(L to R) Perry Cheung, Chris Oh, David Park, and Jay Cho
After East Coast and West Coast semi-final competitions in Atlantic City and Los Angeles, the quest for Culinary Battles 2014: Supreme Asian Chef culminated in Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, where the four finalists competed in the final showdown on April 26, 2014.
The two chefs representing the East Coast were Culinary Institute of America – New York student Jay Cho of Coma Food Truck, which brought Korean/Mexican fusion food to Vancouver, and Dave Park, who has plans to open his first restaurant hanbun in Chicago that will showcase Korean street food with a modern twist.
The West Coast competitors were Seoul Sausage Company’s Chris Oh, a self-trained LA chef known for winning numerous cooking competitions including The Great Food Truck Race, Knife Fight and Cutthroat Kitchen, and Perry Cheung of Phorage, a classic Vietnamese restaurant in Los Angeles known for its locally-grown and sustainable ingredients.
After each chef settled in their stations, the secret ingredients were revealed — pork belly, cabbages, and an assortment of citrus fruits — and they had one hour to prepare a special dish that would be judged on presentation, flavor, originality, use of the secret ingredient, and overall quality of the dish.
Without access to a pressure cooker or a grill at their cooking stations, most of the competitors expressed initial confusion on how they would best prepare the pork belly in under an hour. But not Seoul Sausage’s Chris Oh. Donning a black cap with KTOWN scrawled across the front, Oh was cool as a cucumber, joking about being slightly drunk already, encouraging ladies to ask him for his cell phone number after the competition was over, and taking a moment to do the infamous horse dance when “Gangnam Style” blasted over the loudspeakers.
David Park, who endured some good-natured teasing about his expensive knives (and more impressive knife skills), immediately chopped up the pork belly and put it into a food processor. Jay Cho began by cutting the skin off the pork belly to tenderize the meat and allow the seasoning to absorb faster. Oh started by creating a flavorful sauce. But it was Perry Cheung who impressed the judges earliest by choosing to immediately deep fry the pork belly, so it would caramelize faster and therefore buy him more time to concentrate on the rest of his Culinary Battle strategy.
After the hour was over, host Diane Hendriks accompanied each chef, one by one, to the table of judges: Top Chef: New Orleans finalist Shirley Chung; Sean O’Connell, Executive Chef at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas; food writer and burger guru Damon Gambuto; Master Chef Joe Poon, a TV personality also known for his food sculptures; and Barbie Marshall, a contestant on Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen.
David Park’s dish was a pomme purée topped with shishito peppers, deep-fried enoki mushrooms, and brûléed citrus, with the pork essence infused into the sauce. While the judges liked the presentation and thought it was smart to use the ground pork to extract flavor, they ultimately decided that the pork-infused sauce wasn’t enough to make up for the missing fatty pork their mouths were watering for.
Halfway through Chris Oh’s allotted time, the judges still couldn’t figure out what he was doing with the pork. Turned out he had bigger engineering plans in mind. Not one to be constrained by limitations — he began his career cooking out of a friend’s SUV after all — Oh turned his butane burner into a makeshift grill, all while sipping on a beer like he was cooking for his friends in his own backyard. The result was spicy, sweet Korean BBQ-style pork belly paired with a citrus, mayo-based cole slaw — a simple but tasty dish that represented his signature style of combining Korean flavors with southern comfort food.
Chef Jay Cho impressed the judges with his dish’s beautiful presentation and the variety of creative and delicious flavors he managed to put together in an hour. However, some thought that the pork belly was a bit tough and under-seasoned, and others suggested he may have been little too ambitious: ultimately, there were too many elements going on that didn’t quite come together smoothly as the judges would have liked.
And last but not least, Perry Cheung presented the judges with his classic Chinese red braised pork belly and a cabbage slaw tossed with crispy bacon and a hint of grapefruit. While the judges called the presentation “rustic,” which seemed to be code for simple and slightly sloppy, Cheung’s careful concoction of flavors — utilizing everything from soy, lemongrass, ponzu, citrus, honey, and balsamic vinegar reduction — resulted in a dish that was completely gobbled up by the judges within minutes. “You had me at vinegar reduction,” said judge Shirley Chung.
As the show took a quick break to tally up the judges’ scores, if nothing else, it seemed clear that this time around, the West Coast had dominated East Coast.
In the end, the winner was Perry Cheung of Phorage!
(L-R) Joe Poon, Shirley Chung, Perry Cheung, Barbie Marshall and Diane Hendriks.