Beth Wettstein, a devout vegan of nine years, is unsatisfied by the monotony of salads and veggie burgers that seem to be the only plant-based menu items at most Santa Barbara restaurants. “Compared to cities like Los Angeles, there’s just not too many options,” explains Wettstein, who usually opts to alter non-vegan plates by substituting fruits and vegetables for animal products.
Now Wettstein is asking restaurants to create their own veggie alternatives as part of Santa Barbara’s first-ever Vegan Chef Challenge. With the goal of inspiring a new crop of flavorful vegan dishes, the month-long competition requires participating restaurants to introduce at least three new plant-based creations to their menus.
“There’s going to be more than just entrées,” said Wettstein, excited by the variety. “There will be some unique appetizers and desserts as well. Started this past Monday on April 1, both the event’s team of organizers and the general public will have a chance to taste the plates and vote for winners in categories such as Chef of the Year, Best Vegan Pizza, Best Menu, and so on.
“There’s a lot of concern about global warming and taking care of the planet, and I’m just trying to do my part.”
By involving the community, Wettstein hopes to cement Santa Barbara’s “already growing” place in the vegan dining world as well as unite vegans and non-vegans through healthy and delicious food. As a former resident of Sacramento, where the challenge was founded, she has seen firsthand the effect that the event can have not only in driving revenue for competing restaurants but also in inciting a positive community attitude toward sustainable eating.
While the challenge is backed by Vegan Outreach, a nonprofit fighting against animal violence, Wettstein is just as mindful of the environmental impact of veganism. “There’s a lot of concern about global warming and taking care of the planet, and I’m just trying to do my part,” she said.
Here are just a few of the vegan selections to look forward to this month. (Items may change.)
Chase Bar & Grill’s Chase Stuffed Bell Pepper: Topped with rich vegan tomato sauce, this pepper’s stuffing consists of rice, vegetables, and spices and is plated with a helping of roasted garlic mashed potatoes. “I told my chef this was my favorite dish growing up and asked if he could do it vegan,” said owner Jackie Mathis. “So here we are.”
Opal Restaurant & Bar’s Vegan Napoleon: Colorful layers of grilled pesto tofu, wild mushroom, grilled red pepper polenta, grilled eggplant, portobello mushroom, and spinach are coated in roasted tomato sauce with a garnish of wild mushroom and roasted red pepper.
Mizza’s Chickpea Rollatini and Veggies: This gluten-free, high-protein chickpea pasta is full of flavor and richly textured. “The fresh flavors of roasted baby carrots, broccolini, and high-quality extra-virgin olive oil make this dish so satisfying,” explained Mizza co-owner Kourtney Searls. The dish’s finishing touch is a hint of garlic.
Uncorked Wine Tasting and Kitchen’s BBQ Pumpkin Ribs: Red Kuri squash, also known as Hokkaido pumpkin, is cured with a mixture of spices, smoked and roasted, and finally coated in a carrot-juice-based barbecue sauce containing smoked guajillo peppers. Owner Michael Amador expressed, “I wanted to offer something that non-vegans would be equally attracted to as much as they might be to a meat-based dish.”
Satellite’s Bistro Bento: This French-bistro-inspired meal, served in a traditional Thai Tiffin Enamelware Bento Box, offers three sweet and savory courses made entirely from locally sourced ingredients. The dish is a collaboration from Satellite’s entire vegan kitchen team and “demands attention from all the senses,” according to Chef Emma West.
Bella Vista at The Biltmore’s Spiced Jackfruit Taco: Sweet jackfruit is braised in a mixture of onion, garlic, avocado oil, and coconut oil and sprinkled with coconut sugar, paprika, and cumin. Sweet potatoes, pineapple salsa, marinated avocado, and shredded cabbage enhance the already decadent jackfruit and are served on a homemade tortilla. “I always love to cook with jackfruit,” Chef Marco Fossati gushed. “The cumin and paprika add a lot of flavor, and a drink in hand is a nice addition!”
Sama Sama’s Butternut Squash Dumplings: Roasted mushrooms provide a meat alternative while Sichuan Chili Oil, Chinkiang Vinegar, ground peanuts, and cilantro are “a flavor punch for your taste buds,” as Sama Sama cofounder Ryan Simorangkir put it. However, spice levels can be toned down upon request.
Bibi ji’s Fennel-Beet Salad: Locally sourced organic beets, fennel, pistachio, and vegan raita put a vegan twist on an Indian classic. “Raita is a staple to Indian cuisine but is traditionally made with yogurt,” manager Alejandro Medina explained. Here the ingredient consists of cashew yogurt and local cucumber. Medina’s team is passionate about working with farmers in the area “to source delicious produce with bright colors.”
The Vegan Chef Challenge will also feature delectable vegan creations by Black Sheep Restaurant, Khao Kaeng by Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar, The Lark, Les Marchands, Mesa Verde, Mosto Crudo, Padaro Beach Grill, Pico at the Los Alamos General Store, Sea Ranger Seafood Station, and Tyger Tyger.