Words by Shelton Hull
The array of options available for vegan diners has grown almost as vast as the variety of vegan foods available in stores. This includes an increased number of actual vegan restaurants but also, even more importantly, more choices at places that aren’t typically vegan-friendly at all. The restaurant industry is moving quickly to accommodate this heightened demand to the point where it’s now almost impossible to find at least a couple of vegan items on practically every menu in this city or any other.
The Vegan Chef Challenge (VCC) has taken place in 14 U.S. states so far, but the inaugural Florida competition is taking place at restaurants across Northeast Florida this April. It’s been run here by Francesca Taylor and Yuri Mitzkewich.
Basically, every participating venue is asked to prepare at least one vegan item. Most tend to make three, an appetizer, soup or entree, and a dessert, but there are no hard and fast rules on this. You can use vegan items already on the menu, but you’re encouraged to develop a new recipe specifically for the event, and it’s really a great opportunity to do so. During the month (in our case, April), patrons will be able to go sample those items, while of course enjoying their regular vittles, then take pictures of their food (and you know how we love that!) and vote on their favorites. Votes will be tallied throughout the month with a final closing event to award the winners and give everyone involved a chance to meet formally.
The VCC was created by Eleni Vlachos and Chef Shirle in Durham, North Carolina, in 2010 with the express intent of fomenting growth in the vegan food scene in their community. If you’ve been in that region lately (or any good college town, for that matter), you’ve seen that their idea worked quite well. They’ve successfully exported the business model across the country, starting in Sacramento in 2011. Their efforts are supported by Vegan Outreach, a 501(c)3 based in Davis, California, but individual communities are encouraged to develop their own events with the blessing and support of the national brand.
The Jacksonville version of this event takes place throughout April, and it’s one of four cities doing it in that time. The others are Amarillo (home of the legendary Double Cross Ranch), South East Bay and the aptly-named Yolo County, both in California. There have already been six this year in Anchorage, Santa Fe, Knoxville, Detroit, Olympia and Central Arkansas with events coming to Atlanta, Dallas, Charlotte and Sacramento. The range in geography reflects the range in cuisine, even within an already highly-stratified industry. Rather than viewing veganism as an impediment to their creativity, more cooks at work and at home are seizing the opportunity to experiment and adapt their skills to new ingredients or vice versa. The VCC is an effective overview of all that fresh thinking.
There are 12 venues currently signed up to compete in the Jacksonville Vegan Chef Challenge: Buddha Thai Bistro, Cultural Kitchen & Catering, Icecapade Frozen Treats, Kravegan, M Brothers at Mayo, Matthew’s Restaurant, Midtown Table, Murray Hillbilly, My V Spot, Planta Pura Vegan Eats, Seitanic Jax and Vegan Cafe Jax. The contest is open to any restaurant, cafe, food truck, meal-prepper, pop-up or private chef in Northeast Florida, as long as you have a means by which customers can obtain your product. Check out veganchefchallenge.org to sign up and keep up with the competition as it unfolds.