2014 Asian Chefs Culinary Battles Finale Heats Up Caesars Palace Las Vegas

By Fiona Wang

Saturday, April 26, AsianInNY was invited to attend the Supreme Asian Chef Culinary Battles Finale of 2014 at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas. After the intense regional competitions in Atlantic City and Los Angeles, the contest finally got to the end with the 4 talented chefs representing West Coast and East Coast individually. It was a highly competitive culinary rivalry and made everyone excited at the scene.

So who were the final 4 contestants competing to win the Supreme Asian Chef championship of 2014? The first one, who was also the first chef to start the finale competition, was David Park from the East Coast. Park is just about to open his first restaurant, Hanbun, in Chicago, specializing in Korean cuisine that came from his heritage. After graduating from The Culinary Institute of America, he worked for famed Chef Takashi Yagihashi at his flagship restaurant, Takashi, and worked under Grant Achatz as a Chef de Partie at the Aviary afterwards; and most recently as a Sous Chef at Storefront Company. David’s skills and techniques are undoubtedly profound from the previous experiences he has gained.

Chris Oh, the second contestant representing West Coast, is the self-learned cook and the owner of the popular Seoul Sausage Co. restaurant in LA. He showed up very hyper and even acclaimed that he was already drunk, which brought laughter to the show and a sense of relaxation to the tense atmosphere. Though he never learned the cooking skills from culinary school, Oh uses his innovative creativity and a playful personality to fulfill his chef dream in his own way. We were all looking forward to see what he was going to bring to the table.

The third contestant, Jay Cho from East Coast, is currently a student at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. He is also a graduate from the California School of Culinary Arts. He has worked in several notable restaurants in Vancouver, Canada, and a chef/owner of a popular food truck featuring Korean-Mexican fusion cuisine. Cho’s exceptional culinary technique and authenticity had resonated in the judges’ hearts from the previous battles.

The last contestant representing the West Coast was Perry Cheung, who is the co-founder of Phorage, a Vietnamese restaurant in West Los Angeles. Born and raised in NY, Perry graduated from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in San Francisco. After working under Chef Charles Phan at the Slanted Door, he opened up his own restaurant and is now taking LA by storm. His restaurant, Phorage, specializes in combining locally-grown and sustainable ingredients into modernized Vietnamese dishes.

After each chef settled down on the stations, the mystery ingredients were finally revealed: Pork Belly, Cabbage, and an assortment of Citrus Fruits. The contestants needed to combine all of the ingredients into one entrée dish; the judges would critic each dish based on the presentation, creativity, taste, technique, use of the ingredient, and the overall skill. Each chef had a total of one hour to prepare the dish and present it to the judges. And then the competition officially started.

While waiting for each chef’s masterpiece, Caesars Palace served several palatable bites such as Korean style butter squash soup, spicy fried chicken wings, seafood tacos, along with the sponsored TY-KU Sake and 3 specialty cocktails inspired from it. I especially enjoyed one of the specialty cocktails, which added TY-KU coconut Nigori with pineapple juice. It tasted so sweet and fresh that I felt like I was sitting on the beach enjoying the temporally breeze. Oh well, stop dreaming, now back to the battle.

After a 30 minute wait, you can surely feel like you’re starving just by smelling the aroma from the stage. I wish I can just jump into the judges’ panel and have them all! The judges for the Culinary Battles Finale were Sean O’connell, Barbie Marshall, Damon Gambuto, Shirley Chung, and Joe Poon.

Chef Sean O’Connell is the Executive Chef at Caesars Place in Las Vegas, who is the cooking expert among luxury resort and hotel industry with lots of experiences around the globe. He also played a crucial role when opening the Bellagio Resort in Las Vegas.

Chef Barbie Marshall, a passionate advocator on eating clean and fresh ingredients, and is also a champion for sustainable foods and healthy approach to cuisine, which led her to the national stage. She is considered as an authority in the culinary arts recently from all the TV shows she has joined. She is also the all-time fans’ favorite star on Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen.”

The popular food writer and television producer/director, Damon Gambuto, has served as a Senior Contributor at Serious Eats for six years; his knowledge toward food is exceptional and has been regarded as the next top culinary writer and burger guru. In other words, if you are looking for a great burger joint to dig in, just ask Gambuto and he will probably tell you about tons of gems with their own specialties that make your mouth water.

Chef Shirley Chung, a Top Chef: New Orleans’ finalist and the former executive Chef for China Poblano by Jose Andres. Chung is so passionate and talented about food and cooking, and a traveler that allows her to explore different kinds of cuisine around the world.

Master Chef Joe Poon is an artist, an innovator, and a television personality with unending energy and enthusiasm for Asian cuisine. Chef Poon is also a teacher of cooking classes, and demonstrates the masterful art of food sculpture.

Counting down to the last 10 seconds, and it’s time to reveal each contestant’s ingenious dish. The first one was made by Park, which was a puree topped with shishito peppers, deep fried mushrooms, and grilled citrus, with the pork belly sauce infused in between. Even though the presentation was colorful and creative, the judges all made the decision that he missed the main ingredient – Pork Belly- which was supposed to be the leading role among the whole dish.

Then came with Oh’s dish, without complicating the whole cooking process, Chris simply braised the pork belly and grilled it like the traditional way of Korean BBQ, with the side dish of purple cabbage coleslaw. He wanted to convey the idea of simple, great soul food from Korea that people can enjoy freely and comfortably. Some judges were not so fond of the presentation, but overall amazed by the simple while tasty flavor the dish presented.

The cuisine Cho presented amazed the judges with his creativity and beautiful presentation. He mixed the Korean style pork belly with an essence of Mexican cuisine, which was an interesting combination. The only concern from the judges were the ingredients for each tasted great by itself, but somehow lacking its own flavor when combining everything together, and the pork belly seemed less seasoned to some judges as well.

Last but not least, Cheung presented a well decorated cuisine inspired by the famous Chinese dish, DongPo Pork, which is a fatty pork belly braised in soy sauce, sugar, wine, and other secret spices. Since the ingredients from this battle come with citrus, in order to avoid the acidity from the fruits, Cheung used different seasonings to reduce the sourness and added more sweet flavor, which Chef Chung appraised. Indeed, the station Perry worked on smelled like heaven during the contest, I can’t help but imagine a big chunk of DongPo Pork in front of my eyes. All the judges finished Cheung’s dish without anything left, and with admiring and appreciative comments. It was easy to tell when seeing each judge’s facial expression while tasting.

After a short 10 minute break for judges to count the total score of each contestant, we took a few shots of these 4 great chefs’ under the spotlight, along with the judges as well. I can now understand why “selfie” is so popular these days, it is indeed fun, especially with a bunch of people all squeezed into the tiny camera frame.

When our host, Diane Henderiks, announced the Champion of the Supreme Asian Chef Culinary Battle, unsurprisingly, Perry Cheung won the crown of the best Asian Chef of 2014. Congratulations to Cheung, and we are all looking forward to try more of your extraordinary dishes.

At last, sincerely thankful to Caesars Palace for hosting such a great event. It has not only raised the overall awareness and recognition of Asian cuisine in America, but also increased the interests and fondness from all foodies in the U.S toward the Asian cuisine.

Through the competition, we can not only see the strength and depth Asian cuisine holds, but also introduce the real Asian cuisine to Americans through a fun, interactive way. It is great to see how these new Asian chefs keep on preserving the traditional spirits and at the same time, adding on new trends and being influenced by different cultures in the Big Apple. It is really exciting to see what the Asian cuisine will bring to the next stage in the near future.

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