I wasn't there during the Quickfire, but watching the footage I was impressed by Ilan's precise work and use of the scallop in its shell. I thought Elia's introduction of olives into her dish was risky, but Chef Hiroshi Shima appreciated the kick of unexpected flavor they provided. Cliff's dish of hamma oysters with ginger, soy, mango and jalapeno showed knife skills and a good grasp of presentation. That he also prepared prawns with hamachi, sisho leaf and daikon shows that he was ambitious, and willing to undertake a lot in only 30 minutes. I was glad to see that he won. Virtually every chef I know spends hours each week supporting charities that are meaningful to him or her. My own causes include hunger relief, through Share Our Strength, and Children of Bellevue, where underserved children receive desperately needed care and social services.
My good friend Kerry Heffernan introduced me to Project by Project, an organization based in NY and L.A. that partners young professionals with community organizations to help them realize their goals. Each year Project by Project chooses a different cause with whom to partner. This year they are raising money for Visual Communications, an organization that promotes media works by and about Asian Americans. One of Project-by-Project's most successful fund-raising events is their annual Food & Wine Tasting Benefit, in which various chefs and vintners prepare tasting plates and tastes of wine for charity-minded individuals. This year, we decided to lend Top Chef's contestants to the cause: Divided into two teams, representing two different Asian cuisines, their task was to work together to dazzle 1,000 guests at the tasting benefit, and raise money for a good cause.
Los Angeles is home to a diversity of Asian cultures, and so our chefs were divided into teams that focused on two that aren't as well known to many Americans -- Vietnamese and Korean. Vietnamese cuisine, like Chinese, relies heavily on seafood and vegetables in stir-fries with rice or rice noodles, but Vietnam's French Colonial past is seen through the use of consomme-like bases in their soups, and subtle herbs such as lemongrass. There is almost always some fresh vegetables and herbs served with a Vietnamese meal, and dipping sauces served alongside the main dish. Korean food, on the other hand, relies heavily on the strong flavors of red chili paste, garlic, and fermented soybeans. Kimchee (spicy, pickled vegetables) and banchan, numerous side dishes, are presented alongside spicy stews of fish, meat and tofu and steamed, short-grain rice. For Americans more accustomed to the delicate flavors of Japanese cuisine, or the careful balance of Thai food, Korean food can be an acquired taste. For those who know it and love it, good Korean food is something of an obsession. I was eager to see how our teams functioned together, and to see how they incorporated what they knew (or learned) about these different cuisines into their event food. I was also eager to see their "game face" -- how they presented themselves among civilians, since this is a big part of being a chef.