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'Top Chef Masters': Beware the vegan

August 6, 2009 |  8:11 am

Smith Ah, vegans. They're a chef's worst nightmare. Even in the form of the lovely Zooey Deschanel.

After the elimination challenge, the ever-quotable judge, New York Magazine critic Gael Greene, once again had the episode's best line: "The vegans seem so surprised! God knows what they get to eat!"

They don't eat, according to Deschanel, meat, fish, eggs or dairy. Deschanel came with the added bonus of also being gluten-intolerant (bye-bye wheat-based treats like pasta and bread!) and not eating soy (bye-bye tofu!) This rundown of dietary restrictions elicited the only natural reaction from the remaining "Top Chef Masters" contestants: anger.

Anita Lo let out a defeated "Wow," when the actress finished listing all the no-nos of the elimination challenge. "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 said, "I smell a rat," when he heard about the restrictions. When he had heard all of them, he said: "Vegan! Allergies! ... I was right. I cook a lot of fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. What am I going to do?"

But Michael Chiarello was the most infuriated: "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."

Oh, but it's a great idea for a "Top Chef" challenge. Talk about having to stretch. I myself am a big old carnivore with a limited imagination and an intolerance for non-meat eaters -- especially ones who get to judge "Top Chef." So I couldn't think of anything they'd be able to serve beyond a plate of crudite and hummus. This is why in spite of my culinary school degree, I could never be on "Top Chef," because all of the contestants -- except poor Art Smith -- stepped up to the challenge.

And, OK, so Hubert Keller rarely complains about anything. Rick Bayless was also ever the optimist. "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!" (It was also revealed that his daughter has been gluten intolerant.)

For Bayless, you'd never know he made a vegan dish. He served homemade fresh corn tamales with a bean stew and some braised greens. Chiarello triumphed with store-bought pasta made from quinoa (a grain loaded with protein), salsa verde, gremolata and tomatoes. I'm still puzzled as to how that monstrosity of a sirloin burger won the Quickfire, or tied with Bayless' Mexican-style burger. (Oh, the things Gael Greene could have said had she seen it!) The men on the panel -- Spike from Season 3, the chef of L.A.'s Father's Office, and documentarian Morgan Spurlock -- just loved the sheer tonnage of meat, I guess. "Like eating a steak," Cutler marveled.

Deschanel and her picky -- too picky! -- gang loved Keller's white gazpacho, but some complained that his avocado bite was too much like a dip. (Well, it kind of is, ladies. And what else is he supposed to do? He can't give you chips or bread to dunk in it, and whose problem is that?)

Wednesday's episode was the first time I feared for Lo, who I've been predicting would be in the top two with Bayless or Keller). At first glance, her plate looked very brown and the grilled Japanese eggplant looked like, well, you can imagine what it looked like. Not appetizing, to put it nicely. The idea was good: Indian-inspired grilled eggplant with a side of spiced lentils and a cashew sauce. But the execution was apparently way off. Oily eggplant, maybe undercooked beans.

Luckily for her, Smith was completely uninspired by the week's challenge. He took store-bought rice milk ice cream -- he tried it and did not like it -- and spooned some strawberry champagne "soup" on it. Soup, even when cold and sweet, with ice cream just doesn't sound good. His almond brittle, a butterless wonder, was a hit. But not enough of one. He suffered the worst scores in "Masters" history yet.

-- Denise Martin

(Photo of Art Smith courtesy NBC Universal)

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