AsiaLIFE Cook-Off 2013
In our fourth cook-off to date, we have brought the competition to a whole new level. This time around, we’ve selected four of Saigon’s best chefs hailing from around the world and pitted them against each other in the same kitchen. As if competing against one another weren’t difficult enough, they’re also required to follow a theme and use ingredients from a mystery ‘black box’, both revealed right before the contest. The food and kitchen for the cook-off were provided by Sava The Gourmet in District 2. By Lien Hoang and Chris Mueller.
Our challenge for the chefs was to create a dish that best represents Saigon in 2013, using as many of the ingredients in the box as they wish. They were shown the contents of the black box right before the cooking began and given five minutes to select any ingredients from Sava The Gourmet’s extensive pantry. The chefs then had 60 minutes to prepare one dish before the judges gave their score. The winner got bragging rights.
Richard Sterling: AsiaLIFE columnist and renowned food writer.
Ann Ha: Local food blogger and social media strategist.
Brett Davis: AsiaLIFE editor-at-large who has eaten food his entire life.
The Black Box
One bottle of red wine and one bottle of white (provided by Tan Khoa)
One coquelet (young chicken)
Presentation: 5 points
Theme: 5 points
Taste: 10 points
Best of show: 1 point
In the Philippines, Joan Manalang had gained a bit of media attention for hiring herself out as a private chef. Or rather, hiring in: She would cook romantic dinners for couples at her home, even throwing in some rose petals for ambience.
So she had no problem with the cameras and audience that crowded around her as she rushed through AsiaLIFE’s latest cook-off.
Manalang might have dropped a knife or two, but that wasn’t out of nervousness that she was being filmed.
“I’m a clumsy person in general,” she said.
The Geisha Cafe chef served up the most colourful entree in the contest, a whole coquelet marinated in fish sauce, ginger and cumin. She also used the marinade as a unifying element to make both a raspberry compote, as well as a light sauce for the swirls of pasta around the small chicken. “It’s like a mini-Thanksgiving,” she explained to the judges.
Originally from Manila, Manalang started cooking for her grandmother at age 10 and was trained in Florence. Still, this is a career shift for her. Before becoming head chef at Geisha, Manalang spent much of her professional life (and still does) in advertising.
She entered the competition for fun, not worrying much about her rivals before or during the cooking. A couple days earlier, she did worry that foie gras might be a secret ingredient (“I don’t like it,” she said), and ultimately didn’t include it in her dish.
Throughout the hour, Manalang changed her mind twice about what to prepare. At one point she considered baking the chicken in tomato sauce, but then didn’t want to use the time-consuming oven.
The most difficult part was “organising in my brain,” she said.
Manalang said she can whip up a meal in minutes when she knows what to expect, but this was unfamiliar terrain. She hadn’t competed in a kitchen in years, but does watch cooking shows similar to the AsiaLIFE cook-off.
“It validates what you see on TV,” she said of the experience. “You feel the pressure.”
“I loved her presentation, absolutely beautiful,” Sterling said. “It was a still-life.”
He added that Manalang’s was “very much a family dish”, thus reflecting the Saigon theme and the Vietnamese style of sharing meals. But Sterling found the bird unevenly cooked, while Ha felt the overall package was disjointed.
“I wasn’t sure how all the flavours combined,” she said.
Thierry Faburel scrambled around the kitchen in a panic. “Where are my vegetables?” he asked. “I completely forgot to take vegetables.”
In the five-minute race to choose ingredients, he managed to grab some strong aides — raspberries, passionfruit vinegar, and truffle oil — but only added one bell pepper to his basket, and no spices.
Even with the shortage of ingredients, Faburel went to work on the coquelet as soon as the clock started, cutting the bird into smaller pieces before carefully pan frying it. Next he prepared the foie gras and Iberian pork, the only other ingredients he would use from the black box.
After 23 years of professional cooking, 14 of them in Saigon, the France-native said he was experienced with all of these ingredients and uses some of them in his kitchen at the Boathouse restaurant in District 2.
Despite this familiarity, about 30 minutes into the competition, he still hadn’t decided what to cook. “I was actually cooking, but I had no idea where I was going,” he said afterward.
It wasn’t until he opened a tub of chicken stock that his dish started to come together.
“Obviously that was my luck,” Faburel said of having the stock. “It’s very hard to do a savoury broth without taking three or four hours, and I had no spices or vegetables. So basically it saved my life. I don’t usually like it, but I was happy to have it.”
With the addition of strips of pasta sliced thinly to look like noodles, his dish became more complete. He added the chicken and pork to the broth and also threw in some scallops before
seasoning it with passionfruit vinegar and truffle oil.
“I had too many flavours to work with, so I decided to keep it simple,” he said.
But how did his dish represent Saigon in 2013?
“I did an imitation of a Saigon dish,” he said. “I used the concept of bun bo Hue — mushroom,
seafood and a little bit of meat.”
“It was a great idea,” Sterling said. “He took a Mediterranean base and a Vietnamese organisation.”
All of the judges agreed, however, that the presentation could have been better. “We thought it lacked a bit,” Sterling said. “It was a bit monochromatic.”
As for the flavour: all three judges only had praise. “It was
delicious,” Ha said. “The taste was complex and even.”
It would be easy to think of Gabe Boyer as the least-experienced chef in the competition because he was the youngest. But the 29-years-old’s relatively short career has taken him through the kitchens of two different Michelin-star restaurants in his native Chicago. Once in Vietnam, he became executive chef at Chill bar before moving on to head the highest kitchen in the city at Cirrus, on the top of the Bitexco building.
Boyer was clearly cool under pressure, especially since this wasn’t his first time in a similar contest, having competed on the second season of Iron Chef Vietnam. While he appeared to know exactly what he was cooking, it wasn’t until later he admitted that wasn’t the case.
“I was thinking about what I should cook until the very end,” he said afterward. “I had so many ideas in my head that I was trying to piece it together and narrow it down.”
He did piece it together, and presented a dueling coquelet: two separate dishes served on one plate.
Half of the dish was a lightly-fried tempura coquelet skewered with lemongrass. The chicken sat on a bed of tomato, onion, and lettuce with caramelised fish sauce vinaigrette, and lapsang souchong, a Chinese smoked tea. He also added fried boquerones, or white anchovies, saying they added a modern twist to his otherwise classic Asian ingredients.
The second half was a bit simpler: pan-seared breast with foie gras puree seasoned with fish sauce and pink peppercorn.
Boyer said he only chose ingredients from Asia or ones that reminded him of Vietnam and used quick-cooking methods that allowed him to spend more time on the flavours. “I basically focused on the sauces,” he said.
While some of the chefs struggled with not having enough ingredients, Boyer had the opposite problem.
“I took all of these luxurious ingredients — caviar, truffles, and morel mushrooms — and I didn’t use any of them,” he said. “I figured I’d let the more rustic ingredients speak for themselves.”
Of all the dishes they tasted, the judges said Boyer’s dueling coquelet had the clearest theme.
“He brought some great techniques to it, and it was really well thought out,” Davis said.
Ha said she liked how he used the fish sauce to flavour the dishes, giving it a distinctly Vietnamese flavour.
Sterling called it “meat you can eat with a spoon”, adding that it was “simple, but outside the box”.
While waiting for the cook-off results, chef Nguyen Thien was asked if he wanted to win. He answered with a question: there would be a winner?
Indeed, there was a winner, and it was Thien.
With Thien’s limited English, some details of the competition were lost in translation. Which made it all the more surprising that, despite missing or misunderstanding a few instructions, Thien came out on top.
“I was surprised everyone was cheering me on,” he said. “There was a really fun, happy atmosphere.”
He presented to the judges pieces of coquelet stuffed with foie gras and mushrooms, sitting on a Caprese-like salad of mozzarella, sliced tomatoes, and green and yellow bell peppers. Thien, the head chef at the Refinery, created a sauce by mixing red wine with gravy from the chicken.
After getting some help with the electric stove (like most Vietnamese, Thien is used to working with a gas stove), the chef showed his ability to improvise. He cooked the chicken in a pot for a golden finish, but then moved it into the oven to heat it more evenly. Unable to find an oven pan, Thien simply placed the chicken on a metal lid.
Thien, who comes from Nha Trang, said he got into cooking by chance. After being trained at the Sofitel hotel’s Olivier restaurant, he has worked at the Refinery for six years. He likes the creativity of fusing European food with Vietnamese cuisine. He occasionally cooks for his wife and has even taught her how to make a few dishes.
“In general, being a chef means giving people something to enjoy,” he said.
On the topic of victory, he was more interested in self-improvement.
“In a competition, anyone wants to win,” Thien said. “But you really win for yourself.”
Ha especially liked the moistness created by the mushroom-and-foie-gras stuffing. Each of the three judges ended up granting a bonus point to Thien. “We were pretty well-aligned,” Ha said.
“I watched you construct it earlier, and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, a sculptor at work,’” Sterling said as soon as everything had been plated.
Davis noticed that Thien chose the least amount of optional ingredients, opining that the chef must have known exactly what he planned to cook.
“It was a dead heat,” Davis said of the judges’ decision-making process. “At the end of the day, it was the flavours, they were out of the park.”