Durham restaurants compete to serve up best vegan dishes

Durham’s vibrant food scene got a little more colorful in October as restaurants across the city participated in the Bull City Vegan Challenge.

The challenge invited ten restaurants from across the city to create dishes falling into the categories of “best appetizer,” “best entree” and best dessert,” which customers could later vote on using the competition’s website. BCVC took place throughout October and ended on Halloween; the winner will be announced Nov. 9. As part of the limitations, chefs were required to create non-standard vegan platters, meaning that they could not include portobello mushrooms, eggplant, hummus, veggie burgers or chocolate cake.

The competition’s initiators, chefs Shirle Hale-Koslowski and Eleni Vlachos, who is also a vegetarian, said the goal of the BCVC was to ameliorate the lack of choice and quality in vegan and vegetarian dishes in Durham. According to the BCVC website, the two wanted to create a competition that would play into the natural sense of rivalry among chefs. By challenging the chefs to create unique yet delectable vegetarian and vegan dishes, the two chefs said they hoped they could spark a new focus on meatless meals for an emerging population in Durham’s food scene.

“I just wanted to speak to that whole audience for that type of food to widen my consumer basis,” said Wendy Woods, owner of participating restaurant Nosh. “The needs of people now are very different than their needs 10 years ago.”

The website cited the popular Triangle Vegan Thanksgiving—which is held annually at Café Parizäde and generally attracts between 600 and 800 people—as an example of consumers’ desire for the city’s food providers to appeal to vegan customers. With the BCVC, restaurants were given a platform to meet those needs.

Cam Davis, general manager of another participating restaurant, Rue Cler, said he believes many restaurants provide “on-the-spot” vegetarian or vegan alternatives but have never made it their focus.

“Now this is a new, exciting opportunity to make a conscious effort,” he said.

The response has been overwhelming for many of the restaurants in the competition. Blue Law, head chef of The Federal, said the restaurant often sells out of its vegan dishes and finds it hard to keep up with the demand.

Woods also said Nosh has seen a new array of customers and that her new menu additions have garnered a “tremendous positive response.”

Despite the enthusiasm of many of the participating restaurants, Hale-Koslowski and Vlachos initially faced some minor setbacks in organizing the challenge. In an interview with the blog Our Hen House, the chefs described experiences with two Durham restaurants who declined invitations to the competition.

Davis also said that at first, designing the menu options to maintain Rue Cler’s traditional French cuisine was a challenge.

“It took our chef two to three weeks to work out the kinks of the dishes because French food usually focuses on creams, fats and livers,” Davis said. “It has changed our outlook on [vegan cooking], knowing it is possible, and will influence us in the future.”

The restaurants that competed in the BCVC include Alivia’s Durham Bistro, Nosh, Toast, The Federal, Piedmont, Beyu Caffe, Dos Perros, Parker and Otis Catering, Rue Cler and Vin Rouge.

The BCVC used Facebook and Twitter to promote discussions about some of the dishes in the competition. According to the comments, some of the more popular platters were the mango avocado salad at Alivia’s, the vegan chocolate mousse at Beyu Caffe and the grilled artichoke-spread stuffed panini at Parker and Otis. These outlets allowed individuals to share their opinions on food and make recommendations to others. Owners of the participating restaurants said they also checked up on the pages regularly.

“[The competition] opened our eyes to the fact that there is a much larger community than we thought and every restaurant is likely to take that into consideration now,” Davis said.


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