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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 also think that making vegetarian meals turns you into a more thoughtful cook. Not being able to fall back on the sumptuous, umami flavors of meat lays your cooking bare. If you really want to get a sense of somebody’s ability in the kitchen, ask that person to do away with the chicken broth and ham hocks and other meats and meat-derived ingredients hiding up most cooks’ sleeves. Vegetarian and vegan cooking are essential, reductive: the core flavors of the vegetables that form the basis of this kind of cuisine are subtle, and the cook has to be attuned to how to draw out, complement, and emphasize those flavors. When it’s done right, such cooking can be extraordinarily sophisticated and refined.
It was a joy and a half to watch the cooks on episode eight faced with this challenge. You could see that, for many of them, it truly was a challenge—and, for a few of them, the worst possible scenario, perhaps. But there’s something about reducing the number of tools that you have to work with to a minimum that can really make your innate skills shine.
Why did Anita’s eggplant turn out so greasy, and why was her plate as a whole so lackluster? She may have just been exhausted. By contrast, Hubert Keller’s plate was colorful and multidimensional; it bore no sense of any of the restraint that you often find hampering emphatically nonvegetarian chefs when they’re cooking vegetarian food. (Perhaps all those years working in California have rubbed off on Keller.) Rick Bayless’s dish was delicious but had too much going on; it lacked the smart clarity that his cooking usually exhibits. Michael Chiarello’s quinoa pasta with garlic and herbs was a standout; it marked the essence of great vegan cooking. Clean tasting yet rich, it captured the soul of the ingredients—a complete success.
Which leads me to my last point, which is off the vegetarian topic. At the critics’ table, both Jay and I had questioned Michael’s and Art’s reliance on store-bought ingredients for the dishes they were making. Later, we heard Rick deride our concerns as being not particularly insightful. I disagree.
Sure, I can grasp why both Art and Michael made the choices they made, but I would have liked to see them push themselves harder. They had the prep time, they had a fairly nonrestrictive budget, and, ultimately, they’re on Top Chef Masters to show their wizardry as cooks. Michael could have made from-scratch pasta out of quinoa flour or chestnut flour. The same goes for Art (though, obviously, I liked what he made—I finished the whole damn plate). He could have, and should have, made a sorbet or a granita, rather than taken a gamble with ready-made rice ice cream.
All that said, after Zooey’s fine vegan feast, I slept like a baby. No tums required.