About two months ago, I received an email from one Wolfgang Rappl who introduced himself as a chef. He said his culinary school, Apicius, was holding a cooking competition and he asked if I would be interested in being the judge. It took me all of two minutes to say yes. I have a soft spot for students and I especially like competitive students. I like even more the kind of students who will exert extra creative effort to stand out. And any project that will showcase such creativity is something I wholeheartedly support and promote. It was a nice plus that money wasn’t part of the equation — no monetary prize for the winner, just a certificate and a chance to be featured on this blog.
To make a long story short, Chef Wolfgang’s proposal was that among all submitted entries, the teaching staff would choose the top five whose recipes would be emailed to me along with photos of the cooked dishes. I sent my counter-proposal. It didn’t seem fair to judge recipes by just reading them and looking at photos. The only way to judge a recipe is to cook it, taste it, eat it. Why didn’t I just go to Apicius on the day of the cook-off and do the judging in real time? I’d love to meet the students, I’d love to take food photos, I could pick up new ideas and learn just by watching and discussing.
So that was exactly what happened. The new set of mechanics was taken care of by the instructor in charge of the competition, Chef Alvir “AJ” Coronel Javier. The theme: “Filipino Cuisine with a Twist.” Last Friday, September 28, Speedy and I went to Apicius in Parañaque, the time and date having been set to conveniently coincide with the day that we pick up the girls from the condo.
As things turned out, the initial plan of having only the top five entrants cooking on the day of the final cook-off was ditched. Instead, all 14 contestants would cook in two batches with 30 minutes allotted for each batch. I’d have to taste 14 different dishes. With so many contestants, I thought that choosing the top three, instead of just one, and featuring all of their recipes on my blog was a better idea.
Later, after downloading the photos on my iMac, I had another change of heart. Why not publish photos of all the dishes and the names of their creators? Some of the non-winning entries were good too and worth sharing to the public. Any foodie can be inspired by them.
Of course, I’d have to disclose which entries won and why I chose them. A competition is, after all, not a competition unless there are winners. I should mention too that there was a set of criteria for the scoring: 40% for taste, 30% for originality, 20% for presentation and 10% for hygiene.
1. Pan Grilled chicken inasal with green mango salad by Laurienne Agoncillo
That green mango salad was just divine. I’m no fan of chicken breast but I have to say that the this chicken breast was perfectly cooked. Which really means it wasn’t cooked to death so that that the meat was still moist inside. I didn’t understand though why the rice had to be wrapped in egg. It made for a good presentation though.
2. Nilansayang talong at makopa by Hazel Joy Gaviola
Two things about this dish. I had difficulty pronouncing the first word so I asked the contestant what it meant. It turned out that it was a play on “lasagna” and it was supposed to read nilasanya.
Second, I was looking for the makopa thinking that “makopa” was just the Filipino spelling for the macopa fruit. Not. “Makopa”, I was told referred to bell pepper.
3. Tapalog or rustic beef pasta with malunggay pesto on toast by Jose Lorenzo Manalo
I really, really loved this dish. So original. The well-loved yet quite prosaic tapa and egg combo served with pasta, with the tapa hidden underneath the egg. And the malunggay pesto was very delicious. This dish would have won were it not for the toughness of the beef. And the under-seasoned pasta.
4. Salisburry embutido steak by Catherine Villas
Another dish that I found oozing with originality. Embutido by itself is already superb but smother the slices of meat loaf with gravy and mushrooms and the dish is even better. It would have won too but the side salad didn’t seem to jive with the main dish.
5. Baked chicken adobo-kamias served with mashed potato & garlic spinach rice by Hazel Gay Bacalso
The adobo was well-seasoned and well-cooked. I loved the idea of adding spinach to the rice. I thought that the addition of mashed potato was unnecessary. Plus, the mashed potato was gummy and too dense. I attributed it over-mixing because I saw the contestant making it and even at that point I was worried that the too-long and over-vigorous mixing would create problems.
6. Beef Bulalo with fried banana by Jeany Alaba
The “fried banana” in the recipe title refer to saba bananas which, fried or not, are not an unusual addition to the generic nilagang baka of which bulalo (bone-in beef shank with the marrow, for non-Filipinos) is just a variation. Neither is the addition of chunks of sweet corn on the cob a surprise. I loved the broth though. The Apicius students do know how to make broth from scratch as the use of broth cubes is not allowed. The good broth could have carried the dish despite the not-too-original idea but the beef chunks were really, really tough.
7. Linguine with vigan style longganisa, pesto pandesal with malunggay leaves & ensalada by Reuben Paypon
Long-time readers would know how much I love combining pasta with longganisa (native sausages for non-Filipinos), especially the Vigan variety (see here, here and here). I knew this linguine with vigan style longganisa would taste good. But the contestant didn’t get rid of the longganisa skins. It’s one thing to eat the longganisa whole with the skins on but it is quite another thing to use them mainly for the filling. The dish would have had a more finished look and mouth taste without the longganisa skins.
8. Pigar-pigar with stir fry vegetable by Katrina Balazon
I take it that pigar-pigar is a famous and popular dish in Pangasinan (I’ve read up since and, yes, it is popular in Pangasinan — there is even a Pigar-pigar Fest). According to the contestant, it is quick-fried beef. The problem was that the beef in her pigar-pigar was tough. It was the third beef dish I tasted in the competition and the beef in all three dishes was tough.
9. Crispy pork cocomilk binagoongan with broccoli by Michael Bibat
It’s a good thing that I can now eat bagoong in small amounts. Otherwise, I would have been too scared to try this dish. The idea itself is so superb. But, in cooking, that’s just half the battle. The other half is the execution.
I love the kangkong bits in the rice. The pork was not that crispy but it wasn’t tough and it wasn’t dry. But it was under-seasoned intentionally because the bulk of the seasoning was supposed to be provided by the sauce. And there wasn’t enough sauce. If the pork were not so under-seasoned and if it were really crispy, this dish would have won too.
10. Pesang dalag by Arlene Baltazar
A very traditional and classic Filipino dish. I was wondering where the “twist” was until I tasted the broth. Oh, boy, that was one heck of a broth. Unbelievably rich and tasty.
Third Place: Boneless chicken ala inasal pinoy crab rice kinilaw with Luzviminda sauce by Christian Sunglao
For me, this is a great example of how to make separate elements in a dish go together to form an even greater whole. Each element in this meal — chicken, rice and salad — is good by itself. But, despite that, I wouldn’t normally think that they’d go together well. But they did. I normally don’t touch anything with crab but the rice was too tempting and I had to have a taste.
The side salad isn’t even just a salad — it is a combination of a salad and kilawin (ceviche, for non-Filipinos) which is traditionally served as a starter or a finger food. And the kilawin was so perfectly done — soft, juicy and the amount of tartness just right. It was the fifth dish I tasted that night and if I wasn’t worried about over-satiating myself, I would have eaten more than a few pieces of the kilawin. But with nine dishes to go, I had to restrain myself.
Second Place: Chicken adobo blanket with ensaladang mangga & drinks by Judy Ann dela Cruz
This chicken adobo blanket with ensaladang mangga dish was served with a gin-based cocktail. If you think adobo is so ubiquitous and boring, you’ve never tasted adobo wrapped in bacon. So good. Tasty to the core. There’s just no need to be superfluous with words.
Second Place: Adobong Pininyahang tahong, kanin niluto sa gata at luyang dilaw at kangkong ginisa by Ashly Rose Soriano
Yes, there was a tie for the second place. I didn’t even know until the scores were tallied. I was scoring and scoring according to what my mouth and taste buds were telling me and I wasn’t mentally computing the scores as I jotted them down on the score sheets.
The second dish to win second place is a mussel dish. I wasn’t too hopeful as I approached the plate seeing how shrunken the mussel meat looked. I was worried that they shrunk due to overcooking which meant that they would be tough. But they weren’t. They were succulent. They were that small because the mussels were small. The contestant said she couldn’t find larger ones.
And the rice… Ah, the rice — cooked with coconut milk and turmeric. Aromatic, lightly creamy, subtly sweet… Wonderful.
First Place: Pritong tilapia with kinilaw na talong by Leo Sarpamones
For me, this dish encapsulates the best cooking philosophy — balance, lightness and cohesiveness. No overwhelming aromas. No excessive seasonings. The fish is lightly floured and salted. The eggplant salad was just tangy enough. The rice was plain but that yolk of salted egg on top was pure genius. So simple yet so effective. Eat each component separately and there’s nothing earthshakingly outstanding about them. But put a bit of each in every mouthful and, suddenly, the interaction causes an explosion of flavors and textures.
I asked the contestant why he chose a fillet instead of serving a whole tilapia. Wasn’t a whole fish — head, tail and bones — more Filipino? It’s easier to eat a fillet, he replied. And I liked that answer. No attempt at mouthing some culinary gibberish about how a whole fish has no place in fine dining. It’s all about the convenience of the diner.
And that ends this post about my first experience at judging a cooking contest. I somehow think that Speedy and I were the real winners that night. We ate great food, we learned so much by watching the students cook and we learned even more chatting with Chef AJ.
For more about Apicius, click here.