Robin Kasch remembers the '60s, when the perception of vegetarian food was that it was unsatisfying and tasted like cardboard. Things haven't changed much in the last 50 years.
"We're still working on that same perception today," she says.
But Kasch, owner of the all-vegetarian Café Manna in Brookfield, is doing her part to change attitudes toward meat-free eating, in part through monthly cooking classes held at the restaurant. And on Sunday, Oct. 23, more than 40 students gathered to learn about what some might consider the most surprising vegetarian food of all — dessert.
Cooking classes were in Kasch's plan ever since she opened the restaurant in early 2008, but it seems likely they would have come about even if they hadn't been.
"Many people asked for these," she says, explaining that cooking vegetarian is a whole different mindset. "People want to know how to do this at home."
About six months after the restaurant opened, Café Manna hosted its first class. The classes cost $40 each and have centered on various themes, including salads, soups and stews, pasta dishes, holiday fare and more. They only enjoyed moderate success at first, up until the first raw foods class.
"It overflowed," Kasch says. "Now, they're all selling out."
The Oct. 23 dessert class featured a guest chef, Cassie Comerford, who was previously resident chef at Café Manna. Standing in front of the room, she led the students through demonstrations of five different desserts, after which students got a sample of each — although "sample" seriously downplays the generous portion sizes.
"And because this is dessert, this is actually a little light," adds Kasch.
Pat Trinitapoli of Milwaukee is something of a regular at the classes; she splits her time between Wisconsin and Arizona, but signs up for all the classes she can.
"I love this place," she says. "I've never been disappointed with anything I've eaten here."
At each class, students are sent home with a packet of recipes from the day's menu. Trinitapoli's favorite dessert recipe was an almond pear tart. "I'm definitely going to make this at home," she says.
Other recipes included a decadent chocolate avocado pudding — a raw food dessert — and one of Comerford's own recipes.
"The name is hard to say," she jokes with the students. "They're sugar-free, dairy-free, wheat-free, gluten-free, nut-free, soy-free no-bake candy balls."
One thing they definitely weren't free of, however, was flavor.
As with all of the food at Café Manna, the desserts' ingredients were chosen carefully.
"We don't use hydrogenated oils," says Bill Phelps, current Café Manna chef, who has been in the industry "forever." "We avoid foods that might cause allergies. We only use ingredients that offer nutrition."
The idea of a nutritious dessert might seem surprising. Indeed, even Mike Byrnes, one of the restaurant's managers, thinks so. "I was a meat and potatoes guy," he says. "But I've been here a year and the food still surprises me every day."
After two hours of sweet, delicious desserts and plenty of coffee, the students head out into the rain, eager to watch the Packer game and, Kasch would hope, tell others of their experiences at Café Manna.
"We haven't arrived yet," says Kasch. "But we're doing very well."