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'Top Chef Masters': Beware the vegan

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)

Comments () | Archives (15)

I find it somewhat amusing when people, especially chefs, think that vegans must have bland diets. While most meat eaters have the same types of foods over and over again (beef, chicken, pork, fish) vegans tend to have widely varied diets consisting of literally thousands of varieties of whole grains, fruits, veggies, mock meats, ethnic dishes etc. It's especially amusing when chefs who resort to vegetable flavorings (spices, seasonings, marinades, bbq sauce, even mustard and kethcup) to make their bland meats more interesting can't seem to figure out how to make an interesting vegan meal. What a lack of imagination. Vegans can eat anything that non-vegans can, we just choose the plant-based versions. We choose mock meats over the dead animals and we explore the long history of plant based recipes from cultures around the world instead of the endless repetition of vegetable flavored chicken or beef dishes.

I think any chef that can't step up to the plate for a vegan meal is not much of a chef, honestly. If you can't put down a beautiful, tasty plate of food without animal on it, your imagination must be lacking. Vegan food is as hit or miss as omnivore food, some people have no imagination and resort to what they think they know and others hit it out of the park with inventive recipes and wonderful flavors.
Art didn't even attempt (butterless wonder...the recipe contains 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter!) and think his elimination was well deserved. If he included butter in that dish knowing it wasn't vegan, that just shows me he's a careless chef and if he did it on purpose to "stick it" to the vegans, that's beyond childish and unethical. I don't think either of those traits make a good Top Chef.

Smith deserved to lose. Uninpsired he was to say the least as most of the other chefs on that show are. No credit to Gael Greene as she does not know what she is talking about as usual.
God knows how many animals she has eaten in complicity with their suffering and deaths.
Very sad episode for all.

Vegan food inspires your creativity in cooking, stops animal suffering and deaths, stops global warming by reducing methane gas from factory farm animals, we have cleaner water without cow and pig waste run-offs, and we humans live healthier without colon cancer, hardened arteries and more.

When are we going to have a show Top Vegan Chefs? You're only a top chef when you leave out the animal cruelty and really care about what happens to our environment.

Denise, try a lunch or dinner at Happy Family vegetarian Chinese restaurant in Monterey Park and then tell us how bland, uninspired, and awful vegetarian/vegan food is. I think you'll be surprised.

I was so happy for their to finally be a vegan challenge on Top Chef! But I was surprised and disappointed by the judges and chefs comments on vegan and vegetarian food. I think it would have been interesting for Zooey and her friends to discuss why they are vegan or vegetarian! This would have been a great chance to educate the public on WHY vegan and further that vegan's are NOT crazy extremists and enjoy a wide array of delicious food!

Oh, please. I agree with the reviewer - she was a vegan, plus couldn't eat wheat AND couldn't eat soy; it wasn't just without anything animal. Zooey's comments, not to mention the look on her face, made evident the bland food she regularly eats. Except for Art's blah, boring ice cream, every dish made it seem like she had just discovered taste buds.

i think vegans are weirdo's ,eat and be happy!

there are real concerns in this world, eating meat is not one of them. i bet if you lived somewhere where there isn't the variety of foods to eat like we have you still would complain about something, every vegetarian that i have ever known was unhappy,miserable and no fun to be around. eat meat!

Zooey Deschanel doesn't have "dietary restrictions" and "allergies." She has an eating disorder! Why won't anyone call this what it is?!

Allen, contrary to your assertion that meat-eaters don't have a wide or varied diet, I am an omnivore and in addition to a wide range of fruits, vegetables and grains, I ALSO eat meat, dairy, eggs, etc. My diet is, by definition, much broader and more inclusive than any vegetarian or vegan diet could ever be.

As another woman who is vegan (by choice) and gluten-free (by necessity) I dearly wish that chefs would stop looking down their noses at me and just cook me something safe and delicious. The food I cook myself isn't boring -- what I eat is only boring when my choice is steamed vegetables or intestinal damage. Eating meat doesn't make you more fun, just easier to eat out with. And some of us think eating plants isn't weird -- we think eating the flesh of dead animals is. There's no right answer, so maybe we should just celebrate our differences.

These comments are hilarious. Meat-eaters can be so defensive!

I think this was a good characterization of the competition and the episode, but I have to disagree with the author on a few points. First, Mr. Keller could have certainly provided chips as most are corn-based and thus gluten-free. He could have also provided jicama or thinly sliced vegetables instead so it's not like his hands were tied. Second, it's not Ms. Deschanel's fault if she has a gluten intolerance; it's something she's born with or developed over the years. The idea of characterizing her and her guests (who were gracious and polite, in my opinion) as "picky" is unfair because 1) they were there are critics and 2) allergies and intolerances are not the same thing as being picky. Her decision to eschew eating meat is one thing - an ethical decision - but her inability to digest gluten is another. Chefs competing to be named as masters should be challenged!

I am an Eco Friendly Chef who teaches others how to create desserts for Vegans and people like Zooey Deschanel who have food allergies and sensitivities. I specialize in creating decadent baked goods (and savory creations too) that are Agave sweetened (free of Sugar), Diabetic Friendly, Gluten Free (GF), Plant Based (vegan) and can also be made Soy Free. So imagine how much I giggle when I see and read stories such as this. Here's my trick to successful Allergy Free * GF * Vegan cooking and baking; start every recipe that you create by thinking about what you CAN use. I have only one item in my entire dessert repertoire that can not be made totally allergy free - my Cheesecakes, which are made with Soy Based Cream Cheese. Once someone creates a Non-Soy, Plant based Cream Cheese, then my Cheesecakes will also be allergy free (hopefully sometime soon.) People love my desserts. And I love teaching others how to create treats that are Earth Friendly.

Honestly iv been a vegan for a couple of years now and its really opened up my food surroundings. I think its pathetic that a person would dare call themselfs a chef who cant even make a simple vegan meal. What a loser.

I am so sick of meat eaters and their intolerance of us non meat eaters. Get over it! I can't digest meat, I hate the smell and flavor of seafood, and I can't digest soy. If you love cooking so much, you should welcome a challenge! I'm a writer and a designer and I much prefer doing a new job, something with which I'm unfamiliar; I love a challenge. Doing the same old thing over and over is tiring and boring. Stop being so mean to us vegetarians and vegans. (As a side note, I do eat eggs and cheese. Bring on some quiche!)


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