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Foodies alert: Local restaurants go head-to-head in inaugural Vegan Chef Challenge

Pizza Payaa owner Adam Elpayaa stands in front of a light up sign in his restaurant that reads, "I love you more than pizza."
Lauren Warnecke
Pizza Payaa owner Adam Elpayaa created an in-house cheese alternative from cashews and nutritional yeast after getting requests for a dairy-free option. The pizza parlor and bar in Uptown Normal introduces three new menu items as one of 15 restaurants participating in the Twin Cities' inaugural Vegan Chef Challenge.

Fifteen local restaurants have signed up for the first-ever Twin Cities Vegan Chef Challenge. Throughout January, foodies are encouraged to stop in, ask for the Vegan Chef Challenge menu and vote for their favorites.

When challenge coordinator Austin Simmons went vegan at age 15, it was tough to find vegan options in his hometown of Springfield. Nearly 10 years later, animal-free alternatives are everywhere.

“You can go to Aldi and get vegan chicken and waffles,” he said in an interview. “Burger King has options — so do a lot of restaurants. That just wasn’t the case before.”

A 2019 visit to St. Louis Veg Fest introduced Simmons to other vegans. And he was inspired by the city’s vegan scene.

“I went all those years not really knowing any other vegans in person,” Simmons said. “That made me a little annoyed. I just saw how the vegan community seemed very stagnant in central Illinois.”

Simmons organized monthly restaurant meetups in Springfield and launched a Vegan Chef Challenge in the capital city last year. The idea, launched by the national nonprofit Vegan Outreach, started on the West Coast. Simmons’ advocacy in the Midwest led them to hire him full time to coordinate regional Vegan Chef Challenges. There also are challenges planned in Champaign, Rockford, Peoria, St. Louis and Springfield, Missouri.

Twin City chefs jumped on the opportunity to bring new customers into their restaurants.

“We’re specifically targeting non-vegan restaurants to join,” Simmons said. “We want to show everybody that vegan food can be delicious.”

15 participating restaurants

A man stands with one hand in his pocket on a staircase overlooking an industrial-styled restaurant and bar.
Lauren Warnecke
Bloom Bawarchi owner Rakshith Venumuddala, AKA Raki Venu, said the Twin Cities vegan market is strong enough that a quarter of their current menu items are animal-free. Bloom Bawarchi was the first restaurant to sign up for the Vegan Chef Challenge, creating three dishes with unique flavors and sauces.

Fort Jesse Cafe and three from the Epiphany Farms restaurant group are on the list. Under Wraps teamed up with A La Tavalo and Great Harvest Bread Company to create new items. Food truck Shroom Shack set up shop at Mystic Kitchen for the month.

The challenge isn't just about highlighting existing vegan menu options attractive to vegans and omnivores alike, but to keep vegan customers coming back by putting new options on the menu.

“The vegans have already seen existing menu options,” said Simmons, “so let’s see something new, something creative. Let’s see what these chefs can come up with whenever they’re put to the test.”

The Coffeehouse, Pollen & Pastry, Zeta Coffee and Sugar Mama have your caffeine fix and sweet tooth covered. Those with a hankering for chicken and waffles can find a vegan alternative at Sao's Late-Night Eatery that is opening for lunch next week, adding to the overnight soul food kitchen’s hours. Veganism and Indian cuisine go together like bread and non-dairy butter. So, it's not surprising to see Bloom Bawarchi and Puran Indian on the list of competitors, too.

Bloom Bawarchi owner Rakishith Venumuddala, known around town as Raki Venu, said a quarter of his restaurant's 400 menu itemswere already vegan.

“Our primary focus was on vegan at one point,” Venu said, “because we were able to identify that the market for vegan was a large proportion when compared to the non-vegetarian.”

Bloom Bawarchi created three new dishes for the challenge: Malabar okra from west India, Kadai eggplant from the north, and gobi matar from central India. One of Bloom Bawarchi’s eight chefs, who specializes in vegan cuisine, developed unique sauces for the three dishes.

Venu is competitive by nature, so it's not just about bringing in new customers. In the opening days of the competition, he’d already had seven diners ask for the Vegan Chef Challenge menu.

“I’m pretty sure we will win this competition,” said Venu, who recruited Pizza Payaa in Uptown Normal to join the challenge.

“I like a good challenge,” said Pizza Payaa owner Adam Elpayaa, who isn't letting Venu run away with the title. “I love to feed people, and this is a new way to reach some new people."

While pizza might not sound particularly vegan friendly, Elpayaa already was making dairy-free cheese in-house.

“They were asking for it,” said Elpayaa, so he experimented with his own cheese alternative until the formula was just right. Pizza Payaa's vegan cheese is made from cashews and nutritional yeast, which adds an umami flavor. A few secret ingredients give Elpayaa's non-dairy pizzas the ooey-gooeyness of cheese.

“It’s delicious,” he said, adding even non-vegans are happy with the restaurant’s dairy-free cheese. Vegan versions of Pizza Payaa's potato and pepperoni pizzas, plus meat-free cauliflower "wings" dressed in sweet and spicy Korean sauce have been added to the menu for the Vegan Chef Challenge.

“We’re excited,” said Elpayaa. “We want to see how this month goes and I think we’re going to see a lot Vegan Chef Challenge people in here testing out the food.”

Of course, the challenge isn't just for vegans. Simmons encourages everyone to try out vegan menu options that can improve health, reduce animal suffering and have a smaller environmental footprint — plus, they’re tasty.

“Vegan food can be just as or more delicious than non-vegan food,” Simmons said. “I try new vegan dishes every week. I’ve never gotten bored in the almost 10 years I’ve been doing this. That’s got me really passionate about showing how delicious this food can be.

A full list of Vegan Chef Challenge competitors is online at veganchefchallenge.org/bloomington. Diners can vote for their favorites through Jan. 31 from the website, or using a QR code on the Vegan Chef Challenge menus at each restaurant.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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