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She's a Vegetarian ...

Gail Simmons wonders why the chefs had so much trouble with this challenge given their resources.

By Gail Simmons

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).

Thankfully, a few glimpses of brilliance emerged. Eli’s smoky eggplant and perfectly firm, flavorful lentils did show a significant amount of skill. And although it took some getting used to, I will never forget the playful sweetness and creamy, bold texture of Michael’s banana polenta. As I write this I am still in awe that he chose to make it—and that we all could not get enough. But it was Kevin’s Duo of Mushrooms, Smoked Kale, Candied Garlic & Turnip Puree that saved us. As much as Michael would like to believe it was thrown together in an amateur way, this dish was far from simple. The bright taste and integrity of each individual vegetable was apparent with each bite. What’s more, they all made perfect sense when eaten as one harmonious creation. Cooking vegetables this way is no easy task. It was decadent and robust, and exactly as Kevin had promised in his description.

It seemed that the rest of our chefs’ goals were just too lofty, too precious, and more focused on making their food look pretty than on making it taste good or feel substantial. Jennifer’s Charred Eggplant, Braised Fennel, Tomatoes & Verjus Nage was little more than a side dish. Bryan’s Artichoke Barigoule was barely any better. Finally, there was Mike Isabella’s Whole Roasted Leeks with Onion Jus, Baby Carrot Puree & Fingerling Potatoes. I am still unsure how he planned on passing off those stringy leeks as scallops. A trick of the eye cannot fool a hungry vegetarian stomach, I assure you. Most of all, his food was undercooked and tasteless. His dish was by far the weakest of the night. It is no wonder that as soon as Judges’ Table ended that evening we all went out for a second dinner, to this amazing little Japanese robata spot just off the strip that chef Paul Bartolotta introduced us to (he is the chef at what I believe to be the most spectacular restaurant in Vegas and one of the nicest people I know). The restaurant, to everyone’s delight, had plenty of delicious vegetarian options on the menu!

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