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BBQ tempeh sandwich + the cost of food


I work in a recently opened fine dining establishment that prioritizes locally and ethically procured food in a somewhat busy, high volume, tourism affected area. The costs are going to be high from the start, from the rent, the taxes, the ingredients, the staff to make it work etc. This isn’t unusual though. Restaurants deal with the juggle of a million costs as a way of life. It’s a whole lot to consider when local and sustainable is thrown into the mix too. Sourcing from the community means snubbing a considerably cheaper big-time food distributor that sells everything from hydroponically grown cherry tomatoes to frozen sea bass to punch-in time clocks. Would you buy vegetables, eggs, fish etc from the same place you buy floor cleaner and mop heads? Probably not. Why would you offer your patronage, your hard-earned money, to a restaurant that does?

These questions and underlying concepts are super sensical to me, sure, but the equation and price tag is shocking to many. French fries are a really good example here. Ours hit above the five dollar mark. A common reaction: “But it’s just potatoes..!” It totally isn’t. Yes, the potatoes themselves cost money, but filling an industry kitchen-sized fryer will run you about $75 or more for oil. Someone (with food and safety training) has to be paid for the hours they spend cleaning, cutting, frying, seasoning and plating those potatoes (in a rather quaint paper cone, all tossed with minced thyme for your enjoyment I’ll add). Oh, and the server that handles your order and takes care of you for the evening factors in there. The table where your fork lays. The chair you’ve perched yourself on. The lighting in the room, water, linens (rather than cheaper throwaway paper napkins), you get the idea. There’s a lot to consider.

So when I saw that a blogger visiting the restaurant tweeted about the experience and cried “Overpriced!,” I was annoyed. I kind of stepped back and considered that a large portion of the population may feel this way about dining out though, especially within establishments that prioritize the community and minimal environmental impact. It takes a whole lot of principle to stick to your guns on that front, it isn’t always cheap to do on a large scale. It is well documented how hard it is to make money in the restaurant business anyway, without all of the measures to ensure that guaranteed fairness on all sides. Fifty dollars for a simple shirt made out of cheaply grown cotton with minimal labour? Sure. Thirteen hundred for a 60 inch flat screen made in Taiwan? Absolutely. I don’t want to convey that the production of these items is simple, but rather ask why there is so much pause and criticism when food is at stake, something that nourishes all aspects of our being, brings community to the table and ensures a part of our very survival. There’s a huge lack of regard for the power that it brings, from production to plate.

It’s a lack of education certainly and a conditioning of cheap food (which means crappy ingredients and underpaid employees in shitty working conditions) over such a long period of time. The times have changed though. Any information is constantly available for the taking thanks to the internet. Those who have access to good food and the opportunity to dine out should know better. The outrage and blind criticism has no place if you have an internet connection and 15 minutes to spare prior to your reservation, like none. Assuming that you’ve read this blog before, you probably care at least a little bit already (is that a big assumption?) and that certainly means a lot. I think a slow and gentle tide of understanding is beginning to turn and a greater sense of gratitude is coming to the table, but it does take time and a few grumbles along the way.

None of this ties into the recipe du jour per se. Given my constant stream of busy-ness and frustration over this sort of thing in the past few weeks, a super sticky, spicy, sweet, messy, mega satisfying sandwich with tempeh, sprouts, avocado and other goodies was looking pretty, pretty good. This combination is largely inspired by one that I enjoyed at Candle Cafe last time we were in NY. I’m a big fan of sweetness in barbecue sauce, but I also enjoy a bit of convenience at times. When fixing up the sauce, I reach for an all-natural ketchup that has all of the ingredients I would be using in a homemade sauce anyway (tomato paste, vinegar, evaporated cane juice, spices, salt) and cut down on simmering time pretty greatly. A prefab convenience that probably costs more than the sum of its parts, yes, but totally worth it when messy, barbecue sandwiches are at stake. Pretty high value for the cost in the grand equation. And I’m all about that grand equation lately.


bbq tempeh and sweet potato sandwiches + barbecue sauce recipe
sauce adapted from Everyday Food, Issue 44, July/August 2007
serves: 2 (with extra sauce woohoo)
notes: I always simmer/steam tempeh for a bit before I apply a final cooking treatment just to guarantee some quality toothsomeness. I don’t think it’s totally necessary though if you’re in a pinch for time. Oh, and tofu would also apply beautifully here if tempeh is unavailable.

tempeh, sweet potatoes + sauce:
1/2 block tempeh (4 ounces), cut into 4 triangles or rectangles (depending on your bread surface shape)
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch slices
1 tsp grapeseed oil
1/4 onion, grated
1 small clove of garlic, minced
3/4 cup natural ketchup (Trader Joe’s and Annie’s are fantastic)
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp sriracha (or other hot sauce)
2 tbsp maple syrup
1 tbsp worcestershire sauce (Annie’s brand to the rescue again!)

assembly:
2 lightly toasted rolls of your choosing (I went the crusty multigrain route)
1/2 an avocado, peeled and sliced
big handful of sprouts
thin red onion slices
etc etc, go wild!

Make the sauce: heat the grapeseed oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the grated onion and garlic and saute until very fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the ketchup, vinegar, sriracha, maple syrup and worcestershire sauce to the pot and stir to combine. Bring mixture to a light boil, stirring here and there. Simmer until mixture thickens slightly, about 7-10 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside (leftover sauce will keep for one week in the fridge in a sealed, non-reactive container).

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Place the tempeh pieces and sliced sweet potatoes in a medium-large saucepan. Cover with water by about an inch and simmer until sweet potatoes are soft, about 7-8 minutes. Carefully remove tempeh and sweet potatoes to a plate. Pat dry with a kitchen towel. Place tempeh and sweet potatoes on lined baking sheet.

Heat your barbecue to medium-high or set your oven to broil. Brush tempeh and sweet potatoes with barebecue sauce. Place under the broiler or onto the barbecue. Flip and baste with sauce every minute or so, until coated to your liking and there’s a bit of char on the outside.

Place warm tempeh and sweet potatoes on to bread of your choice with desired toppings. Enjoy!

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Michelle25/04/2012 - 4:36 pm

Here here sister!

I eat out waaaaaay less than the average New Yorker, but when I go out I want it to be for a special meal, prepared with great ingredients, care and thought. So much of that cheap, poor quality food I can prepare better myself, at home, for even less money (and I am no way an expert chef). Better to shell out a bit more for something of quality has always been my attitude.

Also that sandwich looks amazing and I am going to make it ASAP. BBQ sauce is the bees knees.

Amanda25/04/2012 - 4:42 pm

Our obsession with cheap food and our unwillingness to pay for good food and food experiences is precisely what has us in such trouble. What it comes down to is a lack of respect – for food and those that produce it (farmers and restaurateurs alike). Now, that sandwich – that’s something I could totally respect.

Erin25/04/2012 - 4:53 pm

Before I got my current job, I was well on my way to purchasing a coffee shop that I was going to turn into a cafe with only locally sourced products. The current owner couldn’t understand why I would want to do something like that when it was “cheaper” to continue on with his distributor. I also believe there is a statistic (which if I wasn’t almost out the door I would look up) that Americans spend far less of their paycheck on food than any other country. Our priorities are terribly skewed. Great post, Laura!

Jeanine25/04/2012 - 5:14 pm

Yum, I love bbq sauce and ketchup and the Candle Cafe!

I’m with you on this one – I’d rather pay more quality food (and sanitation) than go somewhere where who knows what corners have been cut…

Amanda25/04/2012 - 6:57 pm

I could not agree more. I think there is a definite lack of education about the true cost of our food, but also an “ignorance is bliss” mentality. As you said, the information is readily available, but it’s a tough reality and many people don’t want to be informed. On the positive side, I think more and more people are taking it upon themselves to learn about where their food comes from and taking steps (although often small) in the direction of buying local, organic, and so on.

Great post, and your sandwich looks awesome!

Nico('s Tiny Kitchen)25/04/2012 - 7:07 pm

Oh I so agree with you here. When the food we buy is particularly cheap, I think we all need to question the why and the how because they are so often artificially cheap. We need to vote with our dollars, which should mean understanding where those dollars are going.

Katrina @ Warm Vanilla Sugar25/04/2012 - 7:51 pm

This sandwich sounds so lovely, and I really enjoyed reading this post. It really got me thinking!

Meister @ The Nervous Cook25/04/2012 - 9:01 pm

Agreed on all points here: As a specialty coffee industry professional, I’m also super aware of people’s perception regarding price, quality, value, cost of production… It’s a difficult hurdle for people to overcome, that change in thinking, that reevaluation of what it takes to make something carefully, deliberately, with taste and integrity and health in mind. But it’s not impossible!

I also agree with that delicious sandwich and everything about it: I, too, recently ate that very thing at the Candle Cafe (new favorite restaurant, am I right?), and love the sweet-smoky mix of BBQ and sweet ‘tater. Perfect. Messy. Happy.

Kate King25/04/2012 - 9:38 pm

Totally understandable why you were upset. I get very agitated when I hear others say that it is too expensive to eat “healthy” and their rationale behind buying the horrible cheap products they do. There is a reason why it is cheap and there is a reason why I would definitely fork over more money for food. You are what you eat and I rather support my body, the environment, and community who helped produce those more expensive products then save money and eat like crap. I agree that most people are uneducated about the matter at hand and that you vote every single time you shop. You rock girl.

Robin25/04/2012 - 10:18 pm

This is great. We recently moved to a plant based diet and with summer coming I’ve been thinking a lot about what to put on the grill besides vegetables. Definitely going to give this a try. Thanks!

Elenore Bendel Zahn26/04/2012 - 2:38 am

Laura! Word! Awesome!

Firstly, I have to say this sandwich looks delicious. I love tempeh, especially when smothered in BBQ sauce.

I think this notion of “over priced” goods extends to many areas, photography specifically. Digital camera’s have convinced everyone and their dog they are a professional photographer. That being said, it’s very difficult to make a living at it these days. Amateurs charge pennies and produce sub par images. People now want their weddings to be shot for next to nothing, which is beyond frustrating for someone who actually has a university degree in the field.

Back to food costs though, I totally agree with you. Restaurants that produce quality meals using local ingredients have to charge more. I don’t mind shelling out extra money because I know the quality of food will be that much better. Recently, Dallas (where I live) has seen an influx of farm to table restaurants. Their popularity is so great that many competing restaurants (that don’t use local fare) can’t compete. It’s a great trend and I’m so excited about all the new dining possibilities in this city.

Anyway, sorry for writing a novel. Your post just really spoke to me. Now I’m off to make your sandwich! Thanks for sharing your thoughts Laura.

Kelsey26/04/2012 - 1:05 pm

I feel like my last three or so comments may seem somewhat trite or non-expressive, leaving simple punches like “Preach or Amen,” because I find it difficult to really affirm how much I appreciate your perspective, and I wish we could all just mull it over in person. I have a few stories of this sort that I think would make you giggle. Do you giggle? laugh? See. This is what I mean. Internet-land can only help us so much. In any case, I say throw out the TV, folks, and feed your belly the best.

Sarah26/04/2012 - 1:22 pm

It’s true of non-restaurant food—and even a more common complaint.

My best comeback to the local/ethical/organic/hand-crafted – food-is-too-expensive argument:

Just turn it around and ask, “Why is everything else so cheap?”

Carrie | acookgrowsinbrooklyn26/04/2012 - 1:55 pm

I love that you wrote on this topic – it’s near and dear to me and needs to be highlighted again and again and again. And, I’m not a huge fan of tempeh, but you are close to converting me with this sandwich – feast for the eyes.

Ashlae26/04/2012 - 4:15 pm

I totally agree with you! I’m also the person who will (stupidly) spend $100 on a simple cotton dress.. and I did the whole 60″ flat screen thing for my boyfriend. But you will never hear me complaining about the cost of food – ever. Especially in a restaurant. No one is forcing anyone to buy $5 french fries.

It also irks me when people complain about how expensive it is to eat healthy (compared to unhealthy, overly processed foods). I laugh at them, because they don’t understand that eating healthy food can (and usually does) reduce medical bills. In my case, having a chronic bowel disorder, it has saved me thousands upon thousands of dollars. Not to mention, a countless number of surgeries.

Oh, and I would love to bite into that sandwich right about now. Yay for being able to tolerate gluten, again!

Yui27/04/2012 - 1:56 am

I always love tempeh. You may believe it or not but I ever made this tempeh sandwich, with my own sauce recipe of course lol. I need to say they turn so great! I love it. I really do. Thanks for the recipe anyway. Will try it soon.

Lia28/04/2012 - 1:00 pm

Sorry I’m a couple days behind! This week was a busy one at work.

To state the obvious, I think all of us agree because we’re interested in this blog. People who balk at $5 french fries don’t usually ooh and ahh over tempeh sandwiches. Not that our agreement is a bad thing! It’s great to interact with like-minded people, especially when it comes to food.

I’d like to add my two cents regarding restaurants that focus on local, sustainable eating. I haven’t been to many of them, but the ones I have been to, frankly, weren’t very good. I’m more than happy to pay $20 for roasted organic chicken with local potatoes etc. but it has to be perfectly executed. If not, I’d probably choose the $10 chicken that isn’t local, but tastes good. I think that’s the same tradeoff many Americans make. Hopefully, restaurants like yours will alter that norm!

Lastly, I want to challenge everyone here who accepts that eating healthy is more expensive than processed foods. Mark Bittman wrote an excellence article last year that focuses this exact myth. Take a look at the “Comparison Shopping” graphic, it was pretty eye-opening for me (not that I eat McDonalds ever). Granted he wasn’t focusing on organic, local food, but getting more Americans to eat healthy foods at home is the first step to that goal.
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/25/opinion/sunday/is-junk-food-really-cheaper.html?_r=2&ref=opinion

Awesome topic! And that sandwich looks delicious. I’m OBSESSED with Trader Joe’s ketchup, haha.

Cookie and Kate30/04/2012 - 1:09 am

I hear you on this one. I’ve worked in the food industry and I’ve seen the low quality of food that comes from the big suppliers and gets arranged nicely on a plate to disguise it. I’m so much wiser for it. I almost never eat out, for several reasons, but I’m much happier forking over a bunch of money for a meal meets my quality standards.

Oh and that sandwich looks mega tasty.

Courtney30/04/2012 - 3:10 pm

I completely agree with you! People don’t really understand all that goes into making them that plate of food, especially when it is something that is locally and sustainably sourced. Yes, you may be paying more for those fries, but you are getting better quality and a product that didn’t have to travel too far from farm to table. Plus, they will probably be the best fried you have ever eaten! By the way, this sandwich looks awesome!! (that’s coming from a Texan who was raised on good brisket and barbeque!)

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emily31/05/2013 - 7:18 pm

thank you for your words abt cost structures in restaurants that CARE about paying employees fairly, purchasing QUALITY foods, and PREPARING foods on site. I would LOVE to see this kind of insight hit the MAIN MEDIA> as the common public (especially in the Midwest where we are) does not know how expensive it is, nor do they think they need to know. and that NEED is why we are so unhealthy + over-weight as a society! I am right next to you on that Soapbox! Thanks!

javadivawithdogs26/07/2013 - 2:55 pm

I live in a similarly priced food market. Part of the expense that is absorbed is that the minimum wage is about 10.50/hr. Ethically I support a living wage for all. But I sometime long for inventive cheap fast eats. The thing that is unfortunate to me is that I can’t really say I have developed favorite go to places that I enjoy eating at. It really saddens me that the added expense had not translated to a better dining experience. Rushed slack and borderline rude staff. Inconsistently prepared food. All add up to a consistently less than satisfactory experience. On the flipside I have had some $5 fries that were AMAZING. One with truffle that I still dream about and recently a side of fries with a lentil burger while on vacation driving thru Palm Springs. Drizzled with herbs oil and garlic, they powered us thru the rest of our driving for the day. Restaurant work is a fleeting mad science, keep at it. Quality and consistency are worth it.

Leslie DeBlasio19/09/2013 - 7:18 am

Nice to expand my repertoire of vegan recipes!

Jeremy04/11/2013 - 9:58 pm

This was fantastic! Like eating a good ol’ fashioned BBQ, but so much healthier and happier!

Beautiful site and wonderful recipes. Cheers,

jH

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Dennis01/03/2014 - 7:02 pm

This looks amazing! Can’t wait to make it. I am also glad you avoided the standard BBQ sauce with High Fructose in it! I have a Trader Joe’s near me and they have some great Tempeh options.

I also love your photography!

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