The Bull City Vegan Challenge will return to Durham for the fourth time in April. For a month, a record-setting fifteen chefs from around the city serve a vegan specialty that’s an addition to their general menu. Diners then cast votes about which kitchen came up with the most creative, delicious option in categories like best overall dish, best presentation, and best dessert. “Chefs compete.” explains the contest’s motto. “You eat!”
This year’s participating cast is as surprising as it is intriguing. The seafood-specializing Saltbox joins the ranks, as do the upscale Italian eatery Gocciolina, the Peruvian-based Luna, and the Southern-centric Beyu Caffe. There will be sweets from The Parlour, Rise, and The Cupcake Bar, plus greenery from the second location of Happy + Hale. Bar-food specialists The Federal, Geer Street Garden, and Parts & Labor are participating, as are the specialist grocers at Parker & Otis and the Durham Co-Op. Durham standbys Dos Perros and Guglhupf round out the list.
“The whole idea is to make more room at the table for everybody,” says co-founder Eleni Vlachos, a longtime vegan activist who also spearheads the Triangle Meatless Mondays campaign. “When we first started, I realized that, for most chefs, it can be irritating and an interruption to get these requests for vegan options when you don’t already have it on your menu. This was a fun way to show them how easy it is and how popular it is—and maybe they’ll keep it on their menu.”
Each year, when Vlachos sorts through the voter surveys for the Bull City Vegan Challenge, she’s stunned by how many non-vegans go to participating restaurants to try the limited-run dishes. On typical menus, vegan options often feel like a version of something that’s simply missing some key ingredient. Events like these, though, offer a marketing corrective, as kitchens are cooking vegan items meant to wow, not simply fill a dietary-restrictions gap.
“A lot of times, when you label it ‘vegan,’ it’s a scarlet letter,” she says. “It’s better to create something new that’s vegan than just to replace something else.”
Each challenge incorporates a new theme, around which chefs build their dishes. This year, Vlachos and her team of fellow organizers selected “Planet Protein” in an attempt to show that you don’t have to get protein by eating meat. It’s also a convenient and compelling tie-in to celebrate April’s Earth Month and Earth Day.
“People don’t think about there’s such a connection between the environment they care about and meat,” says Vlachos. “This is a way to highlight that.”
The theme is also a way to ensure the vegan dishes aren’t merely salads but are instead substantive meals themselves.
“In past challenges, some chefs didn’t include enough filling, hearty options, so we really wanted to emphasize putting in some plant-based protein in your dishes,” Vlachos says. She lists off products such as Field Roast, Gardein, and the local Delight Soy as some of her favorites in that field. “I’m hoping the restaurants take us up on that.”