VeganMoFo: Top Chef Masters Vegan Challenge

The “V” Word continues VeganMoFo, the vegan month of food, with its theme “If TV Celebrity Chefs Went Vegan.” Today, however, I am taking a break from cooking and twisting the theme a bit to “When TV Celebrity Chefs are Forced to Cook Vegan.”

One of my favorite cooking competition shows is Top Chef. Even more than Top Chef, I love watching Top Chef Masters when famous chefs come out and compete to win money for their charities and earn the title of Top Chef Master.

And no challenge is more entertaining than when the chefs are forced to cook vegan dishes. Their reactions always amaze me. Ask them to prepare a dish with no meat (which to them means no protein), no dairy, eggs or honey and they act like someone asked them to create a meal blindfolded, handcuffed and with only sawdust and hay for ingredients. The reason this amazes me is that chefs are supposed to be experts on food. All food, not just meat, dairy and eggs. How can they not know how to make a delicious meal using vegetables, grains and legumes? I’ll admit that when I first went veg, that was a challenge for me but I’m not a chef. My life and career are not dedicated to the subjects of food and cooking (though sometimes it feels like it).

So on Season 1 of Top Chef Masters, the multi-award winning chefs were given an elimination challenge that came in the form of Zooey Deschanel. Not only was the meal they had to make vegan but it also had to be soy-free and gluten-free because of her allergies. Here are some of the chef’s responses:

Anita Lo – “Wow, I would love to win $10,000 for my charity, but given all the dietary restrictions it’s definitely going to be tough.”

Art Smith – “I smell a rat…Vegan! Allergies! … I was right. I cook a lot of fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. What am I going to do?”

Michael Chiarello – “Zooey’s diet goes something like this: Think of the things you love to cook and just say no. I love to cook beef. No. How about some seafood? No. How about some dairy? No. How about some eggs? No. How about some pasta? No! It’s all about nos. It’s off-putting, to say the least.”

Only Rick Bayless, whose daughter is gluten-intolerant, was optimistic – “In the Mexican repertoire there is a lot of super delicious things you can do with vegetables. There’s a lot of rice and grains and beans so, I can do this thing!”

“Are animal crackers vegan? What about coconut meat?”

To their credit, after their initial shock wore off, the chefs (expcept for Art Smith) did step up to the challenge. But before we look at what they made, let’s digress for a moment about Zooey Deschanel because people think of her as some type of vegan hero. I’m sorry to burst anyone’s bubble but Zooey is NOT vegan anymore.

In interviews, when asked about whether she is still a vegan, Zooey has replied “Not anymore. My older sister (Emily Deschanel) has been a very, very committed vegan since high school. I wish I could be like that, but I’m not. I have a lot of food sensitivities—I can’t eat wheat or soy—and it was very difficult to eat and get enough calories. It was even impossible to eat at a vegan restaurant.” She told Bust magazine, “I gave it a good try, but sometimes you just need a little something, a little meat.” And in an interview with Vulture she had this to say about being vegan, “In the back of my mind, I was like, ‘It’ll be easy! I can’t have that stuff anyway.’ But I didn’t realize you have so few options in the end…I think I was at a sushi restaurant and I was like, ‘Oh. F*ck it.’”


“Siri, find me something to eat before I starve.”

So few options? So many of the dishes I make are gluten-free and many are soy-free as well. It’s called eating vegetables, Zooey. Anyway…let’s see what the Masters came up with.

Anita Lo made the least attractive dish. Her Spicy Grilled Eggplant with Lentil Salad and Cashew Sauce might have tasted good but it was a very brown dish.

Art Smith hated the challenge so much he just bought rice milk ice cream (which he didn’t like) and spooned some strawberry champagne soup on it. His Strawberry Champagne Soup ended up sending him home.

Hubert Keller made a White Gazpacho with Grapes and Vanilla Oil AND a Timbale of Avocado and Asparagus with Roasted Beet Salad. This dish was the runner-up of the challenge. Wow!

Michael Chiarello won the challenge with his Quinoa Pasta with Salsa Verde, Pine Nut Gremolata and Oven-Dried Tomatoes. I’ll have a plate of that, please!

So when pushed to the wall, the chefs were able to come up with some pretty amazing dishes – much to the surprise of some of the judges. Jay Raynor wrote in his Top Chef Masters blog, “As to me, I survived the vegan challenge too. I even found some nice things to eat. Wonders, as they say, will never cease. Now, will somebody please cook me something involving a bit of dead pig?” And when Zooey’s guests liked the food, New York Magazine critic and Top Chef Masters judge Gael Greene declared “The vegans seem so surprised! God knows what they get to eat!” The vegans???

“So what do you eat on your planet?”

Well, this vegan gets to eat a ton of delicious, amazing, healthy and cruelty-free food. If you ask me, too many chefs and food critics don’t know what they’re missing!

The “V” Word: Say it. Eat it. Live it.

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6 Responses to VeganMoFo: Top Chef Masters Vegan Challenge

  1. Rhea Parsons October 10, 2012 at 4:12 am #

    Hanni, I agree. I always want vegan challenges on cooking competitions. I’d love an entire Iron Chef vegan show.

    Alex, I don’t think there’s been a vegan challenge on Masterchef yet. Ramsay probably thinks that would be too cruel 🙂

  2. Alex in Leeds October 9, 2012 at 11:49 pm #

    What most of the chefs created was actually pretty awesome by the look of it. Part of me is so jealous, here in the UK our Masterchef contestants never get veggie challenges never mind allergy restrictions to deal with. 🙁

  3. Harini October 9, 2012 at 1:27 pm #

    I am pretty regular but I missed this episode.:( Forget non-vegetarians, even vegetarians here wonder what I eat! And Chefs apparently do not know proteins other than meat exist too. Sad that Zooey could not keep up with being Vegan. I was disappointed when Natalie gave up too. It is a huge set back as celebs do make a difference how diet is perceived.

    I wish they have a challenge like this on masterchef too!

  4. Rhea Parsons October 9, 2012 at 8:32 am #

    Katrina – there is a beet salad. I don’t think I wrote beef anywhere.

    Gigi – I’ll have to read your blog post. That’s why I don’t get excited about celebs going vegan unless they are activists. I love Emily Deschanel.

  5. GiGi October 9, 2012 at 8:12 am #

    Awesome coverage, makes me think how creative we vegan chefs are!
    Yeah, Zooey, Zooey, Zooey, I had blog about Zooey whining and jumping the vegan shop.

  6. Katrina Love October 9, 2012 at 8:07 am #

    Beef salad???


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