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Best way to handle eating out at interviews?

Hi all.  I just wanted some thoughts:  if you were invited to dinner or a catered event with a potential employer, co-worker, or in my case, grad school advisor, what's the best way to handle the situation?  I will be visiting/interviewing at several graduate schools over the next few weeks, and these generally included catered meals.  One prof has invited me to a dinner with her research students, but I have no clue what that means...it could mean eating out or a BBQ at someones house.  It's a kind of "get to know people thing."  Would it be okay to email people and explain that I limit animal derived ingredients as much as possible?  I don't want to make a big deal of things, though...and the schools are paying for the trip.  Thanks

If I were going to a catered event or a restaurant, then I just speak to the waiter directly and ask for something vegetarian.  Usually they have at least pasta although sometimes they offer the dreaded grilled vegetable plate.  Or I cobble together some sides (just came back from a lunch where I did that).  If it is a restaurant and there are a bunch of dishes but no obvious vegetarian one, then sometimes I will skim the dishes and tell them what to bring me from those other plates (i.e., grilled chilean sea bass on a bed of rice and sugar snap peas--I tell them to bring me the rice and peas and perhaps something from some other dish).  The key sometimes is to be polite but firm--often they want to please and they are looking for guidance.  I just try to nicely tell them what would make me happy and they usually will try to comply.

If it were an event at someone's home where I thought they would actually be cooking, then I would casually inquire about the menu and if it sounded like there might not be a lot to eat then I would make a point of mentioning that I was vegetarian.  This is mostly because if someone is going through the trouble of making a meal and inviting me, I don't want them to feel bad or offended that I'm not eating it.

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I don't think it is bad to let them know you are vegitarian. it is really regional, whether people will ask different job/school visitors. i have been thinking about this because i'm going on the job market and will be doing fly out 2 day interviews and i'm planning on saying i'm vegitarian and don't eat dairy or eggs.

also pack some food just in case. i also plan to do that.

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I would try to strategically ask something along the line of, "I'm really looking forward to meeting all of your colleagues; will this be a social gathering at someone's home? I'm a very strict vegetarian, and I wouldn't want to trouble anyone-- may I bring a covered dish to share?" That way, you'll find out where it's going to be, and take the pressure off of finding someplace/something that "that new picky vegan" can eat. :P
Just a heads up-- if it's at Hard Rock Cafe, Olive Garden, or Red Lobster, you WILL starve. :P Bring your own food. :P To my knowledge, those are the most un-vegan friendly restaurants I've come across thus far. (You might manage at Olive Garden really; but there's nothing specifically vegan on the menu. Maybe a plain spaghetti marinara, if you asked nicely?)

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I have been invited to Lone Star, a steak house, a couple of times.  I love this place because they offer roasted sweet potatoes.  I had a salad, no cheese with Italian dressing and a naked baked sweet potato, which is how I eat them anyway.  I left happy because this is a meal I enjoy.

But they are right, Red Lobster and Olive Garden are terrible.  I don't mind going to a Macaroni Grill.  They have a build your own pasta bowl with vegetarian sauces and you can skip the animal based stuff and have a nice meal.  I love mushrooms, roasted red pepper and spinach with plain olive oil as a "sauce."  I have made it at home, I have loved it so much.

Oh great, now I am hungry AGAIN!

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When I have to go to NAR (National Assn. of REALTORS) events, I usually call the location directly, explain my food guidelines and get the name of the head server working that night.  These events are typically held at swanky places - country clubs, golf courses, etc. - and most of these people have a few standby vegan dishes that they are happy to prepare.  I've never had request a specific meal (i.e.- make me pasta with olive oil and broccoli) at an upscale catered event. The chefs know what they're doing - I just had a lovely grain salad with quinoa, Israeli couscous, bulgar wheat, and wild rice topped with balsamic glazed veggies and cashews.   If you're at a restaurant, try to talk to the hostess when you come in, or catch the waiter/tress before you're seated.  It's much less obtrusive and gives the staff time to think.  If all else fails, run to the restroom and snack on some dried fruit and a protein bar.   ;)

Good luck w/ interviewing - LL and BayPuppy!

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Thanks all for the suggestions!

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i have read about the "asking if they could make something special" that fits your diet and some places claim chefs don't mind/enjoy getting creative. has anyone tried that? i haven't mostly cause i'm scared for standing out/being "picky". is it usually received well?

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Baypuppy, I have called to ask restaurants about vegetarian entrees and some have offered to buy ingredients if I tell them I am coming a few days in advance. Seriously, one offered to go out and get tofu! I didn't even ask! From this experience I would say it is worth a try. If I were a chef making the same dishes all the time I would probably like the opportunity to do something a bit different. Any chefs here want to comment on that assumption?

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I did a bunch of grad school campus visits as a vegan and it was never a problem.  The catered dinners and events were always done buffet style, so I just made plates with things I could eat (hummus, veggies, salad, bread, olives, pasta dishes sometimes...  things like that).  I didn't want to make a big deal out of it, so I didn't raise it as an issue ahead of time, and it wasn't a problem.  I visited schools in the midwest and the coasts.  You might wait until you're there so that you can feel them out in person and decide whether to bring it up or just suffer through 3 days of salads in silence.  Especially if you're visiting in an interview context (i.e. you haven't been admitted yet), you want to make yourself seem as low maintainence as possible.

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Baypuppy, your responseabout cooks looking for a creative challenge reminded me of a passage I read a couple of years ago in the Anthony Bourdain book "Kitchen Confidential".  I've always remembered that passage and, since I handily have a copy here in my office and am completely overwhelmed with work, I thought I would take a moment to retype that passage, to which I hope its publishers won't object:

"Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn.  To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living.  Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.  The body, these waterheads imagine, is a temple that should not be polluted by animal protein.  It's healthier, they insist, though every vegetarian waiter I've worked with is brought down by any rumor of a cold.  Oh, I'll accommodate them, I'll rummage around for something to feed them, for a "vegetarian plate," if called on to do so.  Fourteen dollars for a few slices of grilled eggplant and zucchini suits my food cost fine."

There is another place in the book where he described how annoying it is to get special requests--I think he even mentions the lactose intolerant!

I thought Bourdain's salty book was amusing and I wasn't offended by the passage above.  It did confirm to me, however, what I had long suspected--that sometimes the offerings coming from the kitchen in response to my request for something vegetarian were more in the way of revenge than an attempt to please!

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sort of offtopic-ish, but a friend of mine worked at the olive garden and she told me they put chicken stock in EVERYTHING. there is no such thing as a vegetarian option at the Olive Garden

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That passage is downright scary, when you think that you are trusting the preparation of your meal to someone who potentially hates you!  Yikes.  Luckily (naively?), I have faith that most people are not really like that.

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I find that by informing your server/hostess at a restaurant that you are "severely allergic" is a lot easier.  I'm just leery that if i tell them its my personal choice they wont care as much if they run the risk of me going into an "anaphlactic shock" (or however ou spell it) from what they serve me. 

As for olive garden, i had to plan a dinner for my mothers birthday and she loves that place, so i went in a week in advance and talked with the chef who informed me all i could eat would be a salad with oil and vinegar instead of their signature dressing. 

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Baypuppy, I have called to ask restaurants about vegetarian entrees and some have offered to buy ingredients if I tell them I am coming a few days in advance. Seriously, one offered to go out and get tofu! I didn't even ask!

Applelover, if this happened to me I would certainly send the chef a thank-you card. A few kudos can open a LOT of doors for our food choices--and anyway, we all like a little appreciation for extra effort.  ;)

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I've had many chefs make special meals for me. Indian restaurants seem the most oblidging. If I'm going out for breakfast or lunch and there's nothing on the menu I'll ask for mushroom, avocado and spinach on an english muffin or toast. When going out for dinner there's generally some sort of roast vege side that I'll have with a green salad and an olive oil and vinegar dressing (I have had to tell a waitress how to make the dressing).

When the kitchen really tries to make what I've asked for special and appealing, I make sure to ask someone to pass on my thanks to the waiter/ress and the chef.

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I never mention that I'm vegan.  I seem to get alot of negative faces when i say that.  Instead, I say that I don't like meat & I'm allergic to dairy.  People are more accepting that way.

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I've been in similar situations.  I'd suggest not mentioning it to them.  Eat a light protein-rich meal (like soy jerky)  before you go and then select vegan side-items.  I've only not been able to find something to eat once using this technique.  In the case of the sides, if there is a salad then you can have a lot of food on your plate and it won't look weird - it just might not be tasty.

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Salad!  Most places have that; just tell them hold the cheese and meat.  There's usually bread, and often baked potatoes/sweet potatoes.  At an interview, I'd be low-key about being vegetarian/vegan because you don't want to spend the whole time talking about that.  Eat before you go, then you don't have to worry about being hungry and only having iceberg lettuce to chew on.  Good luck on the interview!!

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