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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