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Let's get something straight: It's not vegetarians that I hate (I was one for a while), or even the idea of vegetarian cooking. It's vegetarianism -- like Catholicism or Republicanism -- that gets my blood up. It's the big, heaping portion of politicized dogma that comes on the side of my soba noodles or Gardenburger. It's the nearly ubiquitous manifesto printed proudly on the front of the vegetarian restaurant's menu, telling me how I'm changing the world, cleansing my body, aligning my chakras and elevating my consciousness by not murdering any of God's critters for my sustenance.

Know what? I don't wanna change the world over dinner. I wanna eat. I like my chakras just the way they are, and I don't want my innards cleansed. All the limp steamed vegetables, tasteless soy protein and manhandled tofu offered up on the altar of vegetarianism don't elevate my consciousness; they make me want to save those poor, abused vegetables by eating a vegan.

By the same token, I like Sunflower (see review, page 69 because it ascribes to the one (and only) true faith of the kitchen: Purchase the absolute best product you can get your hands on, do your best with it while it's fresh, and respect the food -- whether it's a cow, a pig, a chicken, a carrot or a big lump of tofu -- by making it into something worthwhile. Even vegetarian (and vegan) cuisine can do this without all of the ancillary political nonsense.

The best cooks understand that, on some level, all cooking is killing. And whether the mayhem comes in the form of a chicken getting its neck broken, a thousand field mice being ground up under the plow blades in a corn row, or the basil stalk being cut down and stripped in its prime, something always dies when we eat. They understand that and respect the sacrifice by performing an act of reincarnation every time they put together a beautiful plate. And the best houses out there -- from the crunchiest bastions of veggie, vegan or whole-food cuisine, to the simplest taquería, to the whitest of the white-tablecloth set -- transcend any isms by making food that needs no label, that exists above the fray of politics and motive in the realm of plain excellence.

It's the food that matters. Check your philosophy at the door.

Here's the beef: While we're on the topic of healthy foods, how's this for progress? Good Times Burgers and Frozen Custard (a Colorado native that started in 1986 with one Boulder location, has since grown to 35 and plans to soon have 65 outposts) has become the first fast-food hamburger joint to offer nothing but 100 percent, all-natural, premium-cut Coleman Natural Meats beef in all of its burgers. This means no more antibiotics, no more growth hormones, no more meat from animals raised on feed laced with animal by-products (the leading cause of bovine spongiform encephalitis -- mad cow disease -- among other nasty things), just beef that "man hasn't messed with," as the Coleman Natural motto goes.

And Coleman is a serious Colorado native, with a family history -- now being carried on by Mel and Polly Coleman -- of ranching in this state that goes back to 1875, before there even was a State of Colorado. In the late 1970s, Mel went to Washington, D.C., to find out about the labeling practices for beef and to see if there was any legal definition of "natural." There wasn't, so he spent the next two years creating one, establishing the rules and protocols for what could and couldn't be called "natural" beef. In 1981, Coleman Natural Products became the first company designated by the USDA to carry the "natural" label.

It wasn't until this past June that McDonald's announced that it was calling for its "suppliers worldwide to phase out of animal growth promotion antibiotics that are used in human medicine," and that it had prepared "a set of standards for McDonald's direct meat suppliers [and encouraged] indirect suppliers to take similar steps to eliminate growth-promoting antibiotics and to reduce other antibiotic usage." What McDonald's proposed was a process. What Good Times did was make a proclamation: Customers "will receive premium cuts of all natural Coleman beef, in all of our burgers, 100% of the time," according to Boyd Hoback, Good Times president and CEO.

Now for the critical part of this gig: I tried one of the new, all-natural Good Times burgers -- and it was better. Markedly better than the competition in the drive-thru arena, and certainly in the same ballpark as restaurant hamburgers. I didn't hear angelic trumpets or anything, because, come on, it's still a fast-food burger. But Good Times toasts its buns on a grill, uses fresh veggies -- tomatoes, green leaf lettuce, red onions -- and brings out beef that's as healthy as beef can be. So even if it wasn't the best burger I've ever had, I definitely felt better about myself for eating it.

 

Fast food, fast bucks: After their successful legal battle against cigarette companies, lawyers the world over are licking their chops and thumbing through car ads as they dream about how they'll spend the money they're going to make when they sue the fast-food industry. Yes, the classes are already getting action-y over the fat content of Whoppers, the chemicals in McNuggets and the calories in Twinkies, now that obesity has been named public enemy number one by the office of the surgeon general. In response, some megastores like Wal-Mart and Target are considering removing fatty snack foods from their shelves, and fast-food franchises are girding for war.

I have two things to say about this. One, if you're that worried about obesity, Tubby, drop the lawsuit, put on a pair of sneakers, and hoof it down to the farmers' market to buy yourself a salad. Two, if these lawsuits are successful -- if people actually make the case that they'd somehow been duped into thinking that 64-ounce Slurpees, Ding Dongs and Big Macs were good for them -- you know what will happen? All of that fun food will vanish. It's gonna be veggie loaf, protein pills and bottled water for everyone, and don't think you can come crying to me when you can't get your fix of beef jerky and french fries.

Because I'll be living on a beach somewhere in Mexico, selling grill-fired, high-fat, bloody-rare twelve-ounce cheeseburgers and thick cherry milkshakes to all those folks desperate enough to flee the country for some decent grub. Back in the day, Animal House's Dean Wormer taught me that "fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life." But apparently these days, fat, stupid and litigious is the American way...

Exhibit A: Caesar Barber, the 250-plus-pounder who sued the fast-food industry for making him fat. Already, legal and medical groups are strategizing in anticipation of a flood of suits. And just a couple of weeks ago, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (which was in Denver over the weekend, protesting at the American Veterinary Medical Association's convention by dressing up in giant chicken suits to bring attention to cruel practices endorsed by the AVMA) sued KFC Corp. for allegedly misrepresenting itself -- and Kentucky Fried Chicken's treatment of its chicken -- to the public. "KFC's Web site," PETA claims, "contains significant misrepresentations and outright false statements that conceal from the public the horrific suffering endured by chickens raised and killed for KFC."

And this is only the beginning, folks. Robert A. Levy said this much better than I can in his August 2002 editorial for National Review, writing that these new lawsuits will be "another shakedown without any concern for personal accountability, sanctioned by a nanny state with an insatiable appetite for social engineering." To read the entire piece, go to www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-levy081902.asp.

...and Twins! There was no way anyone could miss the product placement. Coors beer was a third-tier co-star during Sunday night's premiere of The Restaurant, NBC's new quasi-reality show that alleges to show the trials and tribulations of a small businessman (with $4 million in seed money) trying to open a Manhattan restaurant modeled on the simple luxuries of his mother's basement (with the addition of several NBC camera crews, hidden microphones and a whole team of publicists). Beer from Coors -- which negotiated a deal to be the sole malt beverage in the cast -- was shown during the opening splash of credits, glugging in a long, sexy slo-mo pour into a pint glass. Later in the episode, a Coors Light truck pulled up in front of the gutted facade of chef Rocco DiSpirito's new TV-land eatery (called Rocco's), cases were seen zipping down the delivery chute into the subterranean coolers, and in what was likely a first for the beer industry, minutes of airtime were lavished on the delivery guy -- some poor shlub trying to get his job done -- while he wandered through the place, saying over and over something like, "I'm the Coors guy, and I'm trying to deliver some frosty, delicious Coors beer to this restaurant. Does anyone know where the bar manager is so he can sign for this truck full of icy-cold Coors beer?"

Between the not-so-subtle product placements for Coors, American Express (for whom Rocco shilled during every commercial break) and Mitsubishi, though, was a truly interesting (and surprisingly accurate) glimpse of what goes into opening a restaurant these days. Granted, Rocco was getting some breaks -- plugs on Today, two days of staffing that played out more like an old-time Hollywood cattle call, and the help of veteran restaurant financier Jeffrey Chodorow (who never arrived without there first being a long shot of his stretch limo), to name just a couple -- but he was also working under the kind of strain that no chef would take on if he had a choice: getting his place open in about a third of the time usually allotted. Most restaurants take anywhere from three to six months to create -- but Rocco had exactly five weeks, and with a thousand reservations already on the books, no chance to miss his opening mark. Every ounce of that pressure showed in the chef's anxious-yet-still-pretty-enough-for-People-magazine mug.

 

High points in the first episode? A waiter drank the contents of a sommelier's spit bucket on a $14 bet. And the scene in which John -- the newly hired, bald-headed, bad-ass kitchen manager -- and two of his sullen crew stood against the wall of a bar, beers in their hands, cursing and talking shit about the waitstaff out on the floor dancing, getting drunk and licking each other's faces. John said something like, "For us, this is another kitchen. We know what we're doing. But they have no idea what they're getting into," with such contempt on his face that you just know this is going to be one of those kinds of houses, where the front and back not only don't get along, they flat-out despise each other.

Low points? The every-five-minute cutaway to someone saying how handsome, how sexy or how talented Rocco is. Look, the guy's a chef, not a model.

Lessons learned? When the man in the black limo pulls up, forget about your dreams, swallow your pride and just sign your soul away on the dotted line. That's the way things are done in the big city, Rocco. It just sucks that everyone had to see you go sissy for the money right there on camera.

And from now on, The Restaurant -- like Iron Chef -- is required viewing for all Bite Me readers.


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