A little known fact: I was a pesco-vegetarian (pescetarian) for over eight years. Hard to believe, considering what I’ve chosen to do for a living. But between ages 14 and 22, I would not touch, cook, or eat meat at all. It just did not agree with me. I found it difficult to digest (both literally and ethically). I did eat fish and seafood, but I will never forget how frustrating it was to skip over three-quarters of the menu at most restaurants to find something I could order. Even when I did find an appropriate dish, it would usually be less satisfying than what my fellow diners were eating, more like a collection of garnishes on a plate than an actual meal. Thankfully, respect and options for vegetarians have come a long way since then. Just look at the fully vegetable-based menus at award-winning restaurants such as Gramercy Tavern or Per Se in New York. But I still pay close attention to vegetarian dishes when I eat out and am always curious as to how both fine-dining and casual places alike treat their meat-avoiding customers. My basic question: Why can’t we find a decent vegetarian meal in many restaurants today, considering that cultures around the world can create complex, substantial cuisines using little or no meat, and in view of the extraordinary bounty of produce, grains, legumes and dairy products available in America?
That was at the heart of the questions we posed to our cheftestants on this week’s episode. The setting: an intimate dinner we hosted for actress Natalie Portman and her friends at Tom’s Craftsteak at the MGM Grand. Natalie is a passionate food-lover and committed vegetarian—and one of the show’s biggest fans—so we re-created a scenario that regularly occurs in most restaurant dining rooms: a demand for one superlative vegetarian dish that tastes and looks as delicious as anything else on offer. Tom was quick to mention that even at his meat-focused emporium he believes strongly in respecting customer preferences and strives to make sure there are always a great variety of non-meat choices on hand at all times. His kitchen walk-ins were overflowing with every variety of produce one could imagine. And his pantry was stocked with more dry goods than could be used in a lifetime. So it should not have been an excruciating task for our remaining seven competitors to fulfill, right?
Well, perhaps our chefs could not recover from the surprise we threw at them having assumed that, in this venue, they would be butchering and serving sides of beef and racks of lamb. Or perhaps they were all distracted by Natalie’s natural charm (it is hard not to be, in all honesty). Whatever the reason, the dishes they presented that evening were, for me, among the most disappointing of the season. It is not that they were all poorly cooked, necessarily. They were just so much less imaginative than I had hoped for and expected. With the exception of the delicate lentils under Eli’s Confit of Eggplant, Garlic Puree & Radish Salad, and the scant garbanzo beans, which did not even make it onto everyone’s plate in Robin’s Stuffed Squash Blossom with Beet Carpaccio & (overly salted, garlicky) Chermoula, there was virtually no protein presented across the board. No beans or legumes, few eggs and little dairy were used (despite their being encouraged to do so). In addition, Michael’s Asparagus Salad, Japanese Tomato Sashimi & Banana Polenta was the only dish that used a grain (yes, corn, from which polenta is made, is technically a grain).
Thanks for taking the time to write, Gail. Your revelation of being a vegetarian as a teen is interesting. What made you change your mind? I have often considered being a vegetarian, and even now eat almost only seafood/fish, but I do worry about going out to eat and finding *something* substantive on the menu. What I found most interesting about Kevin's dish is that he said he wanted people to eat his dish and not even miss the meat. And, that's the precise comment that people offered after heating his dish. It looked hearty, substantive, and it sounds delicious. I am thrilled that Kevin won. He seems to be the one chef who is focused on meeting the challenge, making delicious food, and staying true to his point of view. Too many of the others who consider themselves to be at the top are mean-spirited and focused on impressing others. The egos are out of control with those guys!
I felt that seven chefs should have been sent home at the end of today's elimination challenge.
With a vegetarian Asian cuisine that stretches from the Fertile Triangle to Japan (vide Madhur Jaffrey's World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cooking (ISBN-13: 978-0394748672)) to draw from, an extensive Central American vegetarian cuisine for inspiration, and a kitchen vegetable walk-in to die for, these chefs produced a set of dishes that were disappointing as table decoration, let alone as nourishing vegetarian main courses.
Someone needs to sit these 'cheftestants" (nasty word, that) down with a copy of 'Diet for a Small Planet' (ISBN-13: 978-0345321206), to learn a little bit about nutrition to give their frou-frou creations some actual food value.
I can remember only one episode that addressed nutrition as an important component of cooking (the diet camp for overweight youth). 'Top Chef' needs to devote at least one episode per season (preferably before Restaurant Wars at the half-way point) devoted to nutrition, to show us, the viewers, that the chefs know more about food than simply presentation and umami.
It makes a lot of sense to me that the dishes were much less creative this time than normal.
Normally, the chefs are told what the challenge is, might have a while to make an ingredient list, have a few hours to go shopping, and might even be able to have a night to themselves before they have to start cooking.
This time they had a night where they were pretty much intentionally mislead into thinking they were going to cook steaks and whatnot, then had to IMMEDIATELY cook a meal right after they got thrown a giant curve.
In that scenario, it makes all the sense in the world to me that they would all have safe, uncreative dishes.
Maybe the editing is misleading me. Perhaps they had a long time between the curve and the start of their cooking to think all this through. But as it was shown on TV, it sure didnt seem like they were given much of a shot to be creative.
What a great blog -- I love the analysis, plus the additional info of going out afterwards.
I was surprised that Mike I. chose to make something like a 'scallop'. To make something like meat or like a living thing ... seems like the antithesis of what a vegetarian would appreciate. Vegetarians typically have a philosophical/spiritual approach to the food they eat. I'm still pondering this choice.
But thanks Gail for a great post!
hello!!!! nOT ONE DISH HAD STARCH OR WHOLE GRAINS......NO PASTA NO RISE NO NOTHING......REALLY CHINTZY ENTREES IF YOU ASK ME. I WOULD LEAVE STARVING.
It seemed to me that most of the dishes came out looking like exactly what Natalie and some others had lamented: "Let's throw veggies together and call it a vegetarian meal." Kevin got it right. Michael got it wrong. And in both cases, they were CLEARLY the top and bottom. I'm not vegetarian at all but I have some great vegetarian recipes from cookbooks and of my own making, and make no mistake, I'm nowhere NEAR the caliber of a chef that these folks are. So why did they struggle so much?
Thank you so much for doing a vegetarian episode! I've stuck with this show through a ton of blood and gore (I'm thinking of a barn full of pigs in Puerto Rico), so it's nice to see food I could actually eat once in a while.
That said, most of those dishes looked like clunkers. I didn't get a sense from anyone other than Kevin that they put themselves in the shoes of us vegetarians and thought about what we actually would like to eat. For most of us, I think what we like is more like what meat eaters like than it is different: food that has a variety of textures, colors, is well-seasoned, balanced, and satisfying. There are so many ways to do that, and so many of them are easy. Perhaps the easiest: roast a bunch of vegetables in some olive oil, maybe throw in some raisins and chickpeas, and serve them over couscous or another grain. My version of that dish surely would have put me in the top 3 tonight!
who decided that animal products are vegetables. Why would you encorage chefs to produce vegetarian meals with animal products. Perhaps you should redefine what vegetarian means. I have several friends who will not consume food made with animal products. They call them selves vegetarians. They only eat fruits and vegetables ie no milk cheese eggs broths made with animal parts and products. I was really looking forward to a meal that I could share with friends and they say that the food on tonights show was not vegetarian because of creams and butters. Did anyone follow the challenge and prepare food with out animal products? Please Explain!!!!!
We are not vegetarians at my house-far from it, but even I try to have a few meatless meals here and there. I try to make sure they have hearty components-beans, quinoa, squash, sweet potatoes to minimize the squawking from the spouse!
It surprises me that the chefs could not see beyond the veg in vegetarian. I am sure some of the dishes were influenced by Vegas' oven-like weather patterns, but still.
It was a refreshing surprise to hear Kevin state that his household gives up meat for Lent every year. Ah, there are simple reasons to go meatless! Go Kev!
I have to say that this was the funniest Top Chef I have ever seen. Natalie Portman is not only a great actress but she has a very comidic side as well. I laughed out loud about the comments that Padma made, innocently I believe, and Natalie and her friends took and ran with. And I just love to see Tom laugh.
I think of all the judges that you are the most fair and don't make the cheftestaints feel bad. You're just straight up and genuine. I think the combination of Padma, Tom, and you, Gail, are perfect and I hope you all stay with the show until it ends. Which I hope it never does. I am a HUGE fan.
I found this challenge very disappointing in the offerings from the chefs, except Michael V. He was the only one to be innovative. They all needed to view the Top Chef Masters version of this similar challenge. I wonder why most did not choose to incorporate pasta, rice or other starch to their dishes. Were those items forbidden? Kevin's dish looked unappealing and texturally one note (i.e. soft). You stated that the smokiness overwhelmed everything. That doesn't sound like a winning dish. Maybe Robin should have prepared a dessert, since she has been more successful with that. I'm glad Mike I was sent home. His attitude, comments and constant rocking back and forth drove me batty.
Great column. I'm not a vegetarian myself, but have plenty of friends who are. In our college town, if you can't plan a menu that will adequately feed your vegetarian friends, you do need to pack up your knives and go home.
I have to say that I've learned the joys of roast vegetables and hearty legume/grain salads because of these events. I won't be giving up steak anytime soon, but even I get pepper, mushroom or bean cravings now.
FYI - I was also surprised that no eggs/dairy were used (I actually thought it was a vegan challenge). It's too bad because there are so many options, many of which are enjoyed by non-vegetarians (cheese canelloni/enchilladas, pizza, omelettes...)
As it was, it seemed like there were a lot of the nausea-inducing school cafeteria vegetable dishes that had me vowing never to touch anything green again. No wonder you ate out again.
I was surprised the chefs were so thrown off by this challenge. Natalie Portman is not Zooey Deschanel, in a past season, who I believe was vegetarian and had a wheat gluten allergy or issue.
I often watch the show and think, I don't eat that much meat/fish in one meal. I don't eat like that or at restaurants that fancy very often (I live in a city where I COULD do so if I had the money and inclination). I mostly cook for myself and my family. What's the appeal?
I don't know, but it bothers me that so few chefs considered making a dish with a good protein. I was a vegetarian for 4 yrs. I once attended a wedding where I could only eat the bread and the cake (even the salad had meat in it and the veggies with the main course were touching meaty gravy). When I got married, I made a point of making sure that there was a veg option for the entree, that the salad and pasta courses had no meat and that the h'ors d'oevres included some good veggie options and I actually had guests complain to me about the "carb fest" they received. I ensured there were proteins available but even that apparently wasn't enough. Why is it so hard for chefs to live without their proteins? I don't get it.
And Gail, wow! To sink from being a pescetarian to someone who loves her foie gras(ewww). Wow!
As a pescatarian foodie who cooks upscale food almost nightly for her vegetarian husband, I have been waiting for this challenge since TC began. I appreciated the Master's vegan/gluten free challenge, but had a harder time relating to it since we love artisanal cheeses and organic eggs in our household. The chefs produced beautiful plates, but those plates lacked the heartiness of entrees. Where was the protein? Why did no one think to incorporate whole grains? The produce was stunning, but the plates had very little substance. I love many of these chefs, but was sadly disappointed. I'm cooking a truffled shitake risotto tonight with golden beets and kale. It's going to be way better than what we saw last night.
As I was watching the episode (three times in a row, no less!), I kept wondering why the chefs weren't making more use of pasta, grains or legumes. I thought maybe it was a requirement of the challenge that just hadn't been mentioned, similar to the no-gluten vegan challenge with Zooey Deschanel from Top Chef Masters. Thanks for clearing that up!
I think what I saw someone else post on Tom's blog is right: the cheftestants heard "vegetarian", and thought "vegetable".
Did any of you actually watch the full episode? They were completely floored because they were cooking vegetarian at a steakhouse! Also, let's not forget that most of them had an idea of what they wanted to cook from the night before. I understand that as a chef you should always be prepared and however you rate their final dishes, they all came through in the end. It was a great challenge that definitely took them out of their comfort zones, however it's not too hard to see why they were all shocked when Natalie announced the dish had to be vegetarian..
Hey Steeveroo, I think your talking about Vegans. They don't eat anything made with animal by products. I'm pretty sure the challenge was for vegetarian meals, which is not as strict as vegan.
I was also surprised to see that no pasta was offered. I think the Chef's went on overload after seeing all of the veggies in the refrigerators! I would guess that Mike is in a bit of denial about both his cooking skills and his being okay with being asked to leave. Now there's a pot coming to a rolling boil!
Q: Why can’t we find a decent vegetarian meal in many restaurants today?
A: You can't make as much money off them as other dishes.
As vegetarians, my husband and I were shocked by last night's episode. Do these chef's not realize how important it is to construct complete proteins for their vegetarian customers? We expected to see the cheftestants use more legumes and whole grains. I understand that the kitchen most likely did not have some of the ingredients I buy for my specific diet, but I am certain there were better choices available than what ended up on some of those plates. It seems to me that the most difficult part of the challenge for some chefs who attempt to cook vegetarian entrees is that they themselves do not have a passion for that type of cuisine.
There HAD to have been more constraints than just no meat. I'm not buying the "they were encouraged to use dairy and eggs" line. These chefs are too smart to skip over dairy, eggs, and grains if they were being encouraged to use them.
It's even harder to be a vegetarian when you don't like mushrooms. They are in EVERYTHING on a vegetarian menu! Aren't there other non-meat items?
steeveroo; Generally peaking Vegetarian cooking includes eggs and dairy, Vegan cooking is vegetarian cooking with no animal products at all. There's some debate as to specifics (some vegetarians eat diary, but not egges; vegans debate whether honey is acceptable; and so on). Both vegetarians and Vegans eat beans and grains (in fact, the combination of beans and grains is a perfect protein and a common source of protein for vegetarians and vegans).
If your friends really only eat fruits and vegetables, I would not consider them vegetarians, but very extreme vegans. (What do they do for protein if they don't eat beans and grains?)
While I was watching, I was wondering what kinds of whole grains and vegetarian proteins were available in the kitchen to the chefs. There was a wonderful wealth of vegetables brought in, but did the producers also bring in a bunch of options for whole grains and proteins? The chefs had to work with what they had on hand, and the time they had available. No time to soak dried beans, for example, which was why we saw only lentils and fresh garbanzos. Mike I, who cooks a lot of vegetarian food, was commenting that he didn't have most of his usual ingredients (yogurt, etc.). So I was wondering what stock they had other than the vegetables from the market and the usual Craft kitchen pantry stock?
I too was disappointed that the chefs did not seem to understand that a great vegetarian meal is not about serving several vegetables on one plate or trying to disguise vegetables, grains, and the like to look like meat or fish dishes. Rather, it is about showcasing these ingredients in dishes that are worthy in their own right. I just recently dined at Blossoming Lotus - Irvington in the Lloyd District in Portland, Oregon while on vacation with my vegan daughter and thoroughly enjoyed my meal even though I am not a vegetarian. Each course was not only full of flavor and filling (we enjoyed the leftovers the next day) but also so beautifully presented, we actually took pictures. Top chefs are the ones who can create a wonderful meal with whatever ingredients they are given and in that regard, this challenge was very telling.
I was really disappointed in last night's offerings, too, as I wrote in Tom's blog. It all looked like uninspired side dishes, which is all-too-common when someone tries to make vegetarian fare.
I'm sorry, but I think a trained chef, as these contestants claim to be, should be able to make anything. They should be able to throw a dessert together, even if all they have are 2 or 3 recipes. They should be able to whip up something vegan that's filling and well-balanced, and good-tasting, even if all they have are 2 or 3 recipes.
Being a chef, at least to me, means you're inspired by food, and influenced by new things, and experiementing with new discoveries all the time, in addition to perfecting dishes that are already familiar. Am I wrong? So, because of my view of what it means to be a chef, I don't think I'm too far off the mark in thinking someone who has been through culinary school should be able to improvise, and improvise well because of the "practice" they get when they experiment with new flavors and textures.
It always seems like Top Chef contestants can't "cook outside the box".
And, like I wrote in Tom's blog, I'm really upset with Natalie Portman for saying protein is something that can be hard to get. This notion is ridiculous, and it makes it seem as if vegetarianism and veganism are somehow "dangerous".
The concept of "complete proteins" with mixing, say, beans and rice, is mythology, so the dishes presented to everyone last night didn't need specialized protein components. They just needed to be substantial and look like they weren't antipasto plates, which is what omnivores always seem to fix for someone who doesn't eat meat, which is why I never attend anything without bringing my own food.
The funny thing about cooking for one's self as a survival method is this-----tell an omnivore that they have to eat vegan or vegetarian for just one meal, and they have a knee-jerk reaction and think, "OMG! I'm going to STARVE!" and they get all upset. But put some really great vegan food on the table for YOURSELF, and the omnivores descend on it and gobble it down before everything else, leaving the vegan or vegetarian to starve because all that remains on the buffet is stuff that's got meat & eggs in it. Happens every time.
It's nice to see an omni eating something healthful, but it would be even nicer if they didn't freak out when faced with "having" to eat vegetarian sometimes.
You said it! I do eat fish, not meat. I was expecting some cool dishes! Boy did they disappoint! They are such a talented group, I can only imagine what a let down that was in person! Come on Jenn, feet don't fail me now! :)
I have been a vegetarian for over 20 years and for the last 10 years or so I have had little trouble finding vegetarian options in most restaurants. I don't eat fast food but I do go to all types of restaurants in most price ranges. Most of the food last night was a disappointment, more side dish than main dish and the attitudes of the cooks towards vegetatian cooking was disappointing as well.
I too loved the challenge but was dissappointed in the results. I have been a vegetarian but now eat poultry and fish a day or two a week. I've watched all shows all seasons. There are many types of pastas, rices, Indian food (which is based on vegetarian ideals) Greek Felafel, etc - maybe the contestants are too run down. It certainly has affected poor Jennifer. I hope she gets some rest and gets back on her feet. I was admiring this season's contestants for their professionalism and keeping it on the high road but this too seems to be unravelling. Mike I. seemed a bit catty (but I enjoyed his comments anyway) and I was sad to see him go because I think he's likely a great cook and should have gone farther in the competition. There was no way to say that Michael V. saved Robin's. Just wanted to put in my vote for more vegetarian competitions. Also - - the level of cooking on this show does seem high and I will be sad to see most of the rest of them leave.
I feel like the chefs don't look at the pantry as a source for inspiration. They all seem to build every dish around the meat or seafood. (I hate that phrase "respect the protein!") They don't see their dishes as a mix of ingredients; it's one ingredient plus whatever you can add to it. So it's not surprising that when the meat was taken away, nearly all of them picked a single vegetable (eggplant! leeks! mushrooms!) and built a dish around it. It's a mindset that they need to lose, for the sake of the competition and their careers.
I, too, was confused at how many chefs chose to isolate vegetables on the plate with no grains or proteins. Surely someone saw rice in the pantry? Cous-cous? Wheat berries? Very strange. As a diner currently practicing the pesco-vegetarian diet (and even with that, fish is only about 1x a month at most), I want to point out that there is one more protein that was presented in addition to the legumes: Mushroom. Kevin was smart to offer that up, and I was so happy to see him take the win!
I don't remember if it was season 3 or 4, but every other episode had cooscoos in some form or the other. This would have been a great time to make cooscoos with grilled vegetables coated in moroccan curry sauce or rice with any one of the many Indian curries or Thai curries. Yes, these dishes may lack creativity, but I think the judges would have appreciated anything that tasted good and filled a person's appetite. Kevin's winning dish is an example of just that.
Tom- I plan to go to Craft Steak this December so my boyfriend can enjoy a good steak. I know he will be happy with your food, but I am hoping that I will be satisfied with my vegetarian food :)
Frankly, I am disappointed by the chef's results. They say they are all executive chefs, etc, all trained, yet had difficulty preparing a vegeterian dish?! First of all, if you're a great chef, you should know how to flavor food, and not count the food (i.e.) bringing flavor. A veg dish requires a chef to be skilled on creating flavors..frankkly all of these people should have been eliminated.
As a vegetarian, eating at others house has always be challenging. Have a few friends who are chefs here in Austin, TX, it is always interesting to see how that handle cooking for me. Some look at it as a after thought, some as a hinderance, and some as a challenge. It's always the ones who look at it as a challenge who come through for me. And I respect them more because they have enough respect for me and their cooking to make something wonderful for the "poor hunter" -a reference to the old vegetarian joke :)
Too bad these top chef contestants didn't realize that vegetarians do like good food, we just have a hard time finding it at restaurants..
Our 15 yo daughter is vegetarian. We found we prefer the vegetarian dishes at restaurants now, as it seems more thought goes into them. So I was expected some great dishes from these chefs. Very disappointing.
Thanks for the insights on last night's episode. It was one of my favorites so far, and obviously a true challenge for the chefs.
I am still wondering, though, exactly what happened at the end of the judges table. Mike I. shook the judges' hands, and the camera cut to a shot of you with a very surprised look. Was this simply because Mike I. hugged Jen and not Robin, or did I miss something?
Love your blog Gail.
As a vegetarian ( not Vegan) for 40 years now, I was incredibly disappointed by the lack of imagination of these chefs!! Terrible! The food that they served is the reason we rarely eat out and I learned to become a good gourmet veggie cook. No one bothered to venture out of the country. Where were the Mediterranean, Asian, Indian, Mexican entrees? Stunning lack of thought. Where were the pastas, grains and dairy? Very disheartened that young chefs could be so backwards in their thinking about vegetarian dining.
Great blog Gail!!!
I wonder if time constraints played a factor in the lack of imagination for this challenge. They only had 2 hrs, right and there was no prep ahead of time?
Thanks for the perspective, Gail.
Just a thought but, if MikeV is Picasso, then Kevin is Matisse. Relative to this show, of course.
As disappointed as I was, unfortunately I was not at all surprised. There are plenty of great veg*n dishes out there, and some chefs do a great job with such a challenge. But a lot of chefs seem to have an attitude that cooking veg*n food is beneath them. Just listen to the comments the chefs had. They were joking, but these jokes reflected their lack of interest in providing quality veg*n food. This is the attitude that I've come across on many occasions. Eli's point that vegetarians often get random vegetable medley tossed together is very accurate. It doesn't have to be that way. If you can't cook a quality creative filling veg*n meal, then you should not be the Top Chef.
THANK YOU! I kept watching last night with my eyebrows knit together in perplexity--where were the grains, or cheeses, or egg? Did I miss something and Natalie said she was vegan instead of vegetarian? It seemed like the change of concept startled them so much they couldn't get back the VEG part of vegetarian.
Glad you're back Gail!
Not knowing all of the available items available to the seven chefs working in a small space at the same time, fighting over product, counter space, areas to prepare their meals, and the time constraints they were working under, I think perhaps we shouldn't be too harsh on the chefs for some of the selections of the items they chose to prepare for their respective meals.
This, obviously doesn't excuse a meal that hasn't been thought out, executed, or seasoned well.
With that being said, it was obvious from Gail's comments that Kevin's dish hit the mark on being well thought out, well executed, and seasoned to perfection. It was also, according to the comments from the guests, the only dish presented that was hearty enough to be considered a meal.
Kevin has proved to be calm and steady throughout the season, producing quality food without sniping or backstabbing; he's always jovial - nothing seems to rattle him.
On the other hand, as the competition has started winding down, the other chefs have started getting edgy, maybe with the exception of Eli who seems to be actually doing better for some strange reason, maybe because the others are tensing up so much. Jennifer is a great chef, but is losing it, and the V. brothers are starting to get on my nerves, especially Mike. You can be a great chef without being a jerk; look at Kevin.
steeveroo: Your friends are vegans, not vegetarians. Vegetarians will still eat dairy and eggs, while vegans will not eat anything produced from an animal.
VeganViewer: Natalie was referring to the lack of vegetarian/vegan protein options in a restaurant, not in general as part of the diet.
Grebby: I'm not sure why you hate the phrase "respect the protein!" as it is one of the most essential parts of a diet, be it carnivore/vegetarian/vegan. If that part gets ruined, no matter how good the rest of the dish is, you're going to end up hungry. It makes sense for any chef to ensure the protein is the focal point of the dish.
For all vegans: If you live in the southern California area, go to Veggie Grill. It is the most fantastic and satisfying vegan food I've ever had, and that's coming from an omnivore who loves his steak! I still go there weekly to eat. Highly recommended.
I was irritated by the attitude of the chefs to tonight's task. I thought they were almost rude to the guest who was the center of the event. In the comments they appeared to resent having to cook for a vegetarian. I thought that was rude and foolish. I don't know of a restaurant that doesn't offer vegetarian choices. I can't believe that none of them had a decent recipe in their arsenal.
I'm not vegetarian, but I was shocked by the attitude.
In Italy I've eaten marvelous salads, vegetable choices and grains that are meatless and a major focus of the meal. The request was hardly outlandish.