3300 Overland Ave
Los Angeles CA 90034
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.
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.
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.