Review of the Florida Vegan Gourmet Food Festival 2020
I want to put the disclaimer out there that I am not vegan. However, I love to eat vegan when I can. I guess you can say I am vegan-curious.
I have gone on monthly vegan challenges to see if I can really become vegan someday, but the issue I tend to run into is finding the “meat alternative”. I would go about eating all the things I would normally consume but finding alternatives to meat and dairy. This always ended up in me not liking the fake meats because they didn’t taste like meat at all. Let’s not even go there about trying to make something taste creamy or cheesy without the dairy. I end up just eating carbs with veggies.
Today we have a lot of great vegan restaurants popping up around major cities so it’s not as hard to eat a tasty vegan meal and not miss the meat. I’ve found that a lot of times these local businesses are discovered via word of mouth in vegan circles. So the vegan-curious never learns of these magical plant-based spots until such a restaurant hits it big and gets some sort of publicity. Hence the need for local food festivals.
I had the opportunity as a Food & Travel Blogger to cover the Florida Vegan Gourmet Food Festival held on February 1, 2020. This event is put on by City Festivals and I was chomping at the bit to get the inside scoop on veganism and the gourmet food world. I had only attended a vegetarian festival many years back by accident. I was taking a stroll in a progressive city that I was visiting and just ran into it. This was back when veganism wasn’t a “thing” like it is today. Back then people either cringed when someone said they were a vegetarian or they were overly amazed that someone could cut out meat as it was “so hard to do.”
Veganism Options Today
Nowadays one can cut out dairy as well and go completely vegan because there are so many more plant-based options out there. Unfortunately, some of the best vegan options I’ve had contain soy as the protein. Soy may be one of the biggest reasons I am not ready to go vegan or vegetarian as the cons outweigh the benefits when consuming soy over meat. I must say I have noticed more plant-based options are coming to market other than estrogen filled soy protein. Pea protein, nut milks, oat milk and even jackfruit are excellent plant-based options. Once this becomes as prominent and going vegan has I may give veganism a try. I digress.
My best friend became vegan about 2 years ago and she was flying into Tampa to visit me from New York, so the Florida Vegan Gourmet Food Festival came in perfect timing. This was going to be the first time I’ve seen her since she went on a plant-based diet. I was the healthy eater in our friendship. I honestly wasn’t even sure if she was a healthy vegan eater as I happen to know a whole lot of vegans that eat a whole lot of junk and veggies aren’t the biggest part of their diet. Carbs are. So health and veganism don’t always go hand in hand as many vegans tend to become vegan out of the love of animals not for health purposes. I was lucky enough to be asked to judge the Best Chef’s Award because that meant I was going to get to taste all the best of the gourmet vegan foods in Tampa Bay.
As a foodie, I have had some fantastic vegan fare. Yet as a non-vegan, I began to realize how very little options vegans actually have when they are in a group mixed with carnivores stepping into a typical restaurant. Many items are made with dairy and animal fats even if it’s a carb, veggie or a legume. The gourmet vegan entrees at this vegan event would give me a chance to see if I would miss the meat.
As a media guest, I was fortunate enough to gain access to the Bamboo Lounge for VIP entrants where we enjoyed hors d’oeuvres by Ciccio Cali. Ciccio Restaurant Group owns several phenomenal restaurants here in Tampa Bay which all err on the side of healthier options so it isn’t surprising that they have fantastic a plant-based menu as well. Ciccio’s vegan ricotta made from cashew blew all of us away.
Best of Chefs Competition
Next, I went onto the Judges Pavillion to sample each gourmet vegan entree in the Best of Chefs Competition. The plant-based gourmet entrees were:
On the Go Gourmet by Chef Vivian Dodson. She prepared a Vegan Chili that was spicy and flavorful. This was so good that in a blind taste test I would’ve thought I was eating a chile con carne. My only criticism is that the presentation in styrofoam cups was a bit lacking in comparison to other contestants who were using sustainable materials as dinnerware. Nevertheless this chili was amazing I’d go far enough to say it could go up against traditional chili in a cook off.
Farmacy Vegan Kitchen located inside Duckweed Urban Grocery. Farmacy presented Jerk Pasta made with cavatappi pasta in a creamy jerk dressing with carrots, onion, celery and cherry tomato. This was one of my favorites, but pasta seems to always be the easiest vegan dish to pull off in my opinion. I would have liked to see a protein in this dish to show that vegan dishes don’t can be packed with protein. This taste was very filling and Farmacy showed off their gourmet capabilities with this entry.
Dixie Dharma located in Armature Works. They were able to pull off Carolina BBQ Sliders on a brioche bun. I gave this 5 out of 5 across the board. The use of jack fruit gave me the mouthfeel of meat and the protein I was looking for. Some of the other judges thought the sauce was a little sweet, but I love sweet and smoky barbecue sauce, so this was right up my alley. I had no issue with the slaw as a non-mayo eater!
Seasoned Green by Chef Chris Carr. He prepared mouthwatering Jerk Chickun Jamaican Patties with Thyme Crust. I loved this patty. With all of its flavor, I did not miss meat and I’m a huge fan of beef patties and not so much chicken unless it’s curried, so this was quite impressive.
Anonymous Chef. There was no signage next to this dish besides the name and ingredients. No other judge seems to know who the restaurant is. Please reach out if you know who the chef is as I would love to update this post. It was a Tropi Fried Rice. Hands down the prettiest presentation based on the fried rice presentation in a carved out pineapple as a bowl. This was a Japanese style fried rice with edamame, tofu, hijiki seaweed, vegan chorizo, avocado, mango, pineapple, and sweet chili sauce. This was definitely delicious, but I would eat this in moderation since I try to stay away from soy as much as possible.
Vegarosa Foods by Chef Mathias Padilla. This was the winner of the event. They presented us with a full meal. An empanada, rice and black beans with a salad. The entire presentation was lovely. It was a full platter which will win foodies over every time.
Vegan Fest Vendors
After the judging was over, we had a chance to visit with the wonderful vendors at this event. I didn’t get to all of them, but I did get a chance to interview a few:
AAA Best Ethiopian Food
Highly Recommend Attending Vegan Fests
All in all it was a wonderful festival to be a part of. That cashew nut ricotta has really got me thinking that vegan cheeses have come a long way and dairy, more than meat is what holds me back from converting. Will I continue to be a part time vegan? Probably. I still find that soy is a prominent ingredient in vegan cooking, but as veganism evolves I can get closer to a plant based diet full time.
If it weren’t for the Vegan Festival, I wouldn’t have known what my best friend and I were going to eat for the weekend.
I highly recommend attending Vegan Food Festivals even if you aren’t a vegan. You’d be surprised as to how delicious plant based foods are when prepared the right way.
The day after the festival my best friend and I rented scooters in downtown Tampa and rode over to Farmacy for a glorious vegan brunch.
Thank you City Festivals for putting on this event to bring awareness to Plant Based Gourmet Foods in Florida. I look forward to next year! Keep up with City Festivals Events on their website, Instagram & Facebook!