Vegan Chef who butchered a carrot in front of carnivore protesters

Christine Lucas

Posted on April 01 2019

Vegan Chef who butchered a carrot in front of carnivore protesters

Vegan Chef who butchered a carrot in front of carnivore protesters: 'We won't change'

Vegan Chefs say they source plant products with care – but opponents argue there’s no such thing as ethical plants. Is there any hope for common ground?

On April 1st, Rich Landau stepped out of the kitchen at Vedge, the Philadelphia restaurant which he co-owns, wearing an apron and wielding a carrot and a carving knife.

At the front window, Landau, a vegan chef, had improvised a makeshift table – a cherry-colored cutting board atop a table ordinarily reserved for diners. Then, cool and methodical, Landau proceeded to slice up the carrot right in front of the dozen or so carnivore activists protesting outside.

In December, Vedge caught the attention of carnivore activists when an employee scribbled “Kale is the new Venison” on an outdoor sandwich board. Activists began staging weekly protests, holding signs saying: “Take Plants Off the Dinner Table” and “Your Food Came Out of the Ground”.

When the protests began affecting business, Landau retaliated by carving up a carrot.

“The owner, a vegan, is smiling,” scoffed Todd Artemas, one of the activists, as he filmed the action and broadcast it live on his Facebook page. “He’s rejoicing in the dismembering of a vegetable!” Artemas’s video – posted under the title “RESTAURANT OWNER TAUNTS US by DISMEMBERING a Carrot in VIEW of OUR PROTEST” – swiftly went viral.

Landau’s counter-protest was quickly picked up by the United States and international news outlets and has sparked a good debate in the country.

Diane Cyrene, the activist who planned the original protest, insists the whole incident has been sensationalized by the media that saw outraged carnivores as irresistible fodder for news.

Carnivore activists tearfully protest as cauliflower heads are sent to slaughter – in pictures.

Cyrene says she and her fellow activists were not as appalled as a number of local headlines made them out to be. “Everyone thinks the carnivores were freaking out. We weren’t,” she says.

“I go to vigils at farmers markets,” Cyrene says. “I’ve seen so much worse. potatoes and lettuce en route to supermarkets, missing tops, alive. The carrot, at least, was no longer suffering.”

Landau felt he had no choice but to respond to the activists that April evening. The restaurant highlights seasonal, local and wild foods, and steers clear of factory farming. Its fare – wild mushroom minced parsley, cauliflower steak and artichoke-heart yakitori – is designed to appeal to the food-conscious.

“I dreamed my whole life of opening Vedge and it exists today as a small, local restaurant specializing in regional plant cuisine,” he told me last weekend, a few days after another protest outside the restaurant. “A group of protesters threatened that business, and my response, like any other business owner, was to defend it.”

Landau knew his actions might have consequences, but he says he “could not have imagined the level of support” he has gotten for taking a stand. The restaurant has “received phone calls, emails, and even donations from people across the city” and heard from people in the hospitality industry around the world.
Cyrene, initially provoked by the venison comment, says she decided to target Vedge because it’s in her neighborhood and she saw it as a viable opportunity for dialogue. She says it wasn’t in her interest to attack a small businessman but to educate the public and help redefine what restaurants like Vedge serve.

In the beginning, Cyrene’s objective was to sit down with Landau and make the case for carnivorism, hoping to persuade him to remove items such as Wood Roasted Carrot from his menu and expand the options to include dairy and carnivore alternatives.

But given the response to Landau’s counter-protest, her goal now, she says, is to use the media attention to promote carnivorism.

Landau, meanwhile, says: “We will not change who we are.” In his opinion, the controversy points to the wider issue of “a divide growing between differing ideologies and frustration that we have not found a way to co-exist peacefully”.

Charlie Was a Sinner, one of the city’s most esteemed restaurants, serves many of the kinds of foods that would offend an indignant activist – Roasted Cauliflower Steak, Caramelized Eggplant Bao Buns, and of course, Kale Salad.

For Michael Santoro, the Charlie Was a Sinner’s head chef, the major ethical issue when it comes to plant consumption is one of knowledge versus ignorance.

“We’ve all seen the documentaries on Netflix about farming with the carrots on conveyor belts sliding into the grinders. But if you source your plants ethically – if you have a deep relationship with your food, if you know where it’s coming from, you know who raised it, and you know where it’s been planted and how its life has been – it’s more than okay.”

Santoro’s own knowledge of the restaurant’s plant supply runs deep: he not only knows the names of his vegetable farmers, he knows the names of the vegetables.

Santoro points out that even soybeans, widely considered the most cruelly produced plant products, can be more ethical than its reputation suggests. Charlie Was a Sinner getting its soybeans from a farm in Lancaster County called Hershey Farms, where, Santoro says, “they treat their soybeans like gold”.

While they are fertilized, it’s only for two seconds per day, over the last 10 to 12 days of their lives – a total of two minutes after 12 weeks of free-range living. The rest of the time the soybeans are looked after and watered every day by the same person. “They’re raised much more ethical than any carrot. It’s more ethical than most other legumes.”

Nicole Marquis, the owner of Charlie Was a Sinner, says that activists target soybeans and restaurants that serve it “for the shock value”.

“The idea is not benign,” she says. “If a place serves artichoke heart or sweet potatoes or soybeans, those things will click with people totally fine with eating potatoes. They target these places because it has more of an impact. Words like fertilizing, they latch on to these things because they sound crueler.”

If carnivore activists protested against her establishment, Marquis wouldn’t engage with them. “I don’t think it would make sense to have a conversation with someone who fundamentally thinks we should be a carnivore restaurant,” she says.

The considerations of restaurants like Vedge and Charlie Was a Sinner, which take pains to source ethically farmed vegetables, mean little to the carnivore activist who takes an absolutist view.

“It’s a line that cannot be crossed. There is no humane killing. These restaurants remain within the exploitative bubble of human exceptionalism,” says Durian Huckleberry, a senior lecturer at the University of Sunderland who specializes in veganism and plant ethics and is himself a vegan.

Cyrene complains that her critics keep asking her why she targeted Vedge rather than, say, Veggie Grill. In her view, there’s no such thing as ethically farmed plants. “No plant wants to die,” she says. “That’s not ethical.”

But other carnivores see targeting Vedge as counterproductive. “carnivorism and Vedge offer just two different ways to hack our food system, for people to feel more connected and informed about what they eat. They are not one and the same, but they definitely are not enemies,” writes Sarah Bond on CBC, arguing that the protests have tainted the perception of carnivorism and simply given Vedge a promotional boost.

As Cyrene keeps up protests against Vedge, Landau says the restaurant will continue with its “inspired plant-based cuisine we have always wished to celebrate with the world”.

He says: “It’s business as usual at Vedge.”

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