Chef School, Week 5: The Fires of a Competitive Heart, Part 2

When we last left off from the story, our hero had been goaded into a culinary battle. The antagonist himself has chosen to forgo the challenge, leaving our hero to find a weapon to defend himself against the wild.

After much work, the hero has found his sword in ramen — something familiar but also challenging to execute. How will he stack up when the chips are down and the clock is ticking? 

 

The morning was bitterly cold when I arrived at school on the morning of the competition. I had gotten the call to compete the day before, and after having practiced my dish with Chef Volke for two days and getting a good night’s sleep I was feeling rather good.

Stepping off the train, I ran the execution procedure of the plate over and over in my head, while chef’s advice rang through my head. It was nervewracking in a way, but also reassuring as well. The feeling was in stark contrast to the final moments before I hit the MasterChef Canada “fight club” kitchen. I was a ball of nerves going in, the pressure only intensifying its vice-like grip as time ticked down, coming to a head as I met the judges.

I got changed into my uniform, and headed upstairs into the kitchen. Some of the other competitors were already there, some with their partners and families. I was alone. Alone as the only amongst the other competitors who were from the professional cooking program, and alone in an unfamiliar kitchen that bears no resemblance to the kitchen we usually worked out of.

To compound the worries I saw two of the judging panel, and one of them was someone I was told to be extremely wary of, especially since I was making ramen.

Chef Kat Mori. The man the sensei had warned would be the most critical about the Japanese noodle. There he stood, ready to judge. Somehow my instincts told me this would happen — and there he was.

Shit, I thought to myself, I’d better not screw up. 

Once all the contestants arrived, the debriefing was given. Two hours, one dish featuring chicken with three vegetables and a starch along with a sauce. On top of this, we would not only be judged on the presentation and taste of our dish, but also on our work in the kitchen, including cleanliness and following kitchen protocol (a special judge was brought in just to evaluate that aspect alone) — And in the case of a tie, overall impression would decide the winner. It was a tall order, not only to execute a dish but also to be able to stay on-game in the kitchen.

We were allowed 30 minutes after the debrief to gather our ingredients, and prepare all the tools we needed. I had brought most of the ingredients I would need, such as the katsuobushi, kombu, bok choy and enoki mushrooms — but other vegetables I had left a little to chance, hoping that it would be in the fridges. And therein lay my first major mistake.

In my practice round, I had used blanched snap peas (mange-tout) tossed in red Hawaiian sea salt as one of my vegetables. I searched in vain in the fridges for those peas to no avail…and immediately I panicked. One of my three vegetables would not be possible as it wasn’t available. What was to do?

Lucky for me, during my search I had located some fresh shiitake mushrooms. Then, I remembered that the ramen sensei makes a mirin-and-soy soaked shiitake mushroom that went well with many of the noodle dishes he served. However, in a pinch I had to rapidly deduce the production method — it would be a gamble I had to take.

Once the clock struck 9AM, the cooking started. Many of the other competitors began by seasoning their chicken or preparing their vegetables, and meanwhile I was beginning the process of rolling out ramen dough with semolina. Mix the kansui powder with water, add it to the semolina. Knead, rest, knead and then rest before rolling on a pasta rolling machine that a fellow food blogger had loaned me after I had forgotten to mention to Chef Volke I needed to loan his. That right there could have easily been a fatal mistake — but somehow, Misty came to the rescue after I posted an SOS on Facebook.

As the dough rested, I set out to begin making the double soup: a clarified chicken stock paired with a fragrant umami-loaded dashi. I had messed up on the chicken stock clarification on my first attempt at rafting (egg whites mixed with mirepoix and other herbs and spices) during a practice run, so I aas determimed not to do it again — there were no room for errors. I soaked the kombu, and once it was thoroughly soaked turned up the heat and added the katsobushi to the heating stock. The soups bubbled away, as I began to try to recreate the mirin mushrooms.

Slicing a few mushrooms, I soaked them in a soy-mirin mixture with some seasonings and let it boil. Thinking it was safe to walk away to knead my noodle dough for a second time, I encountered Mori-sensei as I kneaded the dough.

“What are you making?” He asked.

“I’m making ramen with roasted chicken and double soup,” I responded, rather matter of factly.

I didn’t get a good look of his face, but judging from the tone I could hear it piqued his curiousity. Here was a Chinese kid trying to make ramen from start to finish in two hours. Surely he must have thought it impossible?

With the dough finished its second knead, I returned to the mushrooms…the heat was on high, and it was burnt. I cursed my luck, and continued on with trying the mushrooms again. I started the stove at a medium heat, and let the new batch cook while I prepared my other vegetables: blanched broccoli, enoki mushrooms, grilled bok choy and a red pepper garnish.

I had left a pot of water boiling for just such a task, but when I returned to it, I found a pan of creamy peas in the place where I had left my pot of boiling water. This would be a common sight for the next hour, as the contestants tried to get their dishes done — it may have been understandable, but annoying nevertheless.

With an hour to go, I was feeling good. Most of the vegetables were complete, the mushrooms were ready and the chicken had been seasoned. The dough by that time had been resting for about half an hour — my worst fears about the noodle dough not setting up had been unfounded; I would be able to calmly saunter over the finish line, with all my elements on the plate ready to be judged.

And that is when reality hit me like a million ton of bricks.

I set up Misty’s pasta roller, and took out the dough from the fridge. It was malleable, so I took it out and sliced it into portions for rolling.

And then, as I flattened the first piece and put it into the machine, it began to crumble.

I panicked, and grabbed some more water to hydrate the dough. Once it was wet enough, I rolled again. Still too dry, but at least it was coming out in a single sheet. I continued rolling four portions out, struggling slightly at the crumbliness of the dough as I wasted time adding more water to each piece, and kneading it. When the noodles were rolled, I sliced them into thin strips, tossed them in flour and let them sit for last minute cooking.

Then, it was time for the chicken. My butchery tutor had gone over chicken cookery with me the one time we had together, and it was time for me to not let them down.

I had seasoned the chicken not just with some salt and pepper, but also some sumac and grains of paradise for colour and flavour. I placed the chicken breasts onto the hot pan, and seared them. I brushed on a little bit of a glaze, flipped over the breasts, and put them into the oven to finish. That technically SHOULD leave enough time with about 15 minutes to go to cook to perfection….right?

Again, that would be a resounding no.

The oven, which SAID was set to 350°F, barely cooked my chicken to 135°F — forcing me to switch to a Rationale oven and forgoing the grilled glazed bok choy.

A few minutes later, with a dearth of time, I pulled the chicken out of the oven. I tempted it, clear juices leaking out as I did.

I sliced it open, and gulped loudly.

It was white. Perfectly cooked, moist and juicy. Last time I was in this situation, Claudio Aprile and I both saw pink. This time, I was confident he would have been thrilled to dig in.

However much I wanted to celebrate though, I had no time. The chicken was finished, but leaving me with precious little time to plate before the deadline. I had to cook my ramen, too…something that proved to be another time-eater when I found my water had been moved aside by another contestant. Ah, the joys of sharing stoves — a luxury that I fortunately didn’t have to endure in Toronto.

But somehow, I got it done. The plates were assembled albeit in the most haphazard of ways, and sent to the judges for evaluation.

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Here it is…the plate!

 

I cursed myself under my breath for the messy plating, and joined the rest of the contestants in cleaning our ustations as we sweated out the results. The judges were of high calibre; including Chef Mike Dekker and Chef Kyle Groves. My sensei and I had speculated that former Gold Medal Plates winner Chef Hayato Okamitsu would be amongst them — lucky for me, that wasn’t the case.

It was at this time my best friend in the whole wide world, Christina, arrived with her mom. Her mom was a graduate of SAIT’s culinary program, and was retreading old stomping grounds, and my friend was along for the ride. I was relieved to see friendly faces after having been alone for most of the competition, and certainle helped break a little of the tension building inside of me.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the results came in.

…and the winner was not me.

Another plate was the clear winner, although my plate generated a lot of buzz amongst the judges. Many stood in awe that fresh, cooked-to-order Japanese-style ramen could be pumped out within 120 minutes. In fact, five days later the chefs are still relaying to my instructor how incredulous they are.

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The winner’s plate (Photo courtesy Christina Ho)

 

Some enjoyed the orange-hoisin glazed chicken, while others enjoyed the stock. Some found the stock too weak while others such as Chef Mori found the stock over-rendered (since I had left the katsuobushi boiling, instead of steeping it) — others like Chef Dekker found the wing bone part of the chicken breast awkward to eat, but most, including Chef Groves (whom I didn’t recognize at first) found the plate a bit of a mess, a result of the lack of time left to artistically craft the plate.

Bur none complained of raw or undercooked chicken.

I celebrated that fact, which exorcised a massive ghost from my past. While this victory over a personal demon wasn’t captured by television cameras for viewing by a national audience, it does not diminish the significance of what that did for my psyche! The undercooked chicken was a massive burden on my mind, but in a stunning moment, I have rectified it.

So while I didn’t walk away a winner, I’ve still won a massive victory over the past, and proved to myself that I could compete again.

Watch out, Chopped Canada — I’m coming for you!

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Chef School, Week 5: The Fires of a Competitive Heart, Part 1

It’s been a pretty hectic these past couple of days (my first weekend at Crossroads with Jay and Eats of Asia’s new location being one of the big highlights) and things are about to get even busier these final three weeks of chef school, as our class enters the longest and possibly the most deceptively challenging module: hot foods. Stocks, soups and classic dishes…it’s all here.

But you’re probably not here to hear about my weekend, right?

Oh, you are? Oh yeah…Saturday. For the first time in a year since MasterChef, I actually entered a cooking competition. The challenge? One chicken breast dish, two servings, two hours. Serve it with a starch and three vegetables. Simple task for someone who has served steak and fresh pickled kimchi to a four-Michelin star chef within 65 minutes, right?

Turns out it’s not as simple as it sounds.

As you may recall, a bit of pride goaded me into entering the contest, dubbed the Cast Iron Chef Challenge. It was a way for SAIT to show off its professional cooking program during its winter Open House, which is one of the best in this country. (No, I’m not saying it glibly!)

In the days leading up to the challenge (even before they had given me the call to compete), I pondered what I would make. I scoured my notebooks trying to find an inspiration, all while the ghosts of my past failure with chicken still haunted my mind. But it was during a weekend practice session after my week of butchery classes, that I finally came up with a recipe for the chicken dish, almost like a bolt from the blue. My butchery tutor (he knows who he is) was the first person to taste it, and from his words of encouragement I knew I had hit upon a winner, and the competition provided a platform for it! How fortunate is that?

But the chicken was only one part of the story; there needed to be a starch and three vegetables to go with it. My mind raced again and again, until one night, it struck me.

I would attempt to make fresh ramen from scratch in two hours, and serve an upscale bowl that could feel like home in the high towers of Tokyo’s Roppongi, but could also be appreciated by the salaryman taking a late night snack on Ramen Street in Chiyoda, or a tourist craving an authentic ramen meal in Jimbocho. Lucky for me, I knew someone who makes ramen from scratch and sells it to critical acclaim — so I had a lead. Of course I did my own research, but nothing really spoke to me.

“Why don’t you try to use Lucky Peach’s recipe?” My ramen sensei said.

Of course — Lucky Peach. While I had considered using Ivan Orkin’s rye flour recipe, I felt that the colour of the noodle needed to play its part in the overall presentation — and for that, I needed those noodles to be bright but not unnaturally coloured that you could see it in the dark.

I kept researching, as the days to the competition drew closer. No call came, and both me and Chef Volke got a little nervous. Was I going to get picked?

But undaunted, I kept pressing on. I looked through more recipes, with each calling for different types of flour, and even one that called for vital wheat gluten. Some needed kansui, others needed kansui powder, and some with none at all. Lucky for me though, I had a way to test out my theories on the Thursday before, as it would be pasta day, and we would be making our own pastas. Some of my classmates made ravioli, another made pirogis, but one would attempt to make ramen.

Some classmates were intrigued. Ramen? Isn’t that the stuff that comes in the packs No, I reassured them. This was going to be the good stuff.

The day before, I baked off some baking soda to make kansui powder. Harold McGee, the food writer who popularized the concept, called for it to be dried by a third. Duly doing so, I had kansui powder at the ready, and with vigour charged headfirst into the noodle battle.

And then, I stopped. What flour was I going to use?

I looked at the all-purpose flour, and then eyed the semolina next to it. As I gazed upon its golden beauty, it was as if a lightbulb came on in my mind.

Almost involuntarily, I picked up a container and measured out some semolina. I dissolved some of the kansui into the water, and mixed it into the flour. I kneaded it with all my might, and following the Lucky Peach method, let it rest for a few minutes before sparring with it again. After the second knead, the dough took a time out in the fridge to settle, while I experimented on the other elements of the prospective dish. (Later I would discover McGee had also used semolina…thanks, Harold!)

When all the other parts were done, I came back and checked on the dough. It was firm but not impossibly so. I cut it into portions, flattened a piece, and ran it through the pasta machine.

What came out next is beyond words — a golden sheet of pasta came forth. I rolled the dough a few more times, each time getting it thinner. The magic of fresh ramen was unfolding in front of my eyes!

But as I was being dazzled, I didn’t see what was coming. I rolled the dough to cut it into thin strips. They looked a bit rough on the first go, but hey…practice makes perfect. I popped the first batch of noodles into a pot of boiling water, getting it to the required al dente.

I popped a noodle in my mouth, and all of a sudden there was a party in there!

…and then, it tasted like someone threw up.

Suddenly, a taste of bitterness came through, and while none of my colleagues could taste it, it got to me. I left the class wondering what happened — I had followed the recipe, and it looked fine. Just the taste.

I spoke to the ramen sensei again, and he figured it out. I can’t tell you what it was (trade secret, I guess) — but when the next day came, I was ready for another round of testing. By that time it was the day before, and I had only one day to do a trial run of the entire dish (with Chef’s blessing of course.)

I ran through the elements, closely keeping my eye on that clock. It didn’t tick loudly, but there was a ticking sound in my mind driving me on. The noodles had to be hurried along, and with great resolve I pounded out the dough and anxiously set it down to chill.

But this time, with a few adjustments — there was no bitterness. The dough was a bit drier (I had cut back on the amount of water) and came out crumbly at times in the roller, but it still worked. The noodles were al dente, and came out beautifully yellow, while sitting in a serene pool of double soup along with the roasted chicken and various vegetables.

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Is this a winner?

The class dug in, and my classmates raved. The noodles were gone within a few minutes, and I knew I had a winner on my hands. But would I be able to come out on top when the heat is on?

I’ll leave that to Part 2…tomorrow!

MasterChef Canada S2E1: A New Season Begins!

It came a week early, but a new season of MasterChef Canada has arrived.

I don’t think I’ve ever wished for a Super Bowl game to end this much before, but when the final whistle went CTV brought us a frenetic-paced episode, packed with auditions from a new group of home cooks eager to make their mark and ready to fight for their place in Canadian culinary stardom, plus $100,000 and a shiny trophy to demarcate their victory.

Because of the breakneck pace of the episode, many of the auditions were very much like last season; lots of people were shown in blink-and-you-missed-it moments. For those who were able to secure one of the coveted white MasterChef aprons, we will see them again. For those who did not, I always say this: never stop cooking with love and passion, and never give up on your dreams!

From my count, 11 aprons were given out — I wasn’t able to pinpoint one of the home cooks who got one, but I’m sure we will see her again in the near future. Below, I’ve evaluated most of the auditions…I try to be nice, but there are some who just need a good wake up call.

So…who is looking suave in white, and who is drowning their sorrows at the Heartbreak Hotel bar?

 

THE APRON WINNERS

Sabrina: She missed her only sister’s wedding to cook a traditional Italian medaglioni (stuffed pasta) dish for the judges, which earned the ire of her family in the process. I know the feeling; and just by the look of the simple yet elegantly put together plate, I knew she made the right gamble, securing Claudio Aprile and Michael Bonacini’s vote to win a white apron.

Jon: Normally as a Stampeders fan I would be playing the world’s smallest violin for some BC Lions player, but this guy has some moxie, tearing a page from mine and Bubba’s book with a steak-and-perogy dish. He ran into trouble with what looked to be very rare steak, which Alvin Leung found to be tough. The plate looked fine, and Jon moved on in a 2-1 decision.

Andrew and Debra: They were just briefly shown, Andrew with his deconstructed Halifax donair and Debra and her beautifully seared scallops. Both won aprons, so we’ll be seeing them cook again.

Christopher: Christopher is one of the 8 home cooks I had originally pegged as one to watch, and he has repaid my faith in spades. The tart looked a little shaky on the plate but the bright golden colours looked amazing enough for me to try to eat the screen (I didn’t, of course…screens do not taste great and I don’t have Taste-O-Vision. My original statement on him stands — my Canto homie is still one to watch!

Tammy: This single mother of SIX (yes, SIX) arguably delivered the plate of the night; a simply plated, straightforward plate of elk carpaccio. A few greens on the rare meat, a few drizzles of sauce, and there you have it: the season’s FIRST unanimous decision, and probably the biggest tear jerker of the night. She was not on my radar before, but she definitely made her presence known!

Michael: Very reminicent of Dale from last season, his plate stood as a counterpoint to Debra’s scallops (centred and looks full); it was far too artsy (my chef instructor would have had a field day with him about it being overworked), way too much empty space on the plate (at least Dale used the whole plate) and as Aprile said on the flavour, it had “no boom.” — but somehow he got through on Bonacini and Leung’s vote.

Nathan: Was the only one out of three “comfort food” makers to make it out with an apron, his April Bloomfield-inspired fish and chips won over the judges and made me want a whole plate of that stuff. Could be a sleeper pick.

Jennifer: A self-professed “chatter box”, her blueberry pie looked a bit rough but the flavours won over the judges. However, she committed a cardinal MasterChef sin: she talked over BOTH Leung and Aprile. If she is truly serious about going professional and possibly working in a restaurant kitchen, she will need to learn how to shut up. The first and last words out of your mouth should be a hearty “YES, CHEF!” — and you NEVER talk over him/her!

David: The final home cook to win an apron, he was forced to drop out of school at Grade 10 to work in the concrete business. He kind of reminds me of Danny, a battler who is now finally getting his chance to shine. It certainly helped he put together an amazing looking dish of miso sablefish that wowed the judges, but his kids ARE SO ADORABLE!

Kristen: She’s the one whom we just got a glimpse of — a shame, as she is Newfoundland’s FIRST White Apron Club entrant. What Shane, Billie-Jo and Kristal could not do, she’s done it! NL is on the board!

 

THE EMPTY HANDERS

Kristal: This Gander, NL home cook certainly does not lack confidence; she proudly proclaims to the judges that her daughter calls her “the best cooker in the world”. News flash — if you did not remember Leung bellowing to us that “AMATEUR HOUR IS OVER!” at the beginning of season 1, you are just asking for trouble. Plus, when adding sugar or any seasoning, ADD IT GRADUALLY. Once it’s in, you can’t pull it back out. Her plate did look okay, but ultimately, the amateurish performance was too much for Bonacini and Leung who sent her home, putting Newfoundland & Labrador at 1/4 over two seasons with one more Newf next week.

Clarissa and Shane: Guys, it’s cool you want to show off. But a) raw shrimp paste in a dish is a TERRIBLE IDEA, and b) if a judge asks you something about your technique, you better have an answer!

Carmen: You get one shot with the judges, and their rule is cook first, talk (and hug) later! Plus, as much as I try, I can’t see lobster and blue cheese being a good match. Sorry, mamacita.

Mishie: Oh my goodness, no matter how bad your dish turns out, saying you want to learn from someone by opening their heads and eating their brains is not a good idea But hey, take solace you made Leung laugh, which is incredibly rare.

Lisa: Both Mylene and Andrew had a whale of a time last year with soup, and looks like the MasterChef Canada soup curse has struck again, with Lisa serving a soup that was too salty. I do like the confidence though — if you were afraid of somene in the Top 49, why even stay?

Kenya: The only member of Team Alberta seen tonight. The Edmontonian bragged a lot about her travels, and then got her bubble burst by Leung who derided her for serving chicken and waffles when she had been all around the world. The chicken was far too dark, and the waffle looked mediocre at best, failing to entice the judges. I’d say something about that plate being the epitome of Edmonton cuisine, but…I’ll hold back.

 

So those are the home cooks we saw this week. But as an added bonus, each week I will name up to three Stars and three Goats. Who made it this week?

My Third Star this week is Christopher; he made an excellent plate, and made all of his Canto bretheren across this country proud.

Second Star goes to Nathan, who while getting very limited screen time showed off an amazing plate of fish and chips that looked great, and probably tastes amazing.

And my First Star of the week has to go to Tammy, for obvious reasons.

Now, to our Goats…

The Third Goat of the week goes to Jennifer; if she wants to last, she must learn to tone down the chatter, as it will end up putting a target on her back.

Second Goat goes to Kenya; way to represent our great province with a disappointing dish.

Lastly, my TOP GOAT of this week goes to a surprise candidate: Kristal. Using your child to judge of food is NOT a good idea, especially when the other judge is a seven Michelin star chef. S/he may think you’re a great cook…but when you get on MasterChef Canada, amateur hour is over.

 

That’s it for this week — next week, we will see the remaining hopefuls visit the judges, followed by the dreaded stress test to create the Top 16. Myself, Marida, Narida, Jason, Dora and Billie-Jo will all be live tweeting and chatting with home cooks (and of course, all of you out there) during the show next Sunday (personnel and times vary from time zone).

I will also be tweeting from Nikita’s viewing party. So look out for that. And now, time for me to catch a few winks before school tomorrow!