Cooking contestant doing prep work
It was intoxicating: the idea that I could be a judge at a cooking contest; the idea that I could taste food and then deem it worthy enough to be given a prize. Woohoo, what a trip!I didn’t think about the hard work, but the job did have its perks.
I was asked to be a judge at the recently held Chef Showdown that took place at the fountain area of Market! Market! My co-judges were Chef Gene Gonzalez of Café Ysabel fame and Jeremy Malcampo of the Manila Bulletin’s food page. The competition was for those who had attended or were currently enrolled in culinary school. Each participant prepared one plate consisting of a main course with accompanying starch, vegetables, sauce and garnish. The dish also had to include at least three Knorr products (a variety of seasonings, bouillon cubes, sinigang mixes, and instant soups), one Alaska milk product, as well as Monterey beef.
I got to the venue an hour and a half before the competition started. I used the time talking to the participants (all admitted to having a case of nerves) and asking what they would be making. This turned out to be a good move because at the height of the competition, there were too many people and too much noise for any coherent conversation.
There were six participants: Joey Manibug (Our Lady of Fatima University), Mark Ross Ratonel, Sammy Masdo, Rodelo Parago (Cavite State University), Vic Abaya and Crisanto Buntan (MOST Institute). Each of them would have 45 minutes to prepare, cook, and plate their dish. Joey, Mark, and Vic took the first round.
Joey got off to a good start with his stir-fry beef with mixed vegetables, and even did some fancy pan-tossing while I watched. Vic did a sweet-spiced beef tenderloin with brown sauce and an interesting take on mashed potatoes with the addition of squash. Mark attempted an ambitious beef roulade with a side of linguine noodles served with white sauce and grilled vegetables. Perhaps because his dish had too many separate components plus the extra steps of slicing and trussing the beef, Mark went more than ten minutes overtime, resulting in severe point deductions.
When judges attack
During the competition, onlookers made it difficult for me to get close to the contestants. A cook in action is always a fascinating thing to watch, and this was no exception. With my clipboard in one hand and my camera in the other, I tried to be a trooper and do my job as best I could, jotting down points for food presentation (25%), originality (20%), taste (30%), and sanitation (15%). I found it particularly helpful to have Chef Gene there to answer some of my questions. Noticing that some of the participants wore plastic gloves and a facemask, I asked Chef Gene if that was really necessary, since I had never seen those accoutrements in a professional kitchen. He replied, “Not unless you’re in a large catering facility like preparing food for an airline.”
When the first round was done, the finished plates were brought to the judges’ table for tasting. That was when the crowds moved from the respective cooking areas of the participants to the table I was at. I have never been more uncomfortable eating than that time I had more than sixty pairs of eyes watching my every move and chew. Random thoughts in my head ran along the lines of “Oops, can’t look like a pig now,” to “Shoot, my plastic fork just broke. Hope no one saw that.” I don’t think I’ve ever eaten more daintily or self-consciously in my life. Chef Gene on the other hand, took large bites and chewed gustily. How I envied his confidence.
Round two went without a hitch. These guys, Crisanto, Sammy, and Rodelo seemed more at ease. While they had messier working areas, they moved quickly and efficiently. Perhaps it was a foreshadow of who the grand prize winner would be, but Rodelo sent his plate out even before the 45 minutes were up. It was a plate of “oven fresh” beefy noodles, crispy noodles with a saucy topping. It was the sauce and the vegetables that we the judges collectively found very interesting: a mixture of Knorr seasoning and condensed milk. This sauce was mixed with Baguio beans, sliced turnips, green cabbage, and spring onions. Delicious and unique. If I didn’t have those 60+ pairs of eyes watching me, I would’ve eaten the whole serving.
Sammy’s ramen orientale with spicy seasoning was very Thai-inspired: sotanghon noodles drizzled with sesame oil and beef tenderloin strips made piquant with some Knorr calamansi sinigang mix. I particularly admired the garnishes of spring onions and tomatoes. The judges made this the 1st runner up.
The 2nd runner up was Crisanto who whipped together beef tenderloin in brown sauce, which he unfortunately covered with deep-fried squash blossoms and tournéed potatoes. It made us wonder why he was hiding his main course. (?)
Aside from winning first place, Rodelo’s prizes included a set of Tefal sauce pans (lucky boy!) and a three-week internship at Gerry’s Grill, Je Suis Gourmand, and Tamayo’s Catering. Sammy won a Tefal grill and Crisanto’s prize for third place was a Tefal blender.
There was a cooking exhibition towards the end of the event, where three professional chefs wowed the crowd with their flaming pans and fancy knife work. I didn’t stay to watch because I was pooped. It looked glamorous, but it was hard work being a judge, I tell ya. I was itching for a shower and ironically, my stomach was growling. What I did like though was my loot bag which was given to me by the organizers. Check out the photo. I didn’t go grocery shopping for a week! (Plus I now have an extra iron if my current one conks out).