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When Gael, Jay, Kelly, and I learned about the vegan challenge on this week’s episode, the polarization in our group instantly became apparent. Kelly and I blurted out a collective, enthusiastic “Great!”
Gael and Jay groaned. Loudly.
Quite a bit of vegetarian bashing goes on in the food world, and frankly I’m more than a bit tired of it.
Case in point: When I first got the job of editor of Saveur, an item in one of the New York media gossip columns reported the rumor that I was—horror of horrors!—a vegetarian. How could the editor of an esteemed epicurean magazine abstain from the gastronomic joys of eating meat? The rumors about me were just that, as it happens. But the implication was clear: today, when bacon is the new black and the trendiest foods are all grass-fed and dry-aged, vegetarian is a dirty word.
Yes, I’ve logged—proudly—a few years as a vegetarian. When I was growing up in California in the 1960s and 1970s, vegetarianism was not an anomaly as it was elsewhere in America. At an early age, I understood that vegetarianism could also be a pleasurable and endlessly interesting way to eat. Later, when I started traveling the world, I came into contact with the great global traditions of vegetarian eating: from the vegetarian-by-default simple country fare of El Salvador, where I’ve traveled four times and where meals often consist of stewed beans and hand-patted tortillas with hunks of salty, gamy cheese, to the grand and evolved meatless cuisines of India, such as that of Gujarat, where vegetarian cooking is a refined art.
I also spent a year living in a village in South India, where I ate no animal flesh at all. I wasn’t vegan—milk products, including yogurt, were a big part of my diet there—but after the first few weeks of quietly lusting for just a little bit of meat (or at least a fried egg!), I stopped missing it and came to appreciate the astonishing flavor combinations that came into focus without the overwhelming presence of flesh.
Trust me, there is life after bacon.
For those reasons, I’ve never felt the need to pass judgment on vegetarianism or veganism. Me, I’ll eat anything, and I do: from live queen ants in northeastern Thailand to milk-fed venison to street-stand hot dogs to pink cupcakes (which might just be a greater crime against nature than even the worst processed meat). That said, I definitely have my preferences, and for the most part, they tend not to be meat-centric.
Why? First of all, a meat-free meal makes me feel good. The amazing array of food that we ate for Zooey Deschanel’s lunch made for the only time during the run of Top Chef Masters when, for hours afterward, I didn’t feel like an overstuffed cushion. During the periods in my life when I have been vegetarian, I have slept better, I’ve come down with fewer colds, my skin has cleared up, I’ve lost weight, and, I like to think, my mind has functioned a little more clearly. I can’t back up any of this with scientific evidence, but it’s what I’ve experienced.
I want to thank Bravo and Top Chef for having a competition that includes dietary restrictions...especially Gluten & Dairy restrictions. This is something that we deal with daily in our house, and it was nice to see how "Top Chef's" would handle the task. Thanks!
Great episode! My 6 year old son is a "vegan" (he refuses all meat) and is allergic to dairy and gluten. Cooking for him is challenging to say the least....but it can be done!! Thankfully my boy will eat soy prodcuts. If it weren't for soy we'd be in BIG trouble.
Thank you! I love "Top Chef!" and "Top Chef Masters" but I confess that for me, the emphasis on meat and dairy is a bit much. (I also find it quite ironic that Morgan Spurlock, who took a hard look at factory farming and the consequences of the fast-food diet in his documentary, judged the hamburger challenge. Sigh.) At the end of the day, consuming meat at every meal is quite costly on so many levels. Enjoy the protein, but don't forget the protein's origins, and don't automatically snub the foods that are planet- and wallet-friendly! (Wasting a protein is quite disrespectful. It is my hope that TC makes good use of the ingredients from the challenges.)
Thank you Mr Oseland for writing this column! As a life-long vegan and Top Chef Fan since season 1, I was so excited to finally see a challenge where I could get ideas for recipes.
I sat with my notebook and pen in hand, very excited for the show to start. I have to say, I was really saddened by the lack of enthusiasm displayed by the contestants and the judges for this challenge. It made my viewing experience a lot less enjoyable.
I am a vegan, and I have respect for other peoples' dietary preferences - I wish the masters and judges would have been able to show respect for an arguably more healthful way to eat.
Thank you very much for expressing your feelings in this column.
I have to say that I thoroughly enjoy reading your blogs after each show. They should have you on as a judge all the time. I would have to agree that Anita's plate looked really blah. And Art's dish looked really messy. Can't wait to see who takes it all!
bravo for this episode, indeed there is life beyond bacon. Was impressed by your culinary insights on the different vegetarian cuisines of the world. i think jay could have been a little more enthusiastic. gael definitely warmed up after she ate the food. great episode.
This was a fascinating episode. All of the dishes appeared to be awesome (except the rice ice cream--there is no way to make that stuff good). I was ready to leap through the TV (if only!) to sample Rick Bayless' tamales.
That said, Ms Deschanel's diet is so very restrictive that it is a little scary. She has no real source of protein. I am glad the chefs were able to make such wonderful food for her.
Thank you so much for writing this column. I'm a vegetarian and food shows fun to watch but rarely useful for me. Also I get tired of the snide remarks about vegetarians and bacon worship that dominate food programs.
One question: Was Art's brittle made with butter? The editing of his response was a little strange. I have the impression that it was indeed made with butter & non-vegan.
I enjoyed reading your blog. Your culinary background is very interesting.
The restrictive diet requirements were very challenging. Art seemed to have the most difficulty with it. However, he did volunteer to prepare the dessert because he stated that he knew exactly what he wanted to do. Later at JT, when he heard it was not well received, he back pedaled & claimed that he didn't know how to make a good frozen dessert after all and wanted the store bought rice cream because it would be better than what he could do. That said, his brittle was a huge success.
By contrast, Anita's dish was lackluster and unappealing. She didn't even defend her food strongly. For those reasons, she should have been dismissed.
Lovely comments. I am also one who tried vegetarianism for a couple years. In fact, I tried it twice, several years apart. My experience was different than yours however, I gained weight, was always bloated, got sick much more often, was tired and weak. Now, I know the proseltyizers who think being a vegetarian is the be all end all, are going to say that I must not have been eating a balanced diet or the "right" things. But I was, I went to an expert to help with food choices. I was also eating the same number of calories I did when I was eating meat, and excercising as much.
Nope, in the end, my body just isn't suited to vegetarianism. My doctor confirmed that this is true, that a vegetarian diet is not a good one for every one.
I wasn't terribly disappointed, because honestly, I love meat. And sure enough, when I went back to being an omnivore, my health problems cleared up, my weight dropped back down, and I felt great.
That said I do eat and cook vegetarian meals regularly. And loved watching the chefs have to work through this challenge.
finally! a vegan/vegetarian challenge! I was amazed to see how stumped the chefs were when they received their challenge! goodness, you'd think it's brain surgery! the comments made by a couple of the judges also showed their ignorance regarding how delicious, colorful and alive whole foods can be! there certainly is life after bacon!
I was very surprised that Anita Lo struggled so much on a vegitarian dish. Considering how many great Asian dishes are vegitarian, I would have thought she could have pulled one out of a back log of the Asian dishes she specializes in.
Heck Eggplant in spicey garlic sauce is a standard in just about every Asian restaurant in America.
Although I imagine Michael Chiarello's pasta was lovely, his constant grumbling, whining and mocking the challenge was small-minded, annoying and childish, and on that basis, I didn't think he deserved to win--it was like he was rewarded for bad behavior. I think that Rick and Hubert were much more deserving, given how they just took on the challenge and made great FOOD, not some substitute for what they really wanted to make.
Having been a vegetarian for a chunk of my life, and having a chef husband who manages an organic, vegan, mostly raw restaurant, I completely appreciate your blog and your openness to vegetarianism. I'm thrilled to see this kind of challenge on Top Chef.
Here is a link to an amazing food blog from someone who is highly gluten-intolerant who said Michael's attitude made her want to punch him...the post is not just about violence, it's actually very insightful about why chefs cook, and the point of it all. This writer--Shauna Ahern--is one of the most amazing food writers I've ever read--check her out: http://glutenfreegirl.blogspot.com/.
Thank you, sir, for this thoughtful and positive response to the vegan challenge. As a vegan and a foodie, I scour non-vegan cookbooks and cooking shows to learn more about flavor profiles and food chemistry. I consider it a challenge and a pleasure to seek animal-free substitutes for recipes that look tantalizing to the palate.
I was surprised that once the word “vegan” was pronounced, several chefs started thinking of all the things they couldn’t cook, instead of considering all of the wonderful things they could create for this lunch. In a previous Quickfire challenge, Chef Art Smith created a spectacular vegan dish - Multigrain Risotto with a Crispy Grain Salad - and never once uttered the V-word as if it were a handicap. Why now?
I'm proud to be a vegan home cook. I never view vegan cookery as having "one hand tied behind my back" and I don't strive to "make you forget it's vegan." Why would I want to forget my own conscious choices.
Thank you, Mr. Oseland, for celebrating the wonderful flavors, ingredients, and dishes that are part of vegetarian and vegan cuisine. Hopefully one day, everyone will see that vegan cuisine need not have the Scarlet V pinned to its bosom.
Fantastic blog post, Mr. Oseland.
"I also think that making vegetarian meals turns you into a more thoughtful cook."
I believe that the looks on the chefs' faces reflected my own because the challenge was absolutely a trifecta of challenges: Number one: Zooey said she was vegetarian (hey, I can cook that for a lifetime if asked), but really meant "vegan" (no dairy/egg). Number two: No gluten (wipes out all wheat products) Number three: No soy (yikes) At that point, I, although a reasonably inventive cook, would default to something like gnucci plus boiled carrots and peas ... ;-) So I am totally AMAZED at what the chefs came up with...bravo, indeed!
I really appreciate your comments in support of vegetarianism. It is utterly refreshing that someone of your stature in the culinary world would be sympathetic to those who choose to not eat such a large proportion of what is on offer in world cuisine.
The vegetarian world is abuzz after this episode of Top Chef Masters ("They like us! They really like us!"). But for every elated vegetarian blog there is another foodie blog proclaiming how ridiculous veganism is or how Zooey ruined the episode:
1. Why is it so acceptable to hate on vegetarians (or in this case, a vegan)? People become vegetarians or vegans because they care about their health, the environment and/or animals. The aspirations seem good and their methods most directly impact only their own lives. If it was a kosher meal would the Jewish person need to defend themselves? Would it be acceptable to insinuate how hard it would be to prepare and how it would taste like crap?
2. Why do people feel that food without animal products is BY DEFINITION worse? Maybe because most people don't know how to properly cook and season vegetables. If the same amount of care was put into vegetable dishes as meat dishes, maybe people would learn to like eating vegetables.
3. When faced with a vegetarian/vegan, why do people feel the compulsion to proclaim their inability to ever be vegetarian/vegan and their devotion to meat/dairy? How is that relevant? It's a personal choice to not eat certain things, not designed to offend or inconvenience others (despite what you might think). Do others feel some subtle judgment of them or some guilt that they aren't doing enough? If so, that's their own problem, don't take it out on those who are just trying to maintain a philosophical consistency between their life and their beliefs. We have enough to deal with trying to avoid animal products in this society and maintain a somewhat normal social existence.
There was no high-and-mighty veganism going on this episode. Zooey was apologetic about the difficulties her diet engendered, grateful for their efforts, and just plain nice. I do this same dance for the benefit of the server, cook, and my friends every time I go to a restaurant. I just want to eat a meal out without lots of consternation and attention and discussion, and maybe, maybe I'll actually get some food, and maybe it will be a full meal, and maybe it will taste good.
Thank you Mr. Oseland for writing something so positive about vegetarianism!
Thank you for your lovely review of this great episode, and for giving a positive view on vegetarianism. I was a vegetarian for 2 years and it was very challenging unless I cooked for myself, which I did often. Vegetarian Times was a Godsend. However, to have the additional restrictions of no dairy/egg, no gluten, AND no soy, well I would have been hard pressed to make a gourmet meal under the time (and no recipe) restraints imposed by these challenges. I think the chefs actually had a very positive attitude and met the challenge beautifully. I think the grumbling was just the verbalization of the panic of the moment. Both Rick and Michael have cooked for family members with dietary challenges and clearly Hubert was no stranger to vegan cooking either. Fantastic episode. I'm actually considering going back to being Vegetarian again. I like you James, felt better physically when I was.
Yeah! I am so happy that some food show in general has addressed an entire dietary choice that has seemingly been ignored by the culinary world.
I loved the innovative cooking that was demonstrated on this episode. The food looked delicious, I was jealous!! Wish I had been at the table.
When they first said it was a vegan challenge, I groaned. Please, this is not real food! It ended up being an interesting challenge among these chefs, showing their creativity. Great to see the outcome and the chef's ingenuity. However, it doesn't give me any inclination to become a vegetarian - bacon rules!
Mr Oseland, you make the assumption that vegan quinoa pasta can be made fresh. It cannot. A *vegetarian* version, made with eggs, can be made fresh. It also requires at least one other kind of flour in addition to quinoa flour in specific proportion to make it work. It's not something you can make just knowing a standard pasta recipe and substituting one kind of flour for another.
Even so, that's not vegan. Vegan quinoa pasta is made with multiple kinds of flours and water. It requires drying. It cannot be used fresh or it simply melts. Given the strictures of the challenge, gluten-free and vegan, Michael had no choice but to use a dried pasta.
Thank you Mr. Oseland for your insightful comments on vegetarianism. I, too, am so tired of all the nay-saying out there in the food world. Vegan/vegetarian cooking can be incredibly creative and delicious, and meat doesn't always have to be present (or present at all). I'm glad TC finally decided to have a show based not only on vegetarianism, but on cooking for allergies as well.
Great show, from a huge Top Chef fan. I like the scoring by points/stars and suggest that be brought over to the other show as well. The current voting method on Top Chef is irregular and judges contradict themselves constantly. Criticizing one chef for something (ie: no protein) and then choosing a winner with the same issue. I love the respect between the chefs on this show.
I should first off state that I'm a complete carnivore.
With that said, though, I have no issues with vegetarianism or veganism, although I really can't imagine going through life with the eating habits of the latter. I don't see how people can not ingest such basic items as milk or wheat. But that's just my mindset, it's not at all me looking down on it or those that practice it. Those with allergies to such things are people I really admire because they've found a way to eat healthy and enjoy meals daily despite their allergies.
And in the interest of full disclosure, even though I love meat, when I have beef, I do need it well-done. Rare beef and prime rib just turns my stomach.
As for vegetarian food, even though I'm the big-time meat-eater I stated I was earlier, I love it. Hell, who says you have to have chicken or fish or beef every night? My favorite chili recipe creation is meatless, and it's so delicious and hearty with all the beans and veggies that you don't even miss the beef, much less need it.
This was yet another joyous episode to watch and seeing these Masters take the challenges head on, and for the most part succeeding, just reinforced how good--really good--they all are.
It was a bit shocking to see Anita falter after her complete "pwning" of all the challenges previously. However, Art seemed to be the clear right choice to be eliminated. That whole menu from conception to execution just had no way to end any way but badly.
I waited with bated breath to see what would transpire on this episode.
I started screaming at the TV when I heard such negative comments: "NO this, NO that..NO NO NO." I know that instead of negative restrictions, vegan cooking is POSITIVE: good for you food, good for the environment, good for the animals.
Zooey said it best: "Usually all I get is grilled (or was it boiled?) vegetables".
I rarely go out to eat anymore since it seems all chefs ASSUME vegan food means bland/boring grilled/boiled vegetables. And nothing else on the plate. This episode shows how wrong they are. I wish these "cooking schools" would teach more vegan-friendly recipes.
Now, if only Bravo/Food Network would do an entire series of vegan cooking, instead of 30 minutes once a series....
Thanks for such an insightful piece! Though I'm not a vegan by a long shot, I love the food. In fact, I've recently embraced Mark Bittman's regimen from Food Matters - primarily vegan before dinner, except I (like Bittman) hold onto half-and-half for my morning coffee and allow myself yogurt. It's truly not difficult and feeling better for it.
Hopefully, Chef Smith had one of Oprah's light-bulb moments, and will check it out. Much as I love butter, the best cupcake I ever had was vegan. Even the icing was close to my own buttercream - silky and delicious. I'd even venture that dessert should have been one of the easiest courses - perhaps using non-wheat flour, plus applesauce or oil. It can be done!
You hit the nail on the head with the concept of vegetarian umami. I have had many vegetarian meals made by meat-eaters that are completely bland. I love Top Chef but there is way too much whining about this that an experienced cook should be able to make a complete meal without so much trouble.
For example, Chiarello said he hadn't even heard of umeboshi, which as you mentioned a conveyor of umami. And pasta? Come on. The tamales looked more layered than that.
James, first off, i'm sorry you feel so completely ostracized by the world for your eating habits that you must open up your story with a whine(and not the delicious type that goes good with bacon), might I offer you a piece of deliciously cooked bacon? Its an amazing comfort food, even for closet bacon lovers -- which you must be.
For only a bacon lover, closet or not, would mention so specifically our beloved pork product instead of a more broad approach. You know... meat.
I'd like to offer you an outlet for you hidden fetish however, lifeisbacon.com is coming to your rescue James. I think you will take great pleasure salivating over Bac-o-vision while eating enough greens to put the worlds rabbit population in the endangered column. Order some bacon James -- do it for the bunnies.
Viva La Bacon