RVA Vegetarian Festival Vegan Food Fight

After weeks of brainstorming and numerous practice sessions, Lauren and I (a.k.a Team VegBird) officially conquered the challenge of competing in the Food Fight Vegan Cooking Challenge at the RVA Vegetarian Food Festival this past weekend.

RVA Vegetartian Food Festival Food Fight -- Team VegBird

When I say challenge. I mean challenge — especially for two self-taught home cooks.

For starters, we were up against stiff competition:

Kate Koyiades from 821 Cafe and her sous chef, Mackenzie Monday.

Kate and mackenzie(source)

Christine Newell, a raw food expert and nutritionist, and her sous chef, Jason Aldrich.

Chris and Jason(source)

Our dishes were being judged by Michelle Johnson, Nicole Lang, Joe Yonan and a randomly selected audience member (which happened to be Dawn Anderson).

Judges RVA Veg Fest Food Fight(source)

Just a tad bit intimating. Just a tad…

We were also cooking in front of a large audience.

RVA Veg Fest(source)

In addition, we weren’t able to bring any electric appliances, recipes, notes or food items. The hosts supplied us with appliances (a toaster oven, three burners and a food processor (affiliate link)) and pantry items (produce, canned and boxed food, dry beans and grains, spices and water).

And as if that weren’t enough — there was also a secret ingredient involved.

Here’s Karri Peifer, the announcer, revealing the secret ingredient. FENNEL!!!!!!

Secret ingredient(source)

The whole fennel thing definitely threw us for a loop. The secret ingredient from previous years were things like corn, sweet potatoes and tomatoes so I thought for sure we’d get something easy like zucchini. But no, we got fennel!

I cook with veggies all day every day but unfortunately fennel is not one that I cook with often (or at all) or know much about. I think the last time I had fennel was back in 2009 when Isaac’s mom made us Orange Tofu with Basil and Fennel. Too bad I didn’t remember that recipe on Saturday.

Luckily Lauren knew a bit about fennel and had cooked with it before so we were fine.

RVAvegfest Food Fight

One of the most challenging things was working with the pantry items provided. It was lacking a lot of things I’m used to working with when preparing vegan dishes like fresh garlic and onions, zucchini, kale, spinach, avocado, quinoa, nutritional yeast, flaxseed, bragg’s liquid aminos, nuts (they did have blanched almond slices and canned boiled and salted cashews).

It was definitely a little stressful, but Lauren and I made wonderful teammates and rocked it out. I’m not sure about Lauren but I pretty much blocked out everyone and everything going on around us and just focused on communicating with her and the cooking.


RVA Veg Fest Food Fight

We ended up making three savory dishes and overall, I think they were pretty darn good — especially considering we only had one hour to make and plate all three dishes.

We stuck with things we know how to make and kept it pretty healthy. No processed foods, no frying. Just fresh and flavorful foods. Here are the three dishes:

1) Raw squash noodles with a basil fennel pesto and roasted red peppers.

Squash Noodles

2) Raw “nut-meat” tacos with a corn and fennel salsa <— Nut meat was definitely a buzzword during the competition. Everyone had fun joking about it.

Vegan Lettuce Tacos

Nut Meat Tacos

3) Nourish Bowl with rice, black beans, roasted fennel and sweet potatoes, and roasted red peppers topped off with a peanut sauce.

Nourish Bowl

After 60 minutes, our time was up and we presented our food to the four judges.

Squash Noodles

This was the scariest part. Watching the judges eat and waiting to hear their reaction.


RVA Veg Fest Judges

They gave us their initial thoughts while eating each dish. For instance, Joe said that our nourish bowl tasted “homey” and Nicole said she felt nourished eating it. Michelle and Dawn mentioned liking the seasoning on a couple of the dishes.

The judges didn’t have anything bad to say about our three dishes (unless of course, they kept it to themselves) but I think the overall consensus was that they would have liked to have seen the fennel featured more prominently in the dishes by all of the chefs.

RVA Veg Fest Food Fight

Once the judging was finished, the scores were tallied up and the winners were announced.


Lauren and I came in 2nd place, by a mere 2 points.

Here’s the winning team with their trophy — Chef Kate and Chef Mackenzie!

RVA Veg Fest Winners(source)

To be completely honest, I was so happy to come in second place. Sure, it would have been amazing to win but Lauren and I gave it our all and the fact that we were even close to winning against a professional restaurant chef is a win in my book.

RVA Veg Fest 2nd Place

Much thanks to Lauren for being an amazing partner in this competition (and for making our snazzy aprons)! I couldn’t have done it without her and although I was listed as chef and she was listed as sous chef, we were truly teammates!

Also, a big thanks to Lauren and Greg of Citizen for putting this event on. It was a really fun to be part of the Food Fight competition again this year. After judging the same competition back in 2011 I said I could never compete because it seemed so intimidating. Never say never! Sometimes you just gotta step out of your comfort zone. Usually it feels pretty good afterward.

Reminds me of a great quote:

Do Something Everyday That Scares You(source)

What’s one thing that you did recently that scared you? How’d did it go?

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  1. That’s awesome, and I would be so intimidated by so many parts of this. Kudos to you both! The food also looks tasty, and I’d love to see methods/recipes, if you have them!

  2. Second place is amazing!!! Congrats! That is such an awesome experience. I definitely don’t ever use fennel either (not a black licorice fan!), so I would have been struggling. You guys clearly made an awesome team!! And it’s so true – do one thing a day that scares you!

  3. So sad I missed this but CONGRATS. That’s like winning an Emmy or something! Will have to get you to make my own “nut-meat” one day! We did check out the RVA Streets Alive- that counted as our one trip into the city for the day!

  4. So much fun, great recap! You were an amazing teammate too. Your planning, cooking and plating skills rocked. I don’t think I would have felt confident enough to do it if you hadn’t agreed to tackle it with me! Go Team VegBird!

  5. Congratulations for surviving! I’m sure you’ll agree that judging is a much better gig than competing 🙂 I love that quote. I was definitely terrified when I was called the day before to compete. You guys did a great job even with all of the constraints!

    I bought a small “wanna be” spiralizer after the competition and plan to test out some ideas that were inspired by the zoodles that you prepared 🙂 I also want the nut meat recipe too!

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