It was an unusually busy day at the Taipei Kaiping Culinary School (開平餐飲學校) last Tuesday, when the school’s usual activities were overtaken by the hosting of the United Tastes of America — Asian Chef Challenge (美國之味 — 亞洲廚藝競賽), an event nominally sponsored by the US Meat Export Federation working together with the American Institute in Taiwan. This year was the first time this culinary challenge has been held, and Tuesday’s event was the last of four preliminary national competitions that have been held in preparation for a regional faceoff in June between competition winners from qualifying rounds in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo and Taipei.
At 3pm, the 16 two-person teams were finalizing a display of four-course meals of an appetizer, soup, entree and dessert that required the use of a variety of prime US ingredients. It’s the first time this competition has been held, and its aim is the promotion of US ingredients and encouraging culinary creativity among chefs in countries around Asia.
Up in the kitchens, teams work furiously in the scalding heat to get meals cooked and plated within the required four hours. The list of ingredients that the chefs had to use had only been announced the night before, and the teams had been working furiously since then to create their menu. Apart from using the list of required ingredients, the food had to look beautiful, show technical skills, and above all taste delicious. Competitors came from major hotels, culinary colleges and restaurants. Heavy hitters included teams from five-star hotels such as the Ambassador and Regent Taipei, defending their reputations for culinary excellence against smaller establishments such as Bite 2 Eat and Sowieso.
Chefs attempted to show off their skills with wildly complex dishes. Cream of cauliflower and Wisconsin ginseng root soup with jack cheese and chicken drumstick dumpling was quite a mouthful even before you got around to tasting it. Some concoctions, such as seared rib eye Carpaccio with Sunkist jelly salad looked better suited to pleasing the judges than the taste buds of ordinary diners.
“When it comes to the word competition, people go a little bit haywire,” said Alan Palmer, who headed the panel of five judges who would select the team that would go on to the regional finals.
“I had to insist, today and yesterday, to ‘keep it plain and simple.’ If you have a nice piece of beef, cook it nicely, season it well, serve it up with a nice garnish. But no, they try to create something. They have sometimes tried too hard to be creative, foregoing (the more important elements) of taste and presentation.”
Time was a major factor for competitors working against the clock, and sometimes focusing on one thing meant neglecting another.
“In some cases, elements that were on the menu were not on the plate,” Palmer said, suggesting that in some cases chefs simply had run out of time or forgotten what they had originally proposed. This meant losing valuable points.
“Some of the presentation was very nice,” Palmer said. He added, referring to a dish that he had just judged, “this last one, it had smoke, so it used the cloche, and it looked very nice, from a visual point. But then there was the issue of the raw rice.” Every dish had an almost architectural complexity, too many factors for some of the less experienced teams.
This is the first time that such a competition has been held in Taiwan. Davis Wu (吳秋衡), director of the US Meat Export Federation’s Taiwan office said that it was a chance for chefs to become familiar with a wider variety of ingredients.
“We want to encourage people in the food and beverage industry (in Taiwan) to use more creativity in preparing these agricultural products. This is especially important now that Taiwan is embracing a global market,” Wu said.
The styles on display at the competition were certainly international, but finding a signature style is not easily achieved, and the fallout from the struggle to use the required ingredients and create something that stood out from the crowd could be seen at the judging table. A lumpy blueberry mousse with walnuts was one of the dishes that signposted a wrong turn in the creative process.
As the judges cogitated over the scores, the teams themselves inspected each other’s creations with an eye for detail that may even have surpassed that of the judges. For all the competitors, this was intended as a learning experience and there were animated discussions about the piping of mashed potato and the consistency of sauces.
In the end, the teams from the big hotels, who had been the odds on favorites to win going into the competition, were knocked out by two young chefs, Li Dun-li (李敦立) and Lin Ying-wei (林盈緯) from the restaurant Bite 2 Eat (薄多義, reviewed in Taipei Times Sept. 16, 2011, p14). In the award ceremony, Palmer said that the teams from the three other qualifying rounds were already preparing intensively for the finals in Taipei this June, and that Taiwan’s food and beverage industry should get behind these outstanding chefs and give them all the support they need.