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Iron Chef for vegans? It’s Veggie Conquest!

Veggie ConquestWhat happens when a passionate, committed vegan with a cooking show obsession finds herself under-employed? She creates her own. Sort of.

Jessica Mahady, a Brooklyn photographer, created Veggie Conquest when her business slowed during the Recession. “I wanted to foster a vegan foodie community,” says Mahady, whose apartment houses a cookbook collection to match her enthusiasm. “There’s a culinary vegan world that goes way beyond Bragg’s, tahini, and sugary desserts, which really deserves exposure.”

Veggie Conquest is a vegan cook-off in which amateur chefs, guided by a secret ingredient, create a dish that’s served to 80 guests and a panel of culinary professionals. The last panel included Alexandra Jamieson, author of The Great American Detox Diet, who you may remember from Supersize Me as Morgan Spurlock’s concerned vegan wife. All that’s missing are the cameras.

Veggie Conquest creator Jessica Mahady

Unlike the Food Network, where chefs are hand picked, Mahady opens the floor to chefs of all stripes. When buying a ticket for Veggie Conquest, you simply indicate whether you want to be a chef or a taster. Typically she ends up with 5 to 10 chefs. “Sometimes chefs back out at the last minute when they realize how much work it is,” says Mahady. As of yet the event does not include prep cooks or top-of-the-line All Clad cookware. “Chefs often have access to a sink and not much else,” says Mahady. It requires a dependence on coolers, and a winging-it savvy that would inspire the writers of Top Chef.

To get the word out about the first Veggie Conquest, Mahady sent press releases to several New York City food blogs and told her friends at the Vegan Eat-Up group. Word spread faster than room-temperature almond butter on a flax-seed cracker. So far each and every one of Mahady’s four Veggie Conquests have sold out—the last one in just 30 minutes. Finding an audience of vegan enthusiasts isn’t a challenge.

The judge's table at Veggie Conquest

The most recent event was held in Green Spaces in Chinatown (read on for a recipe from the winner of Veggie Conquest). But Veggie Conquest is still looking for its Kitchen Stadium. “Finding an affordable spot that meets our needs is the hardest part,” says Mahady. The studio audience paid around $25 a ticket in the past, but expect that to go up because of high cost of producing the event. Until the perfect studio kitchen with seating for 100 reveals itself (Martha Stewart, are you listening?), counters, chairs, plates, you name it all have to be rented and brought in.

To subsidize the next competition slated for August, tonight Mahady is hosting her first Veggie Prom—cue “Pretty in Pink” soundtrack. Prom-goers will convene at Littlefield, a performance and art space in Gowanus, at 8 pm wearing their best exiled bridesmaid dresses and leather-free finery ($15 at the door; $10 beforehand). Mahady’s serving vegan deserts. “People always come running for those,” she says.

As for whether the Food Network is ready for a vegan cooking show, Mahady says, it’s exciting to see a few vegan episodes on Top Chef. “I think we’re on our way, but first they’ll need to start with a vegetarian cooking show. They’ll make it to vegan eventually.” This charismatic vegan looks ready for her own show. She’s way cuter than Rachel Ray, she actually knows how to cook without opening a jar, and it’s obvious she can pull in a passionate audience.


The winning dish from the last Veggie Conquest

Here’s the winning recipe from the last Veggie Conquest.

Michelle Barton’s Tiny Tater Nori Rolls

Roll ingredients:
6 new red potatoes
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup chopped bok choy
1 cup shredded red cabbage
1 cup shredded carrots
1/2 cup chopped green onion
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Sauce ingredients:
½ cup vegan mayonnaise
2 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon spike seasoning
1 teaspoon red chili flake
dust with black pepper

Boil your potatoes, let cool for about an hour. While your potatoes are boiling, chop all other ingredients and place in a bowl, then add the potatoes. Mix the sauce together. Combine the sauce with the roll ingredients. Roll everything in a nori wrapper and top with soy nuts and more sauce.