Acclaimed chef serves up inventive vegan platters

Standing in the Dodd kitchen, Chef Ken Bergeron waves his tasting spoon emphatically as he elaborates on the versatility of watermelon. While I have only ever had my watermelon at the height of summer, preferably cracked open in a dangerous and juicy way, Bergeron knows just how to use it in the kitchen. “You can roll it in brown toasted sesame seeds, or blend it into a smooth pulp to make Guatemalan ketchup. And you know what I like to serve with my Guatemalan ketchup? Oyster fried mushrooms! First, you take flour and seaweed, two types of breadcrumbs . . . ”
I cannot keep up with the substitutes. Mushrooms masquerading as oysters dipped in pseudo watermelon ketchup? The life of a vegan chef is certainly an inventive one. And Chef Bergeron is more than inventive – he is avant-garde. In fact, he is the first chef ever to win a gold medal in the Culinary Olympics for vegetarian cuisine. And luckily for the avid vegans on campus, Bergeron came to Williams last Thursday to fan some fires – not the flames of any Gunpowder Plot, but the much more productive and delicious fires in Dining Service’s kitchen. Bergeron offered over a dozen vegan dishes, from caviar (drops gelled with Agar) on cucumber rounds to an attempt at chocolate drizzled, cream-filled choux pastries (soy cream), at Dodd’s illustrious neighborhood dinner.
After extolling the virtues of watermelon, Bergeron whips another teaspoon out of his shirt pocket and hands it to me, “Never go spoonless in a kitchen,” he says with a wink. We are in the final minutes before the doors open for dinner at 5 p.m., and there is a sense of expectation in the air amidst the sizzle of stir-fry. Bergeron visits each station for a final taste test, brandishing his spoon like a drill sergeant’s baton as the white-suited chefs line up behind him. He gives the nod to a faux creamy mushroom risotto, but finds the tempeh braised in sauerkraut “a tad mushy.”
Under the red lamp, under which meat normally basks, are now neatly triangular tofu Reuben sandwiches. This vegan version would be hard-pressed to imitate the wonderfully sloppy, pink-layered carnivore-fest of the pastrami Reuban, and it wisely steers clear of any attempt at such hedonism. The dish is toasted white bread with a thick wedge of tofu, vegan cheese and a horseradish dressing, which, according to Bergeron, is “actually 999 island dressing – we’re one island short of 1,000.” My prim little sandwich only vaguely resembles its namesake, but something about its tallness and trimness is very appealing.
Bergeron’s cooking is full of little jokes – pesto is not the usual pungent arugula-pine nut paste but instead is a mild spinach-pecan purée served in bowls to be eaten like an independent side. Cake, cut into rosy squares, is actually hiding a vegetable secret under its white icing. “That’s my Craisin beet cake,” Chef Bergeron says happily, “Can’t be beat!”
Speaking of vegetables, however, there are surprisingly few dishes that feature vegetables in their undisguised, unaltered glory. There are delectable carrot slivers in a very peanuty Indonesian tempeh stew and nice sun-dried tomatoes (something we could always have more of in the dining halls) in the Mediterranean cannelloni bean salad, but vegetables in Bergeron’s cooking are like the very underused back-up singer, belting from the back of the chorus line in hopes of getting discovered.
Despite their too tofu-centric focus, Bergeron’s dishes make veganism appealing – at least for the night. His curried chickpeas are cooked to tender perfection, plump with coconut milk and richly yellow with finger-staining cumin. With a bit of substitute naan (toast some foccaccia and flatten it with your latest textbook), it is chana masala heaven. Now if I could only convince Dining Services to go forkless . . .