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Amanda Saab won MasterChef’s Vegan Challenge with a family-inspired recipe

Amanda Saab won MasterChef's Vegan Challenge with a family-inspired recipe

Gordon Ramsay built a bit of a reputation for being anti-vegan. The celebrity chef, restaurateur, cookbook author, and television host has admittedly warmed up to vegetable-centric meals in recent years. In fact, he now loves vegan food and encourages other chefs to move beyond meat, dairy and egg dishes.

In the Season 12 episode titled “Gordon Ramsay Loves Vegans!” from the reality cooking competition series ChefRamsay presented the contestants with the show’s first-ever vegetable challenge. While many participants performed high-concept dishes that you would expect in a fine dining establishment, it was Amanda Saab’s falafel recipe that took home the win. We sat down with Saab to ask her about the inspiration behind the recipe, her approach to vegan cooking and how she felt her dish overcame the judges’ discerning taste buds.

This season, which officially bears the title, MasterChef: Back to Win, does one of our favorite things in reality competition series: it pits former fan-favorite contestants against each other in a skill battle. Saab originally appeared in the show’s sixth season, where she was eliminated in episode eight. Since leaving the show, the Chef alum opened her own bakery (Butter Bear Shop, which closed in 2020), took advantage of her social media to raise money for social justice causes, and has hosted dinners inspired by her Lebanese heritage at the Frame restaurant in Hazel Park, Michigan.

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MasterChef’s Vegan Episode

Ramsay opens the episode with a small confession: “I really love vegan food.” However, this is no longer such a big secret. The British chef may have been anti-vegan once, but he’s been serving plant-based food for years and posting vegetable-forward recipes online. But what comes next seems to really shake some participants. Ramsay reveals that they need to impress themselves and his fellow judges, chefs, restaurateurs and authors, Aarón Sánchez and Joe Bastianich, using only plant-based ingredients.

Shayne Wells, the former MasterChef Junior contestant who won the vegan challenge in the fifth season of the kid-focused competition nervously describes herself as “a meat man.” Samantha Daily, a season 9 pastry chef, is afraid to cook without dairy. But others begin the challenge with confidence. Season 6’s Michelle “Shelly” Flash cooks for her vegetarian daughter all the time. And the judges have sky-high expectations of Fred Chang from season six, who already won a challenge in a previous episode when he presented the jury with a vegan dessert.

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Amanda Saab on winning ‘MasterChef’s vegan challenge

Saab is one of the few confident participants. She won the challenge and gained immunity for the next episode by whipping up falafel served with handmade pita bread, watermelon radish, micro cilantro, tomato, and pickled red onions. A “modest” recipe by some standards, compared to the other contestants’ beetroot tartare, pumpkin arancini and risotto with tofu scallops, to name just a few dishes. But Saab believes that increasing her family’s prescription secured her win.

VegNews: Thank you so much for joining us today. Many participants seemed nervous to cook for a vegan challenge. Did you have any hesitation?

Amanda Saab: No, I thought “oh, yes!” So much Lebanese food is natural, organic vegan. So many of the recipes I grew up eating were vegetarian and vegan. My mother has been a vegetarian since she was 14, so all my life, [my family] ate a mostly vegetarian diet. My grandparents had a greengrocer’s, so we always had fruits and vegetables nearby. So when I first heard [that the challenge was vegan] I thought, “Perfect! This is for me. There are so many recipes from my childhood that I can draw on.”

UN: So, was the falafel you made for the judges based on a family recipe?

AS: Yes, it’s our family recipe for falafel. Not the traditional way as we usually soak the dry chickpeas, but I knew I could do it with canned chickpeas too – I just had to be a little more delicate in shaping the balls and give them more time to cool before frying . It’s how my grandmother taught my mother, how my mother taught me, and how we still make them today.

UN: So many participants went for ambitious recipes, such as risotto with tofu scallops or mapo tofu gnudi. How did you feel when you worked on a family recipe instead of so many recipes inspired by good food?

AS: I thought I could either really get off the beaten track and create something new or stick to something I know is super delicious and I can perform comfortably. As I looked around, I noticed a lot of participants were making complicated things, and I think that can be a barrier to cooking different cuisines. [Vegan food] doesn’t always have to be out of the box. There is a time for innovation and creativity, but I knew I could do that in my own way with my plating and by playing with different pickled vegetables. But I wanted to stick with something I knew the judges would love.

UN: Tell us how you felt when your dish was chosen as one of the top three, and when you won the challenge.

AS: I was so ecstatic that [I won with] a family recipe during the vegan challenge. They caught one photo of me jumping up and down when they called my name. It was really cool to be selected to win this challenge.

UN: If someone wanted to cook vegan Lebanese food, what would you recommend making and what ingredients should they buy?

AS: Be sure to buy chickpeas first because they are so versatile and you can make things like falafel, hummus and different types of stews. There is one dish that combines chickpeas with hummus, bulgur and tomatoes, and it is so refreshing. Eggplant is another ingredient we often use in Lebanese cuisine, especially in summer. We fill a lot of vegetables with rice and even more vegetables, whether it is dolma (stuffed grape leaves), stuffed pumpkin or stuffed peppers… We really show the seasonal products and you never have to do much to manipulate really fresh ingredients.

UN: If the challenge allows, would you cook another vegan dish for the Chef judges?

AS: Oh, sure. Because I’m Muslim, people always say, “Oh, you don’t want to cook pork.” Well, I don’t eat much meat either, so I prefer baking and vegetarian stuff.

To learn more about Gordon Ramsay’s history with veganism, read:
Gordon Ramsay Welcomes First Vegan Chef to Hell’s Kitchen Contest
Gordon Ramsay Just Dropped A Vegan Bacon Recipe
Gordon Ramsay makes vegan eggplant steak

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