Amanda Ratke makes her own seitan
by Sally Mitani
From the January, 2017 issue
Amanda Ratke is the calm, slightly shy presence behind the Vedge Cafe, a new vegetarian/vegan restaurant that is, like its name, simple and commonsensical.
Trained as an accountant, the thirty-seven-year-old first-time restaurant owner says, "My heart wasn't in accounting anymore." Was it ever? "Well, maybe not," she smiles, but it was a practical career choice, and she was good at it. Always a cook, she and her husband and co-owner, Danny, had been talking about opening a restaurant for ten years. (He often works a weekend shift at Vedge, though he has a full-time job in IT in Plymouth at Humanetics, maker of the world's finest crash-test dummies.)
Ratke went back to school at EMU and got her B.S. in dietetics. "The EMU program focuses on entrepreneurship, and in one of my classes we had to write a business plan," she says--and that's pretty much the one she's using at Vedge Cafe.
Crisp, clean, and appetizing, painted in shades of celery, persimmon, black, and white, Vedge Cafe is, like its owner, almost entirely vegan. Cheese is where Ratke's resolve weakens a little. At the moment, the fresh mozzarella panini is the only non-vegan item on the menu, but more may come. She can't break the cheese habit at her Salem Township home either, where she grows a lot of her favorite herb, basil: "I haven't veganized my [Parmesan-laden] pesto yet."
A lot of Ratke's menu relies on seitan, which she makes herself from "vital wheat gluten," a flour made from the chewy, muscular part of the wheat berry. Making seitan is "similar to making bread," though it has no yeast. She combines the flour with "herbs, spices, water, and a few other wet ingredients, then I cook it"--exactly how, she won't say--to make a meat loaf-like product that is thinly sliced to resemble deli meat. Her "sa'la'mee" stands in for salami, "feeb" for corned beef, and "turkee" and "toona" need no explanation.
She's mainly geared for a
lunch crowd, though she can offer a vegan muffin for a late breakfast and stretches her hours to cover a simple early supper. The casual menu has hot and cold sandwiches, soups, and deli-type salads.
"I became a vegetarian for animal cruelty reasons," she says, and Danny, "with a family history of heart disease, came to it for health reasons and has seen a pretty big decrease in his cholesterol numbers." But Ratke doesn't push dogma, either nutritional or political. She doesn't believe in calorie counts, and she doesn't preach. Main ingredients are listed, but not obsessively chronicled. Sweets are limited to those muffins, and she has no fryer. Instead, she opted to splurge a lot of her kitchen budget on a "high-speed combination convection and infrared oven so I can brown a panini in about a minute." (Home cooks, if you have to ask, you probably can't afford it. It's not a common item, even in restaurant kitchens.)
Shortly before Vedge Cafe opened in early November, her contractor was called for jury duty--and came back with the news that jurors get lunch on the county. Since Ratke's within sight of the courthouse, she's trying to figure out how to get Vedge Cafe on the justice menu. She's also done some minor tweaking of the menu, adding a Georgia Reuben (coleslaw instead of sauerkraut) to the already popular Irish vegan Reuben and swapping out wonton soup for Thai coconut. She's thinking of dropping coffee and tea altogether--people aren't ordering much of either, probably because Mighty Good is right down the street. "And people have been asking for more desserts, but I'm not much of a baker, so that poses a problem."
Though this isn't a restaurant review, reporters have to eat too, and Vedge Cafe's smoky corn chowder and a banana chocolate muffin could make a vegan out of anyone.
Vedge Cafe, 205 N. Main, 929-4485. Tues.-Fri. 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Sat. 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Closed Mon. vedgecafea2.com