Thursday, January 29, 2009

Iron Chef Battle Vegan

Every time I watch Iron Chef, I'm kinda hoping to see "the Chairman" announce the main ingredient as "no animal products may be used in this meal." If you're thinking that would be a nightmare to cook (or to eat), then I've got my work cut out for me in writing this post. From my point of view, dietary limitations should be a welcome challenge for any chef (especially at home chefs), a true test of knowledge and skill (and maybe understanding of ethical and health concerns). For a good cook, vegetarian fare should inspire creativity and a deeper appreciation for the delicious attributes of natural non-sentient ingredients. In other words, if bacon is the go-to ingredient for flavor and texture, that's a one trick pony approach to cooking that neglects a whole world of flavors.

When I toyed with veganism from 1999-2003, I put loads of energy into the popular reenactments of non-vegan staples: nutritional yeast mac'n'cheese, portobello stroganoff, liquid smoke accented collard greens, tempeh chicken salad, etc. Truth be told, I can make all of these look and taste beautifully (so that only the finickiest eaters would turn up their noses). But, I'm left with the nagging suspicion that a truly great cook could do so much more within the confines of a diet free of animal products. Sure, it's not hard to point to the really energetic vegan cookbook authors, and right here in Richmond there are some great veggie meals to be had (did I mention how much I love Ipanema Cafe and Harrison Street Coffee Shop?). But, wouldn't Eric Ripert or Thomas Keller make all of them look like amateurs, even with one arm tied behind their back? Well, now we know the truth...

Great Chefs Cook Vegan
, by Linda Long

No they don't (but for this book, they did). Great chefs don't usually cook vegan. In fact, more often than not, most chefs with a household name love to talk trash about vegetarians, and they really tear into the vegans. It's too bad. What is the threat? I mean, who's afraid of an emaciated hippy? (I'm kidding. Vegans come in all shapes/sizes/stereotypes) I've long believed that vegan cuisine offers a challenge to cooks that forces the imagination into new territory because they have to go forth without the crutch of bacon or fish sauce or chicken stock, etc. Maybe that's it: insecurity. Great chefs, please break free from the link sausage chains that bind you and show the public what is possible with non-animal ingredients. You all are the experts, now prove it. Maybe then, vegans can stop ordering bean burritos without cheese from Taco Bell.

Personally, I'm hoping the best cooks in the world will write the ten commandments of vegan cooking and hand them to Anthony Bourdain so he can promulgate the "the Word" to the people (wouldn't that be some deliciously ironic justice?). This book is not written with that kind of goal (reparation for animal exploitation and needless suffering, clogged arteries, and environmental destruction, etc). The author of this book was a photographer for the Vegetarian Journal magazine. If you're not familiar with it, they've really got a lot of integrity, taking no ads, and generally trying to educate the public. That's a good sign, in my view.

The author, it seems, really likes expensive restaurants (or has money to burn) and did loads of leg work making special dietary requests of the chefs at 4 and 5 star restaurants all over the country. The result is a beautifully photographed book, featuring 3-4 courses from 25 different famous chefs. Overall, Great Chefs Cook Vegan will be fairly inaccessible to regular folk who'd like to learn how elite cooks approach meat/dairy/egg free food. For me, the story in the 2-page introduction is more insightful that the three hundred pages of recipes, but I haven't spent much time with the book yet. Upon first glance, it's some really pretentious grub intended to look at home next to Iron Chef-style dishes like truffled foie gras and sea urchin soup vessels. But, what should I expect, but some slight of hand tricks from the culinary equivalent of Sigrid and Roy? (slight of hand implies quickness, when in fact, these are labor intensive recipes that seem to revolve around cauliflower and lean toward side-dishiness)

If you're a fan of any of these top-notch chefs, you'll want to know what they elected to make for this book and how they made it. Well, aside from a full page bio for each chef, there's scarcely more than a sentence from each on the topic of vegan cooking, and not a word about their inspiration or thought process for each of their recipes. Hey! If you're so great, how about a little insight? I'm hoping that closer inspection will reveal some tricks of the trade that home cooks can bust out when working with veggies. But, for the meantime, the stars are these: Thomas Keller, Jean-George Vongerichten, Eric Ripert, Charlie Trotter, Alex Stratta, Anne Quatrano, Cat Cora, Daniel Boulud, David Burke, Gabriel Kreuther, Josef Huber, Jose Andres, Marcus Samuelsson, Matthew Kenney, Michel Nischan, Suzanne Goin, Todd English.

Great Cooks Matter

While I do my best to form a more informed opinion about Great Chefs Cook Vegan, I want to bring your attention toward a food world revolution that may actually touch the lives of more than just the upper crust diners who call ahead to The Inn at Little Washington to order a vegan meal. Around the same time that I picked up this book, I also got my hands on How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman.
Not only did Bittman drop this thousand page kitchen bible to rival his version intended for omnivores, he's now promoting a vegan until dinner diet for a healthier lifestyle and planet (see his video excerpt below). The guy is a cooking guru and now he's busting out a thoughtful critique of the world around him, including his past work and ideals. In fact, more and more people are looking for ways to eat less meat, sourcing local ingredients for their homemade meals, and then there's that whole eco-green priority that's showing up on grocery store shelves. Truly great cooks are helping us make sense of our diets with these things in mind.

Tune in next time for part two, where I'll talk about some of my favorite vegetarian cookbooks and maybe some social commentary to boot.


  1. We are having a great time over here with just this topic. I haven't cooked with meat, eggs, or dairy since the beginning of the year. It's been a fun adventure so far. And I wholeheartedly agree with you that any omni would do well to expand his or her dietary repertoir to include some vegan dishes.

  2. I want to apologize for the rambling incoherence of this entry (maybe the eventual part 2 will be better). I don't have the time/energy to be the blogger that I wanna be. There is so much to say about this Great Chefs book, positive and negative. Mostly, I wanted to express my disappointment for what it is not (and I may never really appreciate it for what it is - as is my pattern with cookbooks).

    When I slowly got back on the veggie bandwagon in the late 90s (college meal plan kinda got me off track for a while), I didn't jump in head first. I gradually integrated vegan/vegetarian dishes (that rocked!) into my repertoire until the tasty and sometimes healthy/ethical options crowded out the meat that I habitually ate. I still crave the stuff tho, and every once in a while, I cave in just to remind myself what it tastes like. I'm not a purist and I think awesome food exists in all sorts of cooking paradigms. Maybe some of it is in that Great Chef's book. If there were any culinary poetry to the chef's entrise to convince me of this, I'd have written a more positive review. In the meantime, let Bittman be your guide. That's the advice I'm tuned into at this point.


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