The US pavilion was the center of attention at Food Taipei 2013 last Thursday as it played host to the United Tastes of America — Asian Chef Challenge (美國之味 — 亞洲廚藝競賽), a cook-off in which chefs from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and China competed to produce a four course menu using specified US ingredients. With the chefs, two to each team, working frantically against the clock to produce a four-course menu to wow the judges, the competition was a magnet for show visitors.
Taiwan’s team, first-time competitors Li Dun-li (李敦立) and Lin Ying-wei (林盈緯) from the restaurant Bite 2 Eat (薄多義, reviewed in the Taipei Times, Sept. 16, 2011, p14) were definitely the underdogs going into the competition, competing against teams with high levels of experience including Eyck Zimmer from the Derby Restaurant of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, a culinary-contest veteran who picked up the UK’s National Chef of the Year in 2006, and Fumio Yonezawa from the Kenzo Estate Winery in Tokyo, who brought to the table his experience in the three-Michelin-starred Jean George in New York.
Li and Lin had strong hometown support and had seen off many teams from five-star hotels during the Taipei qualifying rounds with their fresh, colorful cuisine. Crowds gathered round to see whether they could hold their own against the international challengers and judges, including Cathy Jorin and Lars Kronmark from the Culinary Institute of America, drifted around the kitchen watching the contestants, giving marks for their skills and deducting them for even the slightest lapse in the highest standards of restaurant hygiene. “If you put your thumb in the soup and we see you, you are going to lose points,” head judge Alan Palmer said, only half jokingly, when summing up the results at the end of the competition.
According to Sumio Thomas Aoki, a senior marketing specialist with the Agricultural Trade Office, the US Embassy and the US Department of Agriculture had worked hard at creating this event, which could serve as a platform not just to promote US produce, but also as a platform for chefs from different Asian nations to bring their own inspiration to the world of international fine dining.
Speaking in relation to the Japanese team, Aoki, who is based in the US Embassy in Japan, said that “this was a great opportunity for our [Japanese] chefs to use US products, which they probably haven’t before … For us, one advantage is to see what kind of recipes they come up with, and we can probably use these to promote US products.”
Yonezawa said that the requirement in the rules that a number of specific ingredients be used was a challenge in developing his menu.
“There is some stuff that I do not normally use,” Yonezawa said, such as the Wisconsin ginseng root, which was on the list of required products that had to be incorporated into the menu. “I have not even tasted it before, so I was a bit confused about how to create a dish [using ginseng].”
As the clock counted down to the completion of the competition, chefs were furiously working to get the dishes beautifully presented and taken, some for display, others to a backroom where the judges would taste and discuss the plates.
Working in temporary kitchens with unfamiliar equipment tested the chefs’ adaptability and intuition. Taiwan’s Li, for whom this was the first culinary competition, said that the oven settings he made during the competition had not turned out quite as expected, but this was all part of the challenge. Zimmer, a competition veteran, said this would be his last event, as the stresses and strains were taking their toll. “I am getting too old, and sometimes the nerves creep in, and I found my fingers cramping up … it is always stressful, because you want to do a good job.”
The race toward the finish line saw the Chinese team lagging behind, unable to get their dishes out on time. “They will certainly be penalized for that,” said Bill Sy (司宛春), a judge from Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management, The Art Institute, in Arizona, US. “There were also some tiny hygiene lapses in the teams from China and Taiwan,” he added.
From being the unexpected winner of the qualifying round in Taipei (Taipei Times, April 6, Page 12), Li and Lin managed to get third place in the competition, beating the team from Shanghai. In terms of flavor and presentation, Taipei’s team got high marks from the judges, and Loic Colliau from STAY at Taipei 101, who had been brought in to judge the dessert segment, said that he thought Lin and Li had produced the best dessert of the competition. As the judges deliberated, the chefs cleared their stations and also checked out the dishes presented by the other contestants. Finally, after a rundown of the finer points of each dish, Palmer announced that the overall winner was the team from Hong Kong. Competition experience and possibly the more international environment of Hong Kong had given Zimmer and Lau a slight edge, but according to Jorin, the rest of Asia is catching up quickly.
“From everything I see, Asian chefs doing fine dining is growing very quickly,” Jorin said after to competition. “They are learning so fast, but they are also putting their own twist on [Western fine dining] … They have learned from the West, but then have incorporated their own cultural heritage, and put that together into a nice blend.”