Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Steak Restaurants versus San Francisco's 'Monday Vegetarian Day'

'I think what people eat is none of the business of the Board of Supervisors, whether it's potato chips or raw carrots,'  said Al Petri, owner of Alfred's Steakhouse, the city's oldest, traditional steak restaurant.

'First of all, I and a lot of other businessmen in the city are not happy with a lot of decisions that have come out of city hall, and I think trying to legislate our lifestyle is none of their business,' said Al.  Their role is to 'efficiently and competently manage the business of the city,' he added.

He strongly opposes the city's decision last week to name every Monday 'Vegetarian Day' in a bid to encourage people to eat more vegetables and less meat. The resolution, brought to city hall by Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, was prepared by members of the organizations In Defense of Animals, and the San Francisco Vegetarian Society.

Another steak restaurant manager, though, said, 'I'm encouraged that politicians are becoming more concerned about the dietary decisions their constituents make.'

Pete Osborne is manager of his family business, Momo's, with its trademark sunflower-yellow umbrellas opposite the San Francisco Giants' ballpark. During baseball season, he feeds thousands of fans.

Diet, he said, has become a national issue with the Obama administration and Michelle Obama's vegetable garden.

Moderation in meat-eating, however, is something both restaurateurs agreed on.

Like other restaurateurs, Al had known nothing beforehand about the resolution until his wife had called him that day and told him, "you want to see what there is in the news."'

However, if a Vegetarian Day had to go ahead, it would have made more sense to put it on a Friday, thought Al. 'If they made it on a Friday it could kick in with the Catholics....and have a larger base,' he said, referring to a tradition of not eating meat on Fridays, an association with Good Friday.

Although Al is a purveyor of fine cuts of aged beef from cattle fed only on grass and corn, he hasn't always been sinking his teeth into juicy steaks. He has lived on the other side of the dietary fence, and from his experience questions the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle.

'I don't know if vegetarianism is much more healthy,' he said. 'I was a vegan for about one-and-a-half years, 25 years ago, and I don't think I was any healthier than I am now. I think a lot of it is psychological.'

'And I think individually our responsibility is to control our own excesses. A glass of wine is good, maybe a bottle of wine is bad.'

Behind part of the vegetarian philosophy, he said, is a belief system akin to Eastern beliefs where, he cited examples, one is 'not supposed to walk on flowers or swat flies.'

He considers meat-eating to be in our nature. 'If I want to be a vegetarian, a Protestant, an Islamist, I don't think that's in our DNA. But we have a need to eat meat, it's a protein source that goes back a long time to the hunter-tribal gatherers.

'I'm not advocating you slaughter your pet cat and make some sort of cat fricassee...' he said quickly, which led onto the issue of what meats are acceptable psychologically and in different cultures. 'A lot of people have this ethical thing about what animals you can kill. It's alright to kill a chicken but it's not okay to kill a steer. I think that's what this whole game is about,' he said.

He questions, too, the accuracy of scientific 'experts' in their claims over not only dietary benefits but the impact of animal husbandry on the environment. As an example, Hope Bohanec, Grassroots Campaigns Director of IDA, told city Supervisors that if San Franciscans dropped meat from their diets one day a week, that would equate to removing 123,000 cars from city streets.

'Is it proven or guess science?' Al asked. 'I don't think it's a position of the government to try and make these decisions for us without scientific fact.'

Alfred's maybe a steak restaurant, but it does cater for the non-carnivore. 'We get a number of vegetarians in here, and that has different variations, some will eat fish, some are vegans, and we accommodate them as a restaurant, whatever their needs are,' he said, adding, 'This doesn't necessarily mean we have a vegetarian emphasis on our menu.'

Thinking of the thousands of hotdog-loving Giants fans, I asked Pete Osborne, in reality what effect would the resolution have?

'From a business perspective, I'm not sure how it's going to affect us. We're known for doing a steak dinner,' he said. 'We do sell more hamburgers on a day of a ballgame than we would on a day of comparable business.'

Typically, he said, of 300 lunches on a game day, there would be 100 burgers, but on a non-baseball day, no more than 50.  'It has less to do with the clientele and more with the traditional eating habits associated with the ballpark,' he said.

So what does he think of an Orange and Black Culinary Attack, of nicely steamed carrots and black beans tucked inside hotdog and burger rolls?

'I'm not sure! But it's funny to think about it!!' he laughed, and suddenly remembered, 'We do sweet potato fries. They're orange! That would go!'

Pete has been to culinary school and is well researched and read about dietary issues, but has been working in the family business for 12 years, ever since he was 14-years-old. 'My training is from here, for sure!' he said.

How does he view Hope Bohanec's statement that eating meat is as harmful as smoking cigarettes?

'I think that refers specifically to the American diet because we have a tendency to eat too much meat. So I think it heightens awareness. It's a step in the right direction,' he said.

And as much as he enjoys meat, 'meat and only meat is a bad thing,' he asserted. ' It leads to heart disease and other illnesses. There needs to be a balanced diet.'

'Everything in moderation - and it couldn't be truer when it comes to the diet,' he said.

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