If you want your cheesesteak to win this competition, it better pack plenty of deliciousness in its long hoagie roll. What it better not have? Actual cheese — or any meat.
The first time Vance Lehmkuhl held a contest to find Philly’s best vegan cheesesteak, he could easily rattle off all the potential competitors. But that was in 2014. Ask him who’ll contend in the event’s sixth annual edition this spring and it’s a different story.
“I know there are more now — I just don’t know exactly how many or where all of them are,” Lehmkuhl said. “I’m hoping to learn just that as people start nominating them!”
At the Vegan Cheesesteak Party and Cabaret, set for April 14 at the Rotunda in West Philly, local chefs’ best efforts at translating this city’s most famed dish into plant-based form will face off for a chance to be crowned king.
Helping run the show will be none other than Frank Olivieri, third-generation owner of Pat’s King of Steaks, in his third stint as emcee. He may be scion of the family credited with inventing the original meat bomb of a meal, but he’s fully on board with the idea of a vegan version.
“I am honored to once again host the vegan cheesesteak contest,” Olivieri said with a wink. “Hopefully they won’t burn me at the ‘steak.'”
Lehmkuhl, who for years wrote the “V for Veg” column in the Daily News, said there’s much less blowback from carnivores these days: “Meat-eaters are slowly becoming resigned, I’d say, to the existence of vegan cheesesteaks.”
As the sometimes heated, angry responses to a recent Billy Penn roundup of salmon cheesesteaks showed, there’s still plenty of hostility out there. Some Philadelphians feel that if it doesn’t have beef, it doesn’t deserve the moniker.
But variations are plentiful even within the canonical realm, Lehmkuhl notes.
“South Philly guys already like to argue the finer points of whether the steak should be thin-sliced or chopped, or whether the cheese is limited to American and Provolone,” he said. “If you think a vegan cheesesteak isn’t a true cheesesteak you’re perfectly free not to have one — just as you’re free to avoid Swiss like the plague.
“We’re simply trying to extend it so that everybody can enjoy Philly’s signature sandwich,” he added.
People who’ll be happy about that extension include one Dr. Michael Greger, author of NYT bestseller How Not to Die. Greger will be a judge at the April event — and the opportunity to evaluate the city’s vegan cheesesteak offerings might even have had something to do with his move to Philly.
The force behind nutritionfacts.org, Greger recently announced he planned to relocate away from D.C., and put the call out on social media for suggestions where to go. Lehmkuhl pitched Philly, promising that if Greger agree to land here he could be on the panel. “Well, a couple weeks later he called back and said he was on his way! That HAS to have been the decisive factor!” Lehmkuhl said. “There’s no other explanation, right?”
Also helping decide the winner will be:
- Christina Pierello, author and star of TV show Christina Cooks
- Kimberly Garrison, actress and Philly Daily News columnist
- Myq Kaplan, vegan standup comedian
Kaplan, who has meatlessly tickled the fancy of viewers of the Tonight Show and Netflix and Comedy Central specials, will first helm the judging table, then move on to headlining the cabaret part of the evening of plant-based fun.
After all the vegan cheesesteak samples are devoured and judging has resolved, Kaplan will treat the audience to a standup routine, and share the stage with various other performers.
First things first: the nominations to get into the competition open Friday, March 8. (Interested parties can email Lehmkuhl for more info.) Then there’s a public voting period from March 29 to April 8.
Tickets to the main event are already on sale, however — and there’s only 100 up for grabs. Save your spot here.