The 2014 Robinsons Chinese Cook-Off

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Sunday, February 9, 2014

JUDGING at the Robinsons Chinese Cook-Off this year is even more exciting. Compared with last year’s competition with two schools in the face-off, there were four entries this time, namely, from University of St. La Salle-ICA, University of St. La Salle-LSHM, VMA Global College, and Southland College. The requirements were simple: prepare any chicken dish in Chinese style with one side dish and yang chao.

My co-judges were popular morning talk show host Honey Grace Catalan and multi-talented food stylist/production designer/theater personality Alf Alacapa. For one hour and a half, the four teams sliced, chopped, diced, peeled, fried, pounded, scooped, marinated, mixed, steamed, blanched, sautéed, seared, pureed, dredged, heated, and plated. Although taste is a huge factor (40%) in deciding who will emerge winners, other contributors to the success of an entry are Originality and Inventiveness of the Dish, Overall Impression and Presentation, and Hygiene and Sanitation.

Robinsons mall has one screen telling the time down to the second and as the minutes went past, things became more and more unbearably exciting. Yet, the last few minutes were not as fascinating as the first half of the period for it is at the initial stages to three-quarters of the “game” where the performers little by little unfold their delectable surprises. Team 1 had the nifty trick of keeping most of their ingredients under wraps. They were systematic and only brought out on the table what was needed at the moment. Team 2 was cool under pressure and had a very colorful collage of vegetables, and spices on display. Team 3 is Most Pungent with their crab paste (sautéed crab fat), crab sticks, and kalkag for what seemed to be a truly Pinoy dish. More on this later. “Cooking up a storm” could be the best description for Team 4. Their table was a whirl of activity; more on this later, too.


As a judge, I never lose sight of the fact that the cooking teams work in a strange workplace under the public eye with the event televised at that. Far from the comforts and familiarity of a regular kitchen, to be cooking out there under time pressure and the name of the school on their shoulders is not an easy job. Team 4, with their whirl of activity, showed their nervousness from too many unnecessary movements. Team 3, too, though with restrained movements, betrayed their emotions through icy fingers. Still, these were the two teams who finished ahead of the rest.

Let me tell you a little secret: judges can be as nervous as the participants. Our decision is final and to miscalculate taste and the rest of the criteria can give us sleepless nights though we thank the kitchen gods that this hasn’t happened before. Hence, we poke through the piles of ingredients, sniff at saucers of spices, observe cooking methods, savor each morsel, pick at and dissect each dish, deliberate and even argue with each other, and be objective. Be very objective. I, for example, had set my heart on Team 3’s delicious rice dish using black rice. Honey Grace had to remind me about our peg which was to capture that Chinese-y flavor ; the one that evoked memories of a Chinese meal which Honey Grace had the advantage of doing being of Chinese descent. Team 3’s entry was Pinoy na Pinoy with the kalkag, et al. that I had to comment that although the dish was very good, the team entered the wrong competition.

Flourishes and complicated preparations may impress onlookers, yet it is the final product that seals a cooking team’s fate. Team 1’s intricate efforts did not make a winner although their Tofu Stuffed with Dates and Century Egg Sauce (grooved, stuffed, pasted with egg whites, and torched) had potential. Conversely, Team 4’s Orange Chicken plate was a case of playing safe. The chicken was perfectly breaded and fried, and Tofu with Red Egg side dish had a good blend of ingredients, they were meant to be comfort food and something the neighborhood Oriental restaurant may serve but was so-so for a competition. And Team 2? Team 2 was the winner of the Robinsons Chinese Cook-Off by preparing Stir Fry (sic) Veggies with Century Egg, and Airline Chicken with Hoi-sin Sauce in Taro Nest (sic).

On my way to the mall, I had hoped that someone would do a dish with nests (potato, or noodle) and red dates (probably in a soup). January 31 was my lucky day for I got both and in even better reincarnations. The taro nests (shredded and sandwiched between two wire strainers to mold them when fried) were tasty. The chicken pieces flavored with hoisin sauce (we complained that the sauce was drizzled too sparingly) went very well with their danggit-accented, achuete-hued fried rice that I had to exclaimed, “If it weren’t for the fact that we still have two more dishes to judge, I could have eaten all of these.”

I love my job! Now, if only the recipes had less spelling errors (e.g. shreded, saute’e, vinegrate, pancit fuven), and better grammar, it would make me grimace less. Team 1 didn’t win the cook-off but it won in Best Spelling and Grammar. Congratulations!

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on February 09, 2014.


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