepping excitedly for Thursday to arrive, Hornick’s chef and staff at Chicago Diner are already in the thick of it dealing with carry-out orders. For the first time in 32 years, the diner will be closed on Thanksgiving itself, allowing its employees to spend their holiday with family and friends, not the public.
“One of the biggest factors for me this year is that our staff is happy we showed them respect by closing for Thanksgiving this year,” Hornick describes. “Our guests calling in are appreciating it as well. We want to take care of everybody. Not just animals, but people too. It’s fantastic when we can go ahead and put our culture first.”
Orders are closed for this week’s holiday at the Chicago Diner — although much of their Thanksgiving menu is available in the coming weeks to enjoy through dining in or ordering out. But for those lucky enough to be spending the mother of all comfort food holidays in glittery Las Vegas, calling Violette’s Vegan now is still the way to go. Demand is going to be high.
“The plant-based lifestyle is becoming more than a trend. It’s almost a revolution in this society,” Rasmussen concludes. “People are starting to take control of their lives, away from the manufacturer and the processing plants, and putting it back on the table from simpler sources. I like being part of that, and opening up vegan menus for communities wherever and whenever I can.”
Want to learn more about making the transition to a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle? Check out our newbie’s guide now:
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