Tag Archives: Top Chef

Blais-ing a trail to a veggie top chef

Mike Isabella, left, and Richard Blais, right, divided only by Tom Colicchio's huge bald head and their different approaches to fine cuisine.

I love “Top Chef” and I love a theme meal, so last night’s finale episode of “Top Chef All-Stars” offered a perfect excuse. The two finalists were Richard Blais, from Atlanta, and Mike Isabella, from right here in DC. I suppose I should’ve rooted for the hometown dude, but I just couldn’t do it — Mike is certainly an excellent chef, but, seriously, his on-air persona is so cocky that it’s just hard to like him.

Carla finally scoops up the Fan Fave win, declaring that she'll put the 10 grand into her new business, selling scrumptious itty-bitty cookies.

Besides, local DC fave Carla Hall (Hootie!) won Fan Favorite, so all’s right with the world. Love her and her determination to put “love” in her food. She’s right, of course; just like how an actor or a pitcher sometimes “just phones it in”, so can a chef. If there’s no passion behind the technique, the result is ho-hum. There’s nothing truly tasty about nutrition with no soul.

Richard Blais' Flip Burger — the Birmingham (AL) location

So, I went all out for Richard and decided to come up with a variation from the menu for his restaurant Flip Burger. If I ever have a reason to go to Atlanta or back to Birmingham (yes, we spent a couple of days there on our honeymoon and it was actually a very cool place), I would probably want to check it out, except for the flaw that I inevitably find at most restaurants: the lack of vegetarian options.

I promise I won’t preach about this, but, honestly, why is it that world-class chefs consistently resort to the falafel? Blais offers one vegetarian burger, called a Fauxlaffel, and I don’t even get the “faux” part. It’s described as a chick pea patty with tzatziki. Sounds like a falafel to me.

A few months ago, we were pretty excited to hear about a new restaurant opening up on Capitol Hill called DC-3 — a hot dog place. Fun! Except, when we went there, the only vegetarian option was a falafel dog. Seriously? Because a falafel doesn’t taste quite right on a hot dog bun with mustard and sauerkraut. In a world full of pretty good commercially-made vegetarian hot dogs, it seems like a no-brainer to have something on the menu that actually tastes like a hot dog.

Not to mention that a really good chef ought to be interested in making really good vegetarian food — rather than phoning it in. Textured vegetable protein is crying out for some culinary prowess. Richard? I know you can do it!

I took on the challenge myself for the big finale meal, and honestly, the results were fabulous — and there was even a meat-eater in our midst. I chose the Chorizo Burger from the Flip Burger menu, making really yummy handmade patties from soy chorizo combined with ground soy “beef” and soy “sausage”.

Not being the amazing trained chef and technician that Richard Blais is, I came up with my own approximation of the required smoked mayo and romesco ketchup, and both really added a great punch of flavors to the burger, which was also topped with Spanish Manchego cheese, hash browns, and a fried egg. Seriously? Delicious.


Richard clearly has the same affinity for Brussels sprouts as I do, and so I chose a dish of caramelized sprouts from Flip Burger’s salad menu, substituting a dash of Liquid Smoke for the pork in the Ginger Bacon Vinaigrette




Taking traditional recipes and translating them into a vegetarian — or vegan or heart-healthy or diabetic-friendly — version can be challenging sometimes, but there’s nothing more satisfying than making something your own. Be your own Top Chef.


Leave a comment

Filed under Cooking

Lettuce entertain you!

What could be more fun than taking a break from the school day for a run around the garden?

I went grocery shopping yesterday, not so much because I needed food (although I did) but mostly because I had received a Facebook notification that our local Whole Foods grocery stores were giving 5% of yesterday’s sales to the Farm at Walker-Jones Elementary School, not too far from where I live here in DC. That pushed Trader Joe’s right off the list as the grocery store of choice, because I am a sucker for anything to do with local farms and public schools: I’ve been a DC public school parent for 12 years thus far and I waited patiently for 7 years for a spot in the community garden around the corner from my house. ‘Nuf said.

Upon entering the store with my reusable bags, I stopped to check out the display about the beneficiary of the day and had a lovely conversation with John, who, along with his wife, runs the Farm at Walker-Jones. It’s always nice to meet a kindred spirit and it was great to see the pictures of the kindergarten class that he works with — amazingly, for an hour each day!

Watkins Living Schoolyard

My daughter went to Watkins Elementary School in our neighborhood several years ago and her class was only lucky enough to get about an hour a week working in their Living Schoolyard, but it was worth every moment. I’ll never forget when the kids in her class wanted to use some particularly tall sunflowers for a measuring project — their 3rd grade teacher gamely helped uproot the plants in question and they all carefully carried these 6-foot-tall specimens from the garden up two flights of stairs, while a clean-up detail swept up all the detritus left along the linoleum tiles.

In any event, as some of you have begun to figure out by now, the meals I cook are often inspired by the moment — in this case, looking at pictures of 3/4 acre full of lovely green leaves at Walker-Jones and also by the “Top Chef” finale in southeast Asia (Singapore, to be exact), which aired last night. At Whole Foods, you are immediately swept into the produce section, glistening wetly in every color of the rainbow, and I was instantly greeted with rows of beautiful local lettuces. Lettuce = lettuce wraps = Korean yumminess.

This is my version of a perfect Indian Summer meal (it was 85 degrees yesterday) — it’s quick, nutritious, low-fat, budget-conscious, and is also a really fun meal for kids. I made it with a simple tangy sweet potato salad on the side; remember that you can really use any toppings you like for the filling, such as chopped tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, even pickled beets. Just don’t forget to break out some extra napkins!

Tell me that's not a beautiful plate of food. And a snap to make!

Korean-Inspired Lettuce Wraps

1 pound ground protein (I used a soy product, but turkey, etc. would work, as would rinsed and drained cooked black beans)

1 onion, chopped

2 Cubanelle or other sweet peppers, chopped

3 TB Gochujang Sauce (Korean sweet & spicy condiment; barbecue sauce would work too)

2 TB canola or vegetable oil

salt and pepper to taste

1 head of green leaf lettuce, leaves removed, washed, and patted dry

1 cup grated carrot

1 avocado, sliced

1/2 cup chopped cashews (optional)

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and saute for 5 minutes, then add peppers and cook for a further 5 minutes. Add protein and stir to combine and cook until completely browned (especially if using an animal protein). Stir in Gochujang Sauce and allow to warm through; add salt and pepper to taste.

To assemble wrap:

Lay a piece of lettuce on the plate and place a large spoonful of the hot filling in the center. Add grated carrot and a slice of avocado on top and sprinkle with cashews. Fold the lettuce around the filling and enjoy!

Sweet Potato Salad

4 large sweet potatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces and cooked until tender but not soft. Rinse in cold water and set aside.

for the dressing:

3 TB almond butter

2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped

1/4 cup olive oil

juice of 1 lemon

1 TB soy sauce

1 tsp red wine vinegar

salt and pepper to taste

Put all ingredients in a food processor and process until smooth. You may add up to 1/4 cup of cold water if the mixture is too thick.

to make the salad:

Place sweet potatoes and dressing in a bowl, folding together to coat. Sprinkle with 2 TB chopped fresh herbs, such as chives or cilantro (0ptional).

Serves 4

Leave a comment

Filed under Cooking