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.

image

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!

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