I was invited last week to the Top Chef Korean Food Challenge where I was to be one of six guest blogger judges. The event was held at the San Diego Wine and Culinary Center with three main judges including cookbook author Cecelia Hae-Jin Lee, Barbara Hansen, Editor of LA Weekly and Korean American actor James Kyson-Lee best known for his role as Ando Masahashi on the NBC series Heroes.
The event was part of Cathlyn’s Korean Kitchen, a cooking show featuring the Korean Food Challenge, now going into its third season. Three teams of two chefs compete in creating popular Korean dishes in a span of 30 minutes using ingredients provided to them in a “mystery” basket.
The competitors included Villa Saverios‘s Executive Chef Javier Plascencia and Sous Chef Adria Montano of Tijuana, Mexico; Bluewater Grill‘s Executive Chefs Brian Hirsty and Graham Norton of Tustin; and the Marine Room‘s Executive Chef Bernard Guillas and Chef de Cuisine Ron Oliver of La Jolla.
Six Korean dishes were place on scrolls on a platter and the chefs pick one each to determine which dish they will be making. These were the ones selected:
Chef Javier Plascencia — Galbijjim (갈비찜)
Sous Chef Adria Montano — Dak Galbi (닭갈비)
Executive Chef Bernard Guillas — Bibimbap (비빔밥)
Chef de Cuisine Ron Oliver — Tteokbokki (떡볶이)
Executive Chef Brian Hirsty — Kimchi (김치)
Executive Chef Graham Norton — Gu Jeol Pan (구절판)
My fellow bloggers and I sat on a panel waiting for all the dishes to be cooked and then plated. We were all given a taste and we had to give an overall mark from 1-5 points for each chef with a final total team score.
The first team (Red) of Javier and Adria were very serious during prepping and cooking. It was very quiet in the kitchen with the two chefs not exchanging many words. However, the aromas wafting from the kitchen said it all.
Chef Javier’s galbijjim was a take on the traditional stew offering up tender beef with traditional ingredients such as pine nuts, red dates, and carrots.
I was sad to see chestnuts not included because that’s one of my favorite things in galbijjim but happy that gingko nuts were omitted (I do not like them at all). The dish didn’t have the heat of galbijjim I’m used to, but I really enjoyed its flavor except for the sour cabbage garnish on top which completely threw me off.
Dak Galbi was very flavorful indeed. I loved the taste of the sauce. In fact, I loved it so much I went in search of some steamed rice to sop up the remainder of the sauce and encouraged my fellow bloggers seated at the table, Lori Lynn Stokoe of Taste With The Eyes and Veronica Castro of Wine and Dine to do the same!
The only complaint I have of this dish was that the white meat was dry. Thigh meat would have been a better choice, although I think the chefs are presented with an ingredient basket so it wasn’t their fault that chicken breast was used.
The second team comprising of Chef Bernard and Chef Ron were the White team and it was rather entertaining to watch this duo in action. Chef Bernard is a vivacious Frenchman who was a natural in front of the camera.
I love bibimbap and I make it at home, so when Chef Bernard presented us with this deconstructed bibimbap, I was intrigued.
Instead of just rice, oats were mixed in for extra texture and flavor. The various vegetables were so flavorful and topped with a quail egg instead of a regular egg. All in all, it was not only aesthetically pleasing but it tickled the palate as well. I absolutely LOVED this dish. There was also a smear of his version of gochujang which he added sugar, ketchup and sesame to. Absolutely stunning!
Chef Ron’s tteokbokki was also sublime! It was really close to the traditional style except they were served in bite-sized pieces rather than the long cylinders which can be very clumsy to handle. The texture was also perfectly mastered so it wasn’t too hard or too mushy. It was simplicity at its finest.
I loved it so much I asked for a little more after Chef Ron had served the other bloggers. I was highly impressed that these two chefs were able to create something completely their own, yet, retaining its authenticity at the same time.
The last team, the Blue team were faced with the daunting task of making kimchi and gujeolpan. Kimchi takes at least 3 weeks to ferment and I was really concerned that the flavors wouldn’t be soaked into the napa cabbage, at least not enough for it to be a proper kimchi.
Chef Brian combined raspberry vinegar with sardines to make a kimchi salad. It wasn’t so much kimchi, but a salad using kimchi as one of its ingredients. I guess maybe I’m just a traditionalist when it comes to ethnic cuisines so this didn’t resemble kimchi to me in any way.
The sardines were served in chunks rather broken down so it was awkward to eat. I would’ve like the sardines to be crushed and mixed into the dressing for a more unified flavor balance. The way it was presented, the sardines were overwhelming rather than enhancing.
Gujeolpan, one of the most elegant of Korean dishes was the second item from the Blue Team. I was so disappointed to see the presentation so sloppy, taking away any form of sophistication from this dish. The vegetables were cut too thick and it felt like there wasn’t much thought put into the plating of the items either. It actually reminded of a plate from a visit to the buffet table.
The jun, or pancake, was thick and doughy again detracting from the exquisite nature of gujeolpan. The only redeeming factor came in the form of the dipping sauce, which, even though the chefs said the sesame oil had run out when they got to the ingredients, was the one thing that resembled anything remotely close to gujeolpan.
Having said all of that, making Korean food is not easy if you did not grow up cooking it. Therefore, regardless of the outcome, I applaud all the chefs for taking on the daunting task of this very difficult challenge. At the end of the day, every competing chef was a winner purely because they were brave enough to step outside his or her comfort zone in front of a panel to be a lcritiqued and judged.
After the 9 judges had completed scoring the dishes, they were tallied up and the final results were as such:
1st place: White Team from the Marine Room, La Jolla
2nd place: Red Team from Villa Saverios, Tijuana, Mexico
3rd place: Blue Team from Bluewater Grill, Tustin
To watch this challenge, tune into your local KOCE channel on Thursday, April 7th at 9pm. Click here for a station guide.