Food reality competitions are one of my favorite things on earth–Top Chef, Chopped, Master Chef, Sweet Genius . . . love them. The Taste, the newest offering which follows the trend of ripping off The Voice (mentors!) has already garnered a Hulu subscription for our household. That the shows are able to draw in people to watch the creation things that require at least three senses to enjoy while the viewer can only go on sight and the judges’ description, is an interesting paradox. As much as I love them, I have a slight bone to pick:
Stop acting like vegetarian and vegan chefs are inbred cousins who should be kept under the stairs and poked with sticks.
During the audition round of The Taste, three veg chefs were presented in a montage accompanied by music making it clear that we, the viewer, should not take them seriously because no one on the panel was. One of them showed up to cook in a tutu, as if she wandered through life trying to convince people Betsey Johnson was her birth mother. This was really the best representative for raw vegan chefs they could find? The other two were less caricatures, but their food was not taken any more seriously. Anthony Bourdain even outted them as veggie chefs with the disdain of someone discovering their favorite Chow Mein is made from cats. The one dish he claimed was the best vegan dish he’d ever had (cooked by Dayna Mcleod) was still treated with open contempt, like she had committed some crime by actually making awesome food.
Look, I get it. I really do. Most of world is made of meat-eaters. That’s fine. It’s their choice. My approach to plant-based eating has never been to shame or convert–if people ask me about it, I will tell them. I will encourage them to consider cruelty-free living. But I never mock their lifestyles choices and expect that they shouldn’t mock mine. It’s my body and my choice. That being said, Bourdain once ate the inside of a pig’s anus on television (I’m not even kidding–you can google it); he didn’t sneer or make nasty quips, he just ate it. My guess is that he didn’t want to be insulting to his hosts. So would it really be too much to ask that he at least try the freaking food before spitting his insults?
Bourdain, however, is not alone in his small-minded approach to plant-based eating. Veg chefs are absent from all these cooking competitions. The argument seems obvious–by not working with animal products, there will be limitations to what ingredients they can use in challenges (ie. a seafood or bacon challenge). I would counter that a number of other chefs are equally as limited in their abilities, just not in the same way. How many chefs get derailed on Top Chef or Chopped by not knowing how to make desserts? Or think about the number that only know how to cook one style of food really well? (Top Chef Season 2 saw Elan take home the win for finding a way to make every dish Spanish. That’s range how?)
On two separate occasions Top Chef has issued vegan and vegetarian challenges (Masters Season 1 with guest judge Zooey Deschanel and the Las Vegas season with guest judge Natalie Portman, respectively). The results were mixed. Stripped of their animal crutches, many of the chefs lacked any sort of creativity (similar to the issues some chefs face on any of these shows when tasked to make a salad). Lame plates of flavorless and poorly cooked veggies abounded. Others made amazing dishes that showed they did indeed have mad skills.
The one show where vegans are treated with more dignity is oddly enough Cupcake Wars. Vegan baking, which is its own art form, does not seem to receive the scrutiny of vegan savory. Chloe Cascarelli’s high profile win was a step in the right direction, in part because she didn’t win a vegan cooking competition, she won a cooking competition. I think Chloe is an indicator of the power of vegan chefs to compete on the same level as those who use animal products.
This past weekend I received my pre-ordered copy of Betty Goes Vegan by Ann and Dan Shannon. If you aren’t already making regular visits to their website, www.meettheshannons.com, start now. The book takes 500 hundred classic Betty Crocker recipes and takes them vegan. I can’t review the book yet because I am still picking up the pieces of my blown mind. The one that put it over the edge for me was the presence of souffles–a dish that is basically eggs. And they made those SOBs vegan. Shut. Up.
If reading vegan cookbooks and blogs has taught me anything, it is that vegan chefs are creative out the butt because they have to be. They combine crazy ingredients and redefine what food means. Most have a strong understanding of flavor, texture, and balance. Cooking a steak well is an art (raised in Texas, I know this all too well). But the person prepping the steak has the fact that beef has an appealing flavor on their side. Tofu, on the other hand, has no flavor and a strange texture. So if a chef can make it tasty and appealing, that’s a serious set of skills.
Sadly, I think we are a long way from veg chefs representing. In the meantime, I salute you, all you crazy-cool kitchen beasts. You rock that tempeh and nutritional yeast!