Carmel Valley plant-based chef to appear on ‘Top Chef Amateurs’

Carmel Valley's Zuliya Khawaja was teamed up with Isaac Toups on "Top Chef Amateurs."
Carmel Valley’s Zuliya Khawaja was teamed up with Isaac Toups on “Top Chef Amateurs.”
(Courtesy of David Moir/Bravo)

Carmel Valley mom and plant-based chef Zuliya Khawaja will get her chance to show her skills and creative vegan vision on Bravo’s “Top Chef Amateurs.”

Khawaja will appear on “Top Chef Amateurs” this Thursday, July 15 at 9 p.m. on Bravo. The show is set up differently than original recipe “Top Chef” in that it features home cooks instead of professional chefs—the cheftestants are paired with “Top Chef” favorites to compete in challenges. Khawaja’s lips are sealed about what happens on her episode—you must tune in to find out how she fares.

Khawaja said the moment she walked into the “Top Chef” kitchen was one of the best moments of her life: “This was such an incredible experience, I would do it again in a heartbeat, like a hundred times,” she said.

Carmel Valley plant-based chef Zuliya Khawaja.

Friends call her “Zuzu” and some might know her from Zumba classes she has taught at Bay Club Carmel Valley almost every day for the last seven years. With her food blog and Instagram account Naturally Zuzu, she creates and shares plant-based recipes for every day enjoyment, inspiring others to embrace a healthy natural lifestyle.

“My mission is to show my followers and family that plants were sexy and absolutely delicious,” Khawaja said.

Khawaja is a self-trained chef with no culinary background, she has just always loved cooking since she was six years old. She fondly recalls folding dumplings and making noodles alongside her grandmother in her native Uzbekistan in the former Soviet Union: “She really inspired me to be who I am today,” she said.

She and her parents were political refugees when they immigrated to the United States, initially settling in Parsippany, New Jersey where there was a very large central-Asian community. She met her husband, a San Diego resident, in New Jersey and they married and moved to San Diego in 1997 where they raised their family.

Her two sons went through Carmel Del Mar, Carmel Valley Middle School and Canyon Crest Academy—her youngest son graduated from CCA in 2021 and will stay close to home at San Diego State University and her oldest son, CCA class of 2019, attends Sonoma State.

Six years ago, Khawaja switched everything up. She went completely vegan and at age 39, after working as a real estate broker and analyst, she decided to change her career and follow her true passion of food.

The whole idea of her quitting her day job may have seemed at the time “quite ludicrous.” She kept her broker’s license and still continues to do consulting but becoming a home cook was something she had wanted to do her whole life. Through her blog and social media, she started sharing her recipes and plant-based journey with others.

“I’m happier now, doing what I love to do,” she said.

Her Instagram feed is full of color and glamour shots of artistic food plating —“I’m quite obsessed with food photography,” she admits and it shows.

Her recipes include dishes like “No egg salad” (with chickpeas swapped for eggs), jackfruit tacos, lacy vegan vanilla crepes with organic berries and hazelnut chocolate and grilled avocado boats stuffed with plant-based ceviche. Her quinoa with black beans features a rainbow of veggies, topped with an avocado flower. She makes roses out of mangos too—they top her creamy honey turmeric-infused breakfast porridge and vegan tarts.

Khawaja enjoys “veganizing” popular dishes that omnivores would eat—she can veganize anything from ramen to vegan steak, vegan lasagnas to vegan mushroom lentil Wellington, a family favorite at Thanksgiving.

Her blog became more popular, her following boosted by her recipes being featured in nationwide-reaching feeds such as Women’s Health and POPSUGAR.

She never really imagined that she would be noticed but “Top Chef” did—they contacted her via Instagram DM asking if she would like to audition for a TV show. She was suspicious at first as the initial contact didn’t name the show but when she clicked on the link and saw it was “Top Chef” she said she ran around her house she was so excited.

“When I first moved to the United States, I watched food shows endlessly,” she said. “I am a huge fan.”

Her family encouraged her to go for it and she was cast. The show filmed over 12 days in Portland in fall 2020, she got to meet chefs that she looked up to and the competition itself brought out a mix of emotions.

“It was exciting, it was stressful… it was just indescribable,” Khawaja said. “You’re nervous and everything is happening all at once.”

The previews for her episode show that she is tasked with the Seven Deadly Sins challenge, to create a dish inspired by one of the seven deadly sins—she drew gluttony.

She can’t yet reveal what she made and how the competition turned out but her cooking style is always to highlight how tasty vegetables can be. Khawaja wants to dispel the myth that eating vegan is boring or bland—it can be sinfully delicious.

Check out Naturally Zuzu at or find her on Instagram @naturallyzuzu