Why This Vegetarian Chef Tastes Every Meat Dish That Leaves Her Kitchen
FnB's chef Charleen Badman takes issue with strict interpretations of the word "vegetarian"
Halfway through dinner at FnB, a hyped restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona helmed by chef Charleen Badman and manager and beverage director, Pavle Milic, I realized I hadn’t consumed one bite of meat. Instead, I raved about a cucumber dish reminiscent of one of Badman’s childhood favorite dishes that her Hungarian mother made frequently—a vibrant mix of locally grown cucumbers, vinegar, onion, buttermilk, mint and dill. Next, charred sweet potatoes with cilantro arrived, tasting like Thanksgiving; kale falafel balls; curried okra, chickpeas and potatoes; stain-your-lips-red beets accompanied by melons and goat cheese and croutons.
It wasn’t until the chicken with spaetzle and chanterelles arrived that I realized this was the first meat dish we had ordered. A few moments later, a friend said that Badman was vegetarian. Not shocking, though, as the menu was loaded with way more vegetable-based dishes than meat ones.
Eight years ago, when FnB opened its doors, Badman was not a vegetarian. The choice came a year later (seven years ago) to stop eating meat—that is, aside from tasting it in her kitchen for quality control. “As a chef, you have to taste things—I tell people that all the time,” Badman adds. “I always always taste my food.”
The term "vegetarian" has become very loose. “I don’t know if I like the term, because I do taste meat,” she says. “It’s not because I’m a chef and I worry about what people think, it’s more that when I think of someone that’s vegetarian, they eat vegetables.” When dining with friends, she encourages her friends to order meat. “Don’t feel like you have to just order vegetables, because as a chef I need to see what else is going on in the world. Vegetables come a lot easier for me to cook than meat does, so I need to see meat dishes, too.”
The decision to go vegetarian came as more of a lifestyle change than anything else; Badman made the decision to stop drinking caffeine and consuming meat around the same time. “I don’t do it because of trying to save animals; I serve animals at FnB,” she says. "I do it as a personal decision myself.” I ask Badman how she manages to taste meat without things getting weird. Is it like wine tasting, and you spit it out?
“If we’re putting together something earlier on in prepping—like a paté—and it needs to be tasted several times, I’ll spit it out,” she says. “Most of the time I’m tasting something for salt and acid and making sure it’s balanced. I’m tasting different the parts of the dish—to make sure the rub that goes on the chicken tastes the way it’s supposed to.”
Tasting meat as a vegetarian has its downfall, but Badman still insists on tasting it all. “Sometimes when I taste meat and it becomes too much, I will get hot and can feel myself starting to heat up and sweat. I guess it’s not really a joke about the meat sweats,” she says.
“My goal is to showcase the vegetables. There are usually more vegetables on the menu than there are meat entrées. It’s just the way I like to eat,” she says. “I enjoy the fact that people will have vegetables as their entrée—I try to make the portions large enough to share, or that could be your entrée too.”
Badman is an advocate of food education, too. Right now, she’s focusing on Blue Watermelon, under the Slow Food umbrella, to help raise awareness of local produce and the importance of healthy school lunches, showcasing what can be grown in the area and teaching young children to be more open minded to tasting different foods. A school lunch is $3.23; out of that, $1.19 goes to buying the actual food, and there’s a 25-minute window to feed a child from classroom door-to-door. “This is why we don’t eat as well as we do,” Badman says. “I realize that my eating habits started out so poorly so much younger and trying to change that as an adult is very difficult to do.”
It’s all about teaching them where food comes from and what’s in season. The best growing season in Arizona is during the school year, and Badman’s end goal is to have every school showcase a garden for students. “We can definitely make this part of the learning process.”