In the winter of 2012, Shamez Amlani, co-owner of La Palette, a French bistro on Queen West, received a letter from a man named Harold Michaels in Los Angeles. Scrawled out with the penmanship of an eight-year-old boy, the letter expressed frustration, shall we say, that La Palette serves horse meat on its menu.

“Dear executive director,” the letter begins, civilly enough. “Me and my family will never come to your restaurant if you serve horse meat!” Then, the tone darkens. “I hope you and your bastard family die the same way those horses died!!!” Michaels then indicates that he’d like to see the restaurant burn down, with Amlani inside of it.

Amlani has served horse meat for nearly all of La Palette’s existence, as tartare and as part of a cheeky pairing with duck known as “quack and track.” He believes it’s an important part of French culture, and that it also just tastes good. The horses, he says, were raised for labour and are slaughtered when they can no longer work.

But his decision has drawn plenty of ire, including from protestors who, at the time I spoke with him, had been gathering in front of his restaurant once a week for seven months straight, holding signs, chanting and passing out pro-vegan propaganda.

These animal rights activists seem to have latched onto horses as an easy jumping-off point for convincing others that eating meat is unethical. After all, horses are noble, beautiful creatures, and they often display qualities like loyalty, courage and playfulness to which we as humans can easily relate. If we can admit that eating horses is wrong, perhaps it’s not such a stretch to admit that eating cows, pigs and chickens is wrong, too.

Marni Ugar wants diners to make ethical choices

Increasingly, the question of animals, and whether we should be eating them, is becoming a topic of heated interest in Toronto. Not too long ago, in the Black Hoof era, everyone suddenly became obsessed with offal and all things carnivorous. Nowadays, forward-thinking restaurants such as Dandylion, Alo and Montgomery’s are overtly making an effort to serve less meat and showcase more vegetables. Even Grant van Gameren, the former meat maestro at the Black Hoof, is diving into veg-forward territory with Rosalinda and Quetzal.

Amlani says he doesn’t have a problem with veganism. He actually respects it. But the protestors are not engaging in meaningful debate, he says, and are instead shaming, guilting and berating his staff and his customers. This kind of moral grandstanding has become a vegan stereotype, and Amlani wonders whether such tactics ever effectively precipitate change.

“Why are they protesting a small business?” he asks. “Interestingly enough, there’s a Taco Bell on this corner, and a McDonald’s on that corner.”

For Amlani, getting angry in the name of compassion is ironic. The letter he received is an apt symbol of that: sometimes in the process of defending the weak, basic human empathy gets thrown to the wayside.

“I don’t like the confrontational element,” he says. “I’d love to see if there’s some sort of middle ground, rather than painting everything in broad strokes, black and white, us versus you.”

A few blocks away on Dundas West, chef Michael Hunter has dealt with the same group of protestors at his restaurant, Antler, primarily as a result of serving venison. He understands and sympathizes with their viewpoint. He says they target restaurants like his because he tries to offer ethically sourced meat, which, from their perspective, is a contradiction. Still, like Amlani, he disagrees with their approach.

“I don’t think screaming at customers is the way to inspire change,” he says. “If we didn’t call the police, they’d bang on our windows, harass our customers and scream profanities into the restaurant.”

As an advocate for eating wild and foraged food, he says he has more in common with vegans than they might think. Like them, he is also frustrated with factory farming and the modern industrial food system. If he had things his way, he’d only serve animals harvested from the wild, where they would probably die a horrible death anyway. But in most parts of Canada, it’s illegal to serve wild game in a restaurant.

"I don't think screaming at customers will cause change"

Last year, after losing patience with the protesters, Hunter pushed back by butchering a leg of venison in his window, directly in front of them. The stunt went viral, earning him worldwide attention in People magazine, the Guardian and the Joe Rogan Show. As a result, his restaurant got busier than ever — and meat sales went up.

Hunter admits it’s difficult to imagine how a frustrated vegan might otherwise vent their concerns, but one Canadian food personality has managed to move the discussion forward — perhaps inadvertently — by serving vegetables in a staunchly apolitical fashion: Amanda Cohen, founder of the popular Manhattan vegetarian restaurant Dirt Candy.

“I don’t espouse any political ideology, advocate for a lifestyle or make health claims for my food. All I do is cook vegetables,” she says. “If a chef cooking meat doesn’t have to declare any particular goal or cause greater than delivering amazing food, why do I?”

Taking a similar approach is Toronto’s David Lee, chef of plant-based restaurant Planta. He says that by simply opening his restaurant and serving vegetable-centric food to vegans and omnivores alike, his patrons end up thinking about ethical eating and talking more about it.

“I’m not preaching, I’m not telling anyone to go plant-based,” he says. “I believe that everybody has the right to eat what they want.”

For him, the appeal to going plant-based is about sustainability, health and challenging himself creatively as a chef.

Chef David Lee’s career has included tasting menus at Splendido, power lunches at Nota Bene and now vegan cuisine at Planta

“It’s been one of the greatest challenges that I’ve had in my career,” he says. “How do we make cauliflower into a great main course? Do we have to sous vide it, brine it, smoke it? What do we do? There are more steps, there’s more food for thought.”

It’s a prickly topic, because while those gentler forms of persuasion can be effective, there is also a danger in not pushing hard enough. Nathan Kowalsky, an associate professor of philosophy at University of Alberta, says it’s a fine line to walk.

“Any ethical stance that one might take on any issue has the potential for being dogmatic,” he says. “But the other danger is not taking a stance, and being inconclusive and uncommitted.”

Making things even more difficult is the fact that choosing the most ethical approach to eating is a philosophical labyrinth. How does one become a truly ethical eater, free of moral culpability? What seems good from one perspective (limiting suffering in animals) ends up being not-so-good from another perspective (now we’re saying plants don’t have an equal right to exist).

“Are there rights to ecosystems? Is there a right for species to function in predatory ways on other species?” Kowalsky wonders. “Maybe it’s a sad fact that this is how life is – things get eaten by other things.”

In February of this year, I went to La Palette on a Friday night to watch a protest in action. Based on what Amlani and Hunter had told me, I was prepared for intense confrontation. Several protesters had taken posts around the restaurant’s entrance, holding signs that read “Don’t Buy While They Die,” or “Ethical Flesh is a Myth.”

"How do you ethically kill a being who doesn't want to die?"

I approached their leader, Marni Ugar, who runs activist groups such as Grassroots Anti-Speciesism Shift and Everyday Vegan. I told her I was writing an article. She was more than happy to answer my questions.

I proceeded to challenge her on several points, and to my surprise we had a civilized discussion. I wanted to know why she was singling out a small business; she responded that enough people protest large corporations like McDonald’s, and that everyone knows fast food is unethical.

I reminded her that certain vegan products — such as palm oil, avocados and almond milk — are environmentally destructive; she agreed, and said they should be avoided. I suggested that for some people, such as Indigenous communities living off the land in the far north, veganism is literally impossible, to which she reminded me that right now, we’re in Toronto, and we have the opportunity to avoid meat.

She takes a more hardlined approach because the way she sees it, the issue is hardlined, and she wants to get people out of their comfort zones. Being vegan is the ultimate step in eating ethically, she says, and killing animals is always wrong, regardless of where they were raised or how.

“People are looking for the right way to do the wrong thing,” she says. “How do you ethically kill a being who doesn’t want to die?”

Later that evening, inside La Palette, I saw something interesting happen. A chef behind the pass donned one of those novelty horse head masks and placed his New York Yankees baseball cap on top of it. In full view of the protesters outside the windows, he mimed a little horse gallop with his hands. To the people braving cold weather to support a cause they believed in, it must have seemed a little, well, confrontational.

Part of me couldn’t help but wonder whether that was a good way of creating meaningful debate. But as tense as it gets sometimes, there does seem to be a sort of discussion happening here, an exchange of ideas and opinions. A few days after the protest, Ugar let me know that she had met with Amlani and that he had agreed to tweak his menu to put more focus on vegetables. (For his part, Amlani says he was planning to make the veg-friendly changes anyway).

For those of us on the outside, who don’t run a restaurant or protest outside of them, perhaps it’s best to just pay attention to what’s happening, and consider whether our habits of consumption are really as good as we think – or hope – they are.