BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ –All the judges agreed on at least two things at the first ever Vegan Cook Off – the food was delicious and they would order most of it again. In fact, one of the judges (who wasn’t a vegan chef) said, “All the dishes would make excellent appetizers, and I would order ten and make it a meal.”

The judges included two professional vegan chefs and restaurant owner – King El, chef and owner of LaVodega Market in Hoboken, and Jake Blochinger co-owner and chef of Montclair Vegan,  township residents Kevin Hall,  and Alvaro Medeiros, who is running for council, and Mayor Robert Woodruff, who is running for re-election.

If you listened in to the judges debate the merits of each dish, you might have thought you were overhearing professionals – such as the ones on TV who judge all those contestants on the various food shows. Words such as depth of flavor, texture, piquant, rich, flaky, and smooth salted the conversations.

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Following welcoming remarks from event chair Kim Diamond, the judging began with the appetizers. Runners from The College of New Jersey who volunteered to help for the day, brought each judge a plate with an appetizer on it while Kinan Tadmori from the Environmental Commission read the name of the dish and its ingredients to the crowd.

The judges tasted, then discussed the dish, consulted with each other and the “professionals,” then ranked the dish for taste, on a scale of 1-10, and presentation and originality on a scale of 1 -3. The dishes included Spinach Artichoke Triangles, Feisty Spicy Southwestern Egg Roll, Red Lentil Brown White Soup and Korean Pevilla Leaves.

After appetizers came main dishes, some of which had fun names – “Not so Crabby Cakes,” “Dragon Fruit Bowl,” “You Can Tune a Piano But You Can't Tuna Fish Awesome Chickpea Sandwich,” while others were more mundane – Acorn Squash Dish. The judges tasted, debated and ranked each dish, then received another entrée to judge.

By that time, the judges had started eating smaller portions – they had to restrain themselves when they liked something a lot, there just wasn’t enough room to eat everything!

When it was time for dessert, the mayor asked, “Can we have a take-home box for the leftovers?”

More desserts were served than any other category of food – from “A Date to Remember,” a confection with dates, chocolate, nuts and other ingredients, to a Vegan Pumpkin Scone, to Chocolate Raspberry Cheesecake – the judges’ reactions were the same – YUM! Some of the desserts were indistinguishable from non-vegan desserts.

As for how someone can make chocolate raspberry cheesecake without cheese, the answer is use cashew nuts. One judge compared it to a mousse.

The Double Chocolate Chip Cookies were greeted with disbelief – they tasted so much like excellent non-vegan cookies. As for the vegan pumpkin scones – it got top marks from both vegan chefs, it was absolutely the right texture and density for scones, the spice mixture was perfect, as was the icing.

After all the desserts were judged, Diamond tallied up the ratings and announced the winners.

About 100 people attended the Vegan Cook Off. The dishes submitted were so delicious, the judges ate more than one bite of each in a number of cases. As a result, they agreed that having a separate panel of judges for each course would enable all judges to adequately sample each entry in their category, without putting their waistlines at risk.

The winners of the first ever Vegan Cook Off, sponsored by the Berkeley Heights Environmental Commission are:

General Public Division:
First Place -  David Steiner; Dish:  Feisty & Spicy Southwestern Egg Rolls
Second Place - Linda Meehan; Dish:  Korean Perilla Leaves
Third Place - Toni Emm; Dish:  Spinach Artichoke
Main Course:
First Place - Anibal Darquea; Dish:  Dragon Bowl
Second Place - Danielle Melchiorre; Dish:  Not So Crabby Cakes
Third Place - David Steiner; Dish:  You Can Tune a Piano But You Can't Tuna Fish Awesome Chickpea Sandwich
First Place - Diane Niceforo; Dish:  A "Date" to Remember
Second Place - Megan Schmeling; Dish:  Vegan chi Tea Cupcakes
Third Place - Megan Schmeling; Dish:  Double Chocolate Chip Cookies
Restaurant Division:
Main Course - Winner:  Devour Catering; Dish:  Acorn Squash Dish
Dessert - Winner:  Devour Catering; Dish:  Vegan Pumpkin Scones