Judging A Culinary Contest
Wednesday - November 01, 2006
(from left) Joon Lee, Lockbeth Eguchi, Bob and Janice
Senga, Jason Mahon, Alan Wong, Jaime Galat, Simon
Kuan and Mixed Plate Scholarship winner (front
middle) Colin Sato
Pamela Young asked me to be one of the judges at her annual Mixed Plate Scholarship this year, and I jumped at the opportunity. I like judging food contests for several reasons. It’s fun, obviously, because you get to taste (for the most part) really good food, it’s an opportunity to see the creativity of young chefs on their way up the culinary ladder, and for me, it’s challenging to sit beside well-known chefs to see how my own scoring matches up. It’s a way of continuing my own food education - and checking that my palate works on the level it should!
Alan Wong and Chai Chaowasaree were the other judges at the contest, held for KCC culinary students. Chai, who owns Chai’s Island Bistro and Singha Thai restaurants, is very sweet. He says nice things about everyone, and if he identifies a flavor in a recipe that reminds him of his own Thai cooking, he loves to encourage the students to do more.
Alan is scary - as a judge, that is. He’s a perfectionist with an eager mind and palate, and looks way beyond the dish in front of him.
“Do you think they’re a bit nervous that you’re here?” I asked him as we headed into the kitchen to watch the students at work.
“Yup,” he answered, giving his famously wry smile. He carries a package of Band-Aids in his top left pocket when he’s with students in the kitchen.
“I ask them to chop a carrot,” he says, “and they’re usually so nervous that you can see their hands shaking. So I always drop a Band-Aid on the counter just in case they need it.”
See, I told you - scary!
He’s the one judge, though, who you’d want critiquing your food if you’re a student. He’s interested and involved on every level, and asks not just how the dishes were created, but why. He’s committed to young chefs, is passionate about teaching and is truly a chef who gives back to the community in a very forward-thinking way.
But what’s he looking for when he looks at a dish?
“If I can capture a little of their passion and see if they’ve put their heart and soul into the dish, then that’s important,” he says. “Of course it has to taste good too.”
For Alan, challenging students is more about defining great moments in their lives than just judging their food.
“These kinds of moments say a lot about who you are,” he says. “It’s not just about the food. It’s about how you perform, how you practice, how you handle yourself under pressure.”
And if he sees someone who’s doing great work?
“I’ll offer them a job right on the spot,” he says.
Pamela and her husband, Gary Sprinkle, started the contest eight years ago to do something to help culinary students further their careers.
“They’re so talented and creative, and so many of them need extra help in making their tuition,” says Pamela. “I’m amazed every year at the creativity of these students.”
Students are encouraged to use local produce, and this year’s contest focused on Hamakua Mushrooms - crates of them were donated by owners Janice and Bob Senga, who flew over for the morning.
So who won?
Colin Sato, using North Shore Beef and Hamakua Mushrooms. He says his grandma helped fuel his culinary dreams.
And how did I do? Well, I sneaked a peek at Alan’s and Chai’s scorecards at the end and was gratified to see that they were almost exactly the same as mine. Huge relief. I guess that means I passed the food test too.
To hear interviews with Pamela Young, Alan Wong, Hamakua Mushroom farmers Janice and Bob Senga and some of the contestants, go to http://www.wineanddinehawaii.com/podcasts
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