Chego’s attitude toward vegans: Why won’t Chego away

1 Dec

Chego
3300 Overland Ave
Los Angeles CA 90034
310.287.0337

Chego

Sometimes it’s hard to have a conversation in 140 character segments. So rather than keep tweeting back and forth with Chef Roy Choi, founder of the Kogi food trucks that started a craze in, well, food trucks, I decided to write a longer post.

I’ve been vegan for over two years now, and my experience this week at Chego was one of if not my worst vegan restaurant experience. And it was particularly frustrating for a number of reasons. First off, back in May, Chef Choi tweeted that he quit eating meat. Oh, and by the way, that link I just provided about Chef Choi not eating meat anymore? It’s from The New Yorker. Seriously, this was deemed such a momentous event that the New Yorker covered it. Then a couple of weeks later he was saying that just because he might give up meat for a while doesn’t mean he’s a vegetarian or vegan, but that he feels for us.

So about a month ago I tweeted him asking if there was anything for vegans to eat at his restaurant Chego on Overland at Palms. My tweet: “Hi chef! Is anything @EatChego vegan or easily veganizable? Thnx!” His reply: “Many things for you to eat. We got you.”

Great, right? Sure, it was all great until I actually decided to try to go and eat there. Then it was a completely different story. I went in for lunch and the woman taking orders couldn’t have been more friendly. I told her about my exchange with Chef Roy and she seemed to want to help. However, she didn’t have a very good grasp of the ingredients that were in each item.

So she went in the back and brought out a gentleman who I presume to be the manager. He sure acted like a manager. And I explained to him about the tweets I exchanged with Chef Roy. And… he could not have cared less. Seriously, if I had an employee who didn’t seem to care about what I, the owner, had told a customer, that employee would not be around much longer.

But when I tweeted Chef Roy about his manager’s bizarre behavior, which pretty much included a refusal to speak to me directly even though he was standing right in front of me, instead choosing to relay all messages through the woman who was taking orders as if some scene from a sitcom where the parents or siblings are fighting, Chef Roy wrote back pretty quickly to tell me this manager “did what he could.” What?! Did Chef Roy really check with his manager that quickly and not only take the manager at his word but then just turn around and tell me his manager’s response? Or, as I suspect, did Chef Roy just automatically decide to stand by his manager’s completely unacceptable and customer-unfriendly behavior without even asking the manager about it.

And let me tell you, I could not have been more nice about the whole thing. I never go to a non-vegan restaurant and expect to be fed as if it’s my right. Sometimes if I’m in a pinch somewhere, or wind up at a place where a group of friends are meeting, I will explain myself to the server and ask if they’re able to help. And they’re often as nice as can be.

But this was the opposite situation. Here I was, going to a restaurant where the owner himself had told me “Many things for you to eat. We got you” and yet the manager couldn’t give a rat’s ass and was not in the least bit interested in making this work for me. And not only that, the menu has been updated at Chego recently as reflected on the website. However, the restaurant itself has made the decision not to print new menus, instead sticking with outdated laminated sheets and instead using white stickers to cover up and block out the items that are no longer on the menu like you’d see at some down-on-its-luck hardscrabble coffee shop. I kid you not, these are the menus that customers are left to use.

Making matters worse, I was told that some of the items contained things like fish sauce that weren’t in the ingredients listed for each item on the menu. So how am I supposed to know what to order without help from the people who work there? Again, after I was told by the owner “Many things for you to eat. We got you” and after I told the manager that the owner had told me this. I know I’m repeating myself but I still find it shocking.

None of the items on the menu are labeled vegetarian, yet alone vegan, so it wasn’t like I had that going for me to provide some assistance. I was completely at the mercy of the staff and they were of no help whatsoever.

So what finally wound up happening? Well, the manager deigned to tell the woman taking orders that I could get the “Sour Cream Hen House: marinated grilled chicken rice bowl w/fried egg, Chinese broccoli, sour cream sambal, Thai basil, sesame and red jalapeño” and hold the sour cream, chicken, and fried egg. So I said sure. Like a friend of mine always says, “I’m not picky, just vegan.”

Then the woman told me that if I ordered the “Beehive Brussels Sprouts: caramelized and deglazed w/ soy vinaigrette over yogurt curd and honeycomb, crowned w/ salsa ensalada, fried shallots and sesame” without the honeycomb I’d be fine, so I said great to this, too. Now I know you’re saying, “But it has yogurt.” However, this was apparently one of their new items and it is not on the old weatherbeaten menus they have at the restaurant, so I had no idea what the ingredients were other than the honeycomb, which I guessed at given the “Beehive” in the name. And even though I’d already explained a few times to the woman taking orders that vegan meant no meat, no fish, no dairy, no eggs — she still told me I’d be fine with an item that came on a bed of yogurt. So when the item arrived, yup, it was on a bed of yogurt. AND, the sour cream bowl hold the sour cream came with, you guessed it, a big dollop of sour cream on it.

Beehive Brussels sprouts hold the honeycomb but oops, they gave it to me on a bed of yogurt.

Beehive Brussels sprouts hold the honeycomb but oops, it’s on a bed of yogurt!

And yet when I tweeted to Chef Roy that my experience at Chego had been rough, he replied “Don’t know why it was rough.” Really?!

I have to wonder just how detached Chef Roy is at this point from his restaurants. Why would he tell me there were many things to eat there without getting specific, leaving me with the impression that, well, there’d be many things for me to eat there, when that couldn’t have been further from the situation, at least not with the help of his staff, which was either unable or, remarkably, UNWILLING to help me.

So after my lunch I asked him what were these “many things” he’d told me awaited me. And he replies: “Leafy T.” Okay, well, they did not tell me about this option at the restaurant. Perhaps because the item as listed on the menu contains a “fried egg” — though they did not offer me the option of getting the Leafy T and holding the egg. I then asked him whether the “Smashed Kabocha Cup: roasted kabocha and sweet potato puree w/ soy glaze, bread crumbs, herbs and seasonal veggies” or the “Fancy Guac Salad: w/ fresh orange slices, fennel, pickled red onion and a chipotle dressing” contained any egg or dairy, and he never answered my question. Instead he simply sent me another tweet saying “You live up to your name.”

Now granted, I CAN be insufferable, as any of you who are regular readers (love ya!) know. And that’s partly the whole point. BUT I can also be friendly, polite, understanding, and VERY appreciative of any non-vegan place that’s trying to accommodate me. AND I can totally get it when a clearly non-vegan place can’t or won’t accommodate me. But when the owner of a restaurant tells me “Many things for you to eat. We got you” and then acts like I’m the one who’s being unreasonable for complaining that they didn’t got me even a little, then I think it’s the other party who’s clearly insufferable. And if you say it sounds more like he’s being Too Cool for School than insufferable, then I’m standing here touching the tip of my nose with my finger. And did I mention that this owner’s manager didn’t want to help at all to the point of rudeness, and that this owner talked earlier this year about not eating meat himself?

So what did I do after my twitter exchange with THE GREAT CHEF ROY ‘PAPI’ CHOI? I went back to Chego that very same night for dinner. That’s right. I went back and ordered the Leafy T bowl hold the fried egg. And at night, the guy taking the orders was much more knowledgable about ingredients than the woman at lunch, and seemed very certain that the Fancy Guac Salad did not contain any egg or dairy, so I got that too.

"Fancy Guac Salad" This was very good.

“Fancy Guac Salad”
This was very good.

And? Well, the Fancy Guac Salad was very good, although one of the two big chips they gave me with it was soggy. But I did not like the Leafy T at all. Maybe the fried egg brings the whole thing together, I don’t know. But I can tell you that it wasn’t nearly as good as the parts of the Brussels sprouts or the Sour Cream, Chicken and Egg Bowl hold the Sour Cream, Chicken and Egg that I picked at where they seemed not to touch the dairy that I’d asked them unsuccessfully to leave out.

And there, that’s my Chego story. I’m not sure what to make of it. Maybe you’ll have a better sense than I will. It sounds like an owner who really doesn’t have much of a clue what’s going on at his own restaurant, but maybe that’s not the case at all. Maybe he just wants to sound accommodating to everyone, or progressive, without really giving any thought to what that actually entails for someone who takes him at his word and shows up to eat the things he tells them they’ll be able to eat.

I hope THE GREAT CHEF ROY ‘PAPI’ CHOI will see that he’s the one who was being insufferable here, or at least that we both were, although I will only admit to being insufferable in this instance AFTER my visit, not before or during. And I hope this opens his eyes to the problem, and that when he finally decides to spend a little money and print new menus instead of covering up old items with white stickers (seriously, how much could some new menus cost, we’re not talking fancy menus here, we’re talking one 8.5″ X 11″ page) that maybe he’ll even think about putting some kind of symbol for vegetarian or vegan or can-be-made-vegan-on-request on the menu, like MANY restaurants in Los Angeles do these days. You know, the kind who really ARE trying to accommodate people who are doing the thing that Chef Roy mused to The New Yorker that he was thinking about doing.

I will end by saying one thing: Chef Roy is really talented. Some of the food I picked at around the edges was really, really good. If he would make more of an effort for us — and it would only take a little bit of effort — he could easily come up with a way for almost all diners to enjoy his talent. I really hope he will read this and do that, so that I’m not the only one in this back and forth who’s living up to their tweets.

8 Responses to “Chego’s attitude toward vegans: Why won’t Chego away”

  1. Roy Choi December 2, 2012 at 10:21 am #

    I read your blog and remember all our exchanges on Twitter. I will take all of your energy and see what I can do to make things a better experience for everyone. We are in the place to feed you and make you happy. I just ask you one thing. Don’t make assumptions. You have no idea how much time I do or don’t spend in my restaurants. You have no idea whether I talked to my manager or didn’t. The way we present our menus is our style and ours alone. Your frustrations are warranted but your assumptions are cancerous. I hope you can breathe and we can improve and maybe I can cook for you personally and show you how vegan friendly Chego really is. The offer is on the table anytime.
    Chef Roy Choi

    • insufferablevegan December 2, 2012 at 11:52 am #

      Chef Roy: Thank you for your response. Yes, assumptions were made by me. And some of them may certainly be wrong. But I hope you will see that assumptions were made on your side, too. You assumed that it would be easy for me to find something to eat at Chego, and you also assumed that your staff would be accommodating. However, as I described in my blog post, this was pretty much the opposite of what I encountered. There were also assumptions made by your manager. He seemed to assume that I was a nuisance customer, simply by being a vegan asking to be fed there, even though the only reason I assumed I could be fed there is that you yourself had told me I could be, which didn’t seem to matter to him at all.

      Perhaps part of what frustrated me so much about this experience is that you seem like such a thoughtful guy to me, open to many ideas, looking to make people happy through your food as you say, and then having my actual experience at your restaurant feel like the opposite of that. That’s what made me discuss a possible disconnect between you and your restaurant. Maybe my speculation about your involvement or lack of involvement is overstated or flat-out wrong, but I hope you can see what brought it on.

      If you really are interested in making Chego vegan-friendly, and I take you at your word that you are, it seems like it would be very easy to do. I am not in the restaurant business but I say this based on seeing so many restaurants that have taken the time to put a few symbols on their menus to help guide vegans and vegetarians. And yes, Chego’s menu is yours to design how you like, but when there are new items available that aren’t on the menu, your customers have no way of knowing what is in them if the staff doesn’t know or doesn’t want to take the time to say.

      As cancerous as my assumptions may feel to you, please take a moment to think about the assumptions your manager made. Not just that I was a nuisance without making any effort to see that I was actually being polite and friendly and had been welcomed via Twitter by you. But also, his attitude and actions sent the message that being vegan is something to be disrespected, to see no value in. I am not being overly sensitive here and I would never have talked about his cancerous assumptions if you had not talked about mine. But now that we are talking about such assumptions I want you to see they were coming from your side as well. Not by you personally, but by your restaurant and your representatives. I will assume that you wanted the opposite experience for me at Chego, but given what I *did* experience, there is some type of disconnect going on, even if some of the particular assumptions I made about how that disconnect occurred are wrong.

      I appreciate your offer to personally make me a vegan meal there. I appreciate your accessibility to your customers and fan base via social media like Twitter. And most of all I appreciate your attitude about not just veganism but about using food as a way to make people happy and to create positive associations and energy. I also appreciate you saying that my frustrations were warranted. I am open-minded and am not going to let one bad day set my mind in concrete about you or your restaurants.

      A restaurant should be a reflection of its owner’s philosophy, as I’m sure you want Chego to be. That is a big part of why I brought all this to your attention. Most likely, your positive attitude about food and people and happiness and energy IS translating into a positive experience for the vast majority of your customers at Chego, but when it comes to your vegan customers, I believe the experience is falling short.

      I would love to sit down with you some time and have a conversation about what might make Chego feel more vegan-friendly. While I’m not a professional, you can see from my blog that I have a pretty thorough knowledge of the Los Angeles foodscape, at least as how it relates to vegan-friendliness. Wouldn’t it be great if Chego, without even having to alter any of your recipes, became a place where vegans could also experience that feeling of joy that the right combinations of flavors can do to our brains?

  2. Midge December 3, 2012 at 9:26 am #

    I’m sorry to hear of your experience at Chego. If I had that Twitter exchange with Chef Roy, I would also expect to be able to easily order vegan items off the menu. But I’m glad that he addressed the issue and hopefully he can better ensure that his restaurant is suitable for vegans.

    Would you ever go to a food establishment blindly without doing your menu research beforehand? Being a vegan for 2 1/2 years now, I have to admit that I still seem to struggle a little bit when ordering from a food establishment that doesn’t clearly define veganizable menu items. Maybe I ought to be insufferable like you? :)

    One time I was feeling brave enough to take on a food truck that is known for kimchi grilled cheese sandwiches. The reason why I decided to take the challenge is that one of our vendors at work brought them in to provide free lunch to everyone as a gesture of appreciation for our partnership, and I was handed one of the meal tickets. So I thought, why not? If it doesn’t work, I can walk over to Wahoo’s nearby.

    I saw that one of my co-workers got a veggie grilled cheese sandwich with peppers and eggplant so I thought I’d see if I can order it sans the cheese. So I came up to the truck and first asked if butter is used in grilling the sandwich. The guy in the truck said yes, so I told him I wanted the veggie sandwich untoasted without cheese. He became very annoyed with that, and he said the sandwich will fall apart. I said I wouldn’t mind, and he said well okay if that’s what you want. At this point his voice was loud enough for the rest of my co-workers waiting for their orders to hear.

    When my order finally arrived, it was a floppy mess of a sandwich. No one at the truck even cared, and they completely acted like I was a burden. It was the most humiliating experience I’ve ever had ordering food as a vegan that I had to fight back tears. I think I ended up going to Wahoo’s that evening to make up for this bad experience.

    But on the flip side, I had the best experience ordering as a vegan at The Restaurant at The Getty Center, which is what I would expect since they’re so much fancier than a food truck. I was definitely a happy vegan there :).

    • insufferablevegan December 3, 2012 at 11:57 pm #

      Yes, I will often wind up at a restaurant where I didn’t check the menu beforehand. I try to give the server the benefit of the doubt that they will know what vegan means, and that they will be considerate of someone’s situation. Doesn’t always turn out that way, but that’s my usual starting point. If I sense that they know exactly what I’m asking, and they seem pretty confident in their responses, then I will trust them. But if they seem like they’re rolling their eyes at me, even if their eyes eyes don’t actually move, then I will go to my “safe” items.

      My safe item used to be pasta. But about a year ago I had some terrific pasta at a place called Bottega Louie in downtown Los Angeles. It was so good I wanted to mention it on my blog. Then the thought occurred to me: I should make sure it’s truly vegan before I recommend it to other vegans. So I called the restaurant. The woman who answered was very nice and said she wasn’t sure and would go check. She put me on hold for a few minutes, then came back and told me she talked to the chef and that their pasta is made with egg. Yikes, I screwed up! Oh well, it happens. At least I didn’t recommend it. So now I’m one of those people who asks first about pasta. And I feel like I’ve lost one of my safe harbors, but oh well, if we start to cheat here and there, then what’s the point of doing it at all? Or at least that’s how I feel about it, even though of course it’s better for the animals if people are “99 percent vegan” than not vegan at all.

      Your experience at the grilled cheese truck is awful. Not to try to top it, but now imagine if you checked with the owner of that grilled cheese truck a week before, and he or she said: “We have many things for you to eat, we got you.” And THEN you got treated like that when you tried to order. And when you replied, “But the owner said you could accommodate me,” the person at the truck didn’t care. And then when you contacted the owner afterwards they said the person at the truck “did what they could” but still insisted their restaurant is a “vegan-friendly” business. And then when you tried to figure out how their could be such a disconnect between the owner’s words and what you experienced, you were accused of making “cancerous assumptions.”

      Restaurants don’t only have one item on their menus. They recognize people like choice, and that different people like different things. Slowly, it seems like more and more restaurants are treating this as just another choice to offer their customers. They’ve always accepted that some people like beef and some like chicken, and now they seem to be starting to look at it like some patrons like animal products and some do not. Or at least that’s how I see it, and why I think I’m finding so many more options at omni restaurants than I did a couple of years ago. It’s now seen by some restaurants as profitable to welcome this group of diners, and I also think it’s not considered quite as odd as it once was, at least in big cities. Plus, it’s a generational thing. I think most college students are very familiar with it even if they don’t do it, and so it’s not weird at all to them. And one day they will grow up and own restaurants. I can’t wait!

  3. Jackie at Vegan Yack Attack December 15, 2012 at 1:54 am #

    I’ll keep this brief, but honest. I appreciate the Chef’s response to this post, but if I had the same experience you did (before your dinner) I certainly would not have bothered returning. I understand that twitter is a hard medium to communicate through, but the manager at that restaurant? If I had someone be that rude to me I would have just left. Kudos to you for sticking it out, I suppose, but ultimately it’s disappointing. Thank you for the EXTREMELY thorough review of this spot!

  4. Mary June 6, 2013 at 7:16 am #

    I wouldn’t go to a vegan restaurant and expect them to feed me meat. Go to a vegan restaurant. Get off you self righteous ass and and don’t expect people to accommodate you. Why would you expect them to make you something off menu? Very typical. 98% of vegans only choose to be vegan to say those words at restaurants. Oh, I’m vegan!! Well, if there’s nothing on the menu, go elsewhere. Very very simple. It works both ways

    • Midge June 6, 2013 at 7:45 am #

      I suppose it’s safe to say that with such scathing remarks, you are not vegan, even perhaps an angry non-vegan, and I’m curious to know how you found your way to this blog. I’m interested to know where you lifted that statistic of 98% of vegans only choosing to become vegan just to say it at restaurants. It makes absolutely no sense and frankly, it’s ridiculous. It’s not unreasonable to expect a non-vegan restaurant that claims to offer vegan options to offer vegan options.

    • insufferablevegan June 6, 2013 at 10:36 am #

      Hi Mary, thanks for your comment. Midge pretty much summed it up in her reply to you, but I’m wondering if you finished the blog post before commenting. The owner of Chego — as in, the guy who owns it — said he had me covered and that there would be vegan options for me. And yet you think it was unreasonable to go to the restaurant after the owner told me to? That’s odd, to say the least. It sounds to me like you are very defensive about your meat consumption. I’m not a therapist so I won’t go into why that might be, but I think you would find it liberating to become vegan. Seems like there’s a lot of anger you walk around with every day that might dissipate if you gave it a shot. Best of luck to you.

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