Last week, more than a year after the series’ inaugural vegan episode, Beat Bobby Flay welcomed chefs Troy Gardner (chef-owner of Texas-based TLC Vegan Cafe) and Rachel Klein (chef-owner of Philadelphia’s Miss Rachel’s Pantry) for the opportunity to face off against celebrity chef and host Bobby Flay.
Vegan comedian Nikki Glaser and celebrity chef Michael Voltaggio were tasked with judging the competitors’ first round dishes to determine who would continue on to round two for a chance to take on Flay himself.
Left: Troy Gardner, right: Rachel Klein by Scott Kinkade
In the first round of the competition, Gardner and Klein each created a dish using a secret ingredient selected by Flay: beets. With just 20 minutes on the clock, Gardner opted to create a beet taco topped with tomatillo and tomato salsa. But ultimately, it was Klein’s beet green pasta with spicy beet pancetta that proved victorious.
After winning over the judges with her Italian dish, Klein went head to head against Flay in round two, where she selected the dish they would each be making: vegan cheesesteaks—an homage to the city of Philadelphia, Klein’s homebase.
Mushroom meat takes center stage
For her final dish, chef Klein relied on maitake mushrooms for her meaty stand-in. She finished off her sandwich with a rutabaga and cashew cheese sauce, broccoli rabe, spicy tomato jam, and crispy fried onions stuffed inside Italian rolls.
Klein’s vegan cheesesteak / Food Network
Flay, too, turned to mushrooms, opting for thinly sliced portabello mushrooms in place of meat. The celebrity chef topped his Philly cheesesteak sandwich with caramelized onions, sautéed peppers, cheese sauce made using cashews and nutritional yeast, dairy-free provolone, and potato chips all packed inside of a hoagie roll.
This final round was judged by Rich Landau (chef-owner of Vedge); chef and cookbook author Nikki Dinki; and Chris Cheung (chef-owner of East Wind Snack Shop).
“I’m a vegan, and I’m from Philly, so this is right up my alley,” Landau said in the episode after tasting chef Kelin’s cheesesteak. Cheung, too, gave Klein’s sandwich a glowing review, stating, “I’m a meat-eater from New York, but I’m really digging this vegan sandwich.”
Flay’s vegan cheesesteak / Food Network
Flay received mixed reviews about his cheese sauce and his decision to include potato chips in his sandwich. Ultimately, Klein was crowned the winner, and she proudly declared, “I just beat Bobby Flay.”
Rachel Klein of Miss Rachel’s Pantry makes history
With her victory, Klein has cemented her place in Food Network history, becoming the second vegan chef to defeat Flay, joining Tamearra Dyson of Souley Vegan in her victory last January.
“It feels surreal,” Klein tells VegNews about her win. “I’ve been doing this for so long. I started [Miss Rachel’s Pantry] in 2007, and it’s super cool to reach a new audience.”
To prepare for the competition show, Klein was serious about her training. She watched countless episodes of Beat Bobby Flay, a passtime she was fond of as a young adult.
“I made a whole list of ingredients, everything I thought the [round one secret ingredient] could be,” Klein says. From there, she began thinking about the different dishes she would make using each of the ingredients on her list.
“If [the secret ingredient] is mushrooms, maybe I’ll make a taco, a sandwich, or a crab cake,” Klein recalls. “If it’s a beet, maybe I’ll make it into pancetta—which I did—or into roasted salmon.
She was elated when she learned about what the secret ingredient would actually be. “When they said it was beets, I was so happy because we use them so frequently [at Miss Rachel’s Pantry],” she says, calling the root vegetable her own secret ingredient of sorts.
Klein was, however, hesitant about making pasta. “Making pasta was not something I thought I should do,” she explains. “I’ve seen it not be successful with other contestants.”
Despite her reluctance, she moved forward with her decision to make pasta for the judges. Incorporating beet greens—the leaves that grow atop beets—into her pasta was instrumental to her strategy.
Also, incorporating the secret ingredient in multiple ways has often given competitors the extra boost they need to win—a factoid Klein noticed while watching past episodes as part of her prep for the show.
Chef Troy Gardner’s Food Network return
Klein’s competitor was Gardner, a musician-turned-chef and owner of TLC Vegan Cafe in Richardson, TX.
Gardner himself is no stranger to the Food Network. He previously competed on a vegetarian-themed episode of Guy’s Grocery Games, where he came in second place.
While filming Beat Bobby Flay, Glasser approached Gardner, asking the chef if he was vegan himself. In the episode, Gardner says no, and begins explaining why he still eats non-vegan food before Glasser cuts him off with, “Alright, that’s a real cop out.”
Courtesy of Troy Gardner
When asked about his diet and his decision to operate vegan food businesses despite not eating fully plant-based himself, Gardner told VegNews, “The only reason I’m not 100-percent vegan is because I’m a vegan chef.”
“In order for me to recreate [dishes] and continuously grow, I stay open to keeping my palette the same so that I can actually recreate items as authentic as possible,” he says. “I’ve got a realistic goal of not turning every person who walks through the door into a vegan, but at least making them eat more vegan food.”
“By being able to recreate things as close to what they actually taste like, I think that it’s become more effective,” Gardner says. “I’ve been able to win over so many people who were skeptical [about vegan food].”
The Texas-based chef applauds Beat Bobby Flay for continuing to bring veganism into the mainstream. “Food Network taking these meat-driven shows like Beat Bobby Flay and making a vegan episode [will help people] realize that this is something that’s going to continue growing,” Gardner says.
While the series has been around for a decade and has aired 32 seasons, the fact that it continues to embrace vegan episodes is a sign of something bigger.
Richie Bowie / VegNews
For Gardner, Beat Bobby Flay’s second vegan episode is a sharp contrast from the vegetarian episode of Guy’s Grocery Games he previously competed in. The 2018 episode centered around vegetarian cooking, despite host Guy Fieri’s desire to film a vegan episode, due to pushback from the network itself.
“They were terrified to do a [vegan] episode then, and now, we can freely call it vegan,” Gardner says. “We didn’t have to mask it [behind vegetarian]. That’s a lot of growth.”