Behind the Scenes With the Veggie Conquest Cooking Contest

On the heels of the fourth Veggie Conquest, VN talks “chop” with the cooking competition’s founder, Jessica Mahady.

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On Sunday, April 25, New Yorkers arrived in droves for the fourth Veggie Conquest (VC), an amateur vegan cooking competition that pits cruelty-free foodies against one another in a battle of the spatulas. Since launching last August, VC has taken the New York vegan community by storm, revitalizing the meat-free movement while giving it an exciting, edgy mainstream appeal. With VC stronger than ever—the last event sold out in 30 minutes—Founder Jessica Mahady plans to expand the brand to host other veg-friendly events, including the upcoming Veggie Prom in Brooklyn on May 14. Along with Veggie Prom, Mahady is helping organize a hangover vegan potluck in Central Park on Saturday, May 15, the morning after the prom, which coincides with the huge, annual Veggie Pride Parade on Sunday, May 16. It isn’t coincidence that an entire weekend of vegetarian events has suddenly sprung up in NYC—it’s all part of Mahady’s veggie conquest.

VegNews: What sets VC apart from other cooking competitions?
Jessica Mahady: What makes VC different is that it’s all amateurs competing. These people just do it for fun; they like to cook at home and happen to be really good at it, and this is their chance to shine. The chefs are not professionals—the professionals are the judges—they are just home cooks and the stuff that they make is unbelievable. It’s restaurant quality food.

VN: How many amateur chefs usually enter?
JM: We have between five and 10 chefs. We aim for seven or eight, but it’s really tough. They have to cook enough for 80 people, so not everybody can do it. It’s a lot of work and pressure. Another little wrinkle is that they have to transport it in New York City, where most people don’t drive because of subways or cabs. So one thing we do now that we didn’t do at first is give chefs a free helper to bring with them, and that’s sort of changed the dynamic. They have an automatic support system and somebody to help them carry everything, and they get to bring somebody for free.

VN: The hitch to every VC is that a secret ingredient is announced one week before the event, and chefs must incorporate it into their dish. The secret ingredient this time around was potato. How creative did the chefs get?
JM: It was interesting to see the twist that the chefs took on the secret ingredient. When most people think potatoes they imagine fried foods, but because of the nature of the competition, fried foods wouldn’t work well. The judges choose the first place winner, and they vote on presentation, creativity, and overall taste, and the tasters just vote on their favorite dish. The first place winner was a Tiny Tater Nori Roll; it was potatoes wrapped in a nori wrapper, covered in an amazing sauce. The taster’s choice was a cigar roll made out of phyllo dough and stuffed with potatoes, covered in plum sauce.

VN: How many different dishes do attendees taste at VC?
JM: We have a formal part of the night where chefs present their dishes and everybody gets to taste the food, and then we have a second half with food that’s cooked by volunteers. That’s when everybody gets full, because you really only have one or two bites of the chef’s portions. At the last event, Match meats donated food and we had two Match meats dishes that five or six volunteers cooked. The food is always unbelievable; this year we had a beef macaroni made with Daiya cheese and a chicken potpie.

VN: Please tell us a little more about the fantastic, upcoming Veggie Prom.
JM: It’s a prom for adults! My roommate is a vegan DJ, and we were brainstorming fundraiser ideas for VC. She suggested a dance party and then we began thinking about how so many other cities have weeklong or weekend vegetarian festivals and New York City just doesn’t have that. So, since the Veggie Pride Parade is on May 16, it seemed like a good weekend to have a really big vegan dance party and make it a weekend full of fantastic vegetarian events. We’re also working with another volunteer to plan a huge hangover vegan potluck for the next day—lay in the grass in Central Park and stuff your face with vegan food! And then we have the parade on Sunday. One thing we want to stress about the prom is that you don’t have to have a date. Singles are welcome; this is a place to come and meet new friends.

Photo by Jessica Mahady