22 August 2009

Top Chef Masters hearts vegetarians

I just plowed through my TiVo and finished the season of Top Chef Masters, Bravo's new reality cooking show featuring some of the country's top culinary artists. I enjoy the show, partly because I like to imagine competitive battle situations as the way to determine the champion of most situations in life, including in the kitchen.

This season featured a number of vegetarian highlights, including an episode where the chefs prepared a vegan, gluten- and soy-free meal for actress/singer/hottie Zooey Deschanel. Some chefs (namely Art Smith, former kitchen bitch for Oprah Winfrey) were convinced that the dietary restrictions were part of an evil communist conspiracy, while others (Hubert Keller, Rick Bayless and Michael Chiarello) met the challenge head on.

I have never eaten at Chiarello's restaurants. However, I can attest that Keller is a wizard with vegetarian fare, an area in which he specializes. And Bayless, although less noted for his vegetarian preparations, nevertheless brings a great approach to meatless dining.

The last time I ate at Topolobampo, Bayless articulated a philosophy much like he did on Top Chef Masters. Instead of viewing vegetarian dining as a nutritional approach based on carbohydrates, fats and proteins, Bayless approaches vegetarian dining from a flavor perspective. He uses mushrooms to add an element of umami to vegetarian dishes. His approach yields some magnificent results, including the above-pictured empanadas.

Bayless' artistry led him to win the Top Chef Masters competition. Although his success on the show comes from a series of accomplishments, in my heart I will continue to believe that he won because he knows how to thrive in different situations (including Vegetarianville).

Instead of viewing vegetarian dining as a quirk, Bayless sees it as a new arena in which to showcase his gourmet muscles. Bravo for Rick, bravo for Bravo, and bravo for food programming that understands that the audience can create culinary inspiration no matter their appetite (or lack thereof) for flesh food.

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