The Big Idea 2013: Vegan/Vegetarian Campus Dining

UC San Diego provides healthy fare for vegans/vegetarians.

Vaughn Vargus
Executive Chef, Housing, Dining & Hospitality
University of California at San Diego


The vegan/vegetarian community grew and the interest for a vegetarian and vegan concept became great. It got to the point where now there is a strong interest both from the students and campus administrators who made an investment so that we could open Roots, a vegetarian/vegan restaurant. We opened in January 2012.

We committed to do scratch cooking and we committed to do our homework. We definitely wanted to do something that wasn’t mainstream. We were very careful about putting items on the menu that may have represented say a burger or something along those lines. We were careful in not offending vegetarians and vegans by putting on an item that was an imitation of something that is animal based.

One of the biggest challenges when we first got started was that there were ingredients that we weren’t familiar with, but we were fortunate our lead culinarians, who run that restaurant for us, were very creative. They did things like making chocolate pudding by using an avocado base or replacing mainstream sweeteners like honey and sugar with agave.

One of the tricks we learned was with extra-firm tofu. We removed the tofu from its packaging and squeezed out the moisture, wrapped it in plastic and froze it for a couple of days. We then thawed it and squeezed out any excess moisture, allowing us to be able to crumble the tofu so that it resembled a ground burger that we were able to make into kind of a pseudo Bolognese sauce. Those kinds of applications I think were a big part of our success.

At first we were looking to do a higher percentage of vegetarian dishes with some vegan options. As we kind of got further down the road, we started to challenge ourselves by asking, what if we pulled out the stops and made it focus more on vegan, since being here in Southern California we have a lot of fresh produce available to us on a daily basis?

I’ve known a few vegetarians who ate a lot of french fries, pastas and a lot of high-carb diets and still thought they were eating healthy because they weren’t eating meat. I think that group is a little off the mark in terms of thinking this is a good way to eat when really it’s not. Trying to overcome that way of thinking about vegetarian eating played a big part in the decision to create a menu that leaned toward offering more vegan options.

In terms of food costs, we are very proud of maintaining our financial responsibility. Our whole goal is to maintain our price point so that it’s in favor of the student. That’s a difficult thing to do. Because it’s a vegetarian and vegan restaurant, the perception of paying more for ingredients is also a reality.
We address this by sourcing our food well and then pricing it accordingly. We also manage our food respectfully through our culinary staff so that we have very little waste.

Feedback has been really positive. The vegan/vegetarian community has been satisfied with the way the restaurant turned out, and that was important to us because we had the idea when we started that Roots would be their place. 

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