There was a time when "vegan" was a bad word in the restaurant world. But as diners' tastes evolved and the modern consumer learned more about the ethical and environmental aspects of their diet, the rest of the industry has followed suit, proving that veganism is about more than just leafy salads and flavourless food.
"People often see vegan on the menu and they think it's kale, it's quinoa, it's salad and people think that's how vegans eat, but we also like to indulge too," said Hayley Ingman, co-founder of Earthsave Whistler, a non-profit that promotes a plant-based diet.
Ingman had the idea to launch the Devilishly Decadent Vegan Dessert Challenge, which runs from Nov. 1 to the 14, as a way to showcase the diversity and quality of vegan food in the community, pitting seven local restaurants against each other to come up with the best vegan dessert.
Kicking off on Word Vegan Day, participating restaurants — Alta Bistro, Stonesedge Kitchen, Cinnamon Bear, Milestones, Cure Lounge, The Green Moustache and Olives — will feature a special vegan dessert on their menus for two weeks. Diners will then vote online in three categories: Most Decadent, Most Creative and Best Overall.
"I see it as a challenge to make something vegan or vegetarian that is so delicious and appealing that people wouldn't know any different. That's our goal," said Julian Owen-Mold, executive chef at the Hilton, home of the Cinnamon Bear Bar & Grille. While not a strictly vegan restaurant, the Cinnamon Bear offers several vegetarian and vegan menu options, and Owen-Mold thought it important to further showcase the different philosophies of eating through this inaugural contest. He's hoping his molten lava cake, made with cocoa butter and bitter chocolate powder topped with a coconut sorbet, shows diners the dizzying potential of modern vegan food.
"It's not just boiled vegetables," Owen-Mold said. "That's the worst stereotype of vegan food out there, that it's boring and tasteless."
Alta Bistro sous chef Ed Tatton sees the competition as a way for resort chefs preaching the values of sustainability to put their money where their mouth is.
"People talk about sustainability but you have to really think about and source out your ingredients and figure how best to use them. I'm finding it to be a more and more challenging and interesting way of looking at things," he said.
With a growing demand for vegan ingredients — even among health-conscious meat eaters — Tatton said the culinary team at Alta Bistro is learning that the traditional dairy option isn't always the best approach to a dish. Take the restaurant's smoked spiced pumpkin soup; Initially head chef Nick Cassettari wanted to use cream in the soup, until he realized cashew cream elevated the dish to whole other level.
"We both agreed that dairy cream actually coats your mouth and you didn't get as many flavours as you did with cashews. Using cashew cream, you get that richness and those natural fats that you want to make that dish more rounded," Tatton explained.
Alta Bistro will be serving up a sumptuous trifle with a sherry cashew cream, preserved Panorama Orchards peaches, prunes with a naturally leavened sourdough Challah base.
"As you know at Alta we'll never do just a standard trifle in a glass dish," added Tatton. "We came up with this really nice, multitextural trifle dish."
Ingman ultimately hopes the contest is just another way to build on the momentum of vegan dining options available in Whistler, exposing even staunch carnivores to the delicious and luxurious potential of the vegan lifestyle.
"I've really seen the menus change in Whistler over the last few years. I've been here 12 years and there was hardly anything (vegan) when I first came," she said. "Now you can get something rich and tasty and filling."
For more information, visit www.earthsavewhistler.com/vegandessertchallenge.