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Competitors merge culture, culinary arts into a Korean dish

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    Grant Sato's winning chap chae entry used pineapple juice to add acidity and sweetness.
    Kenneth Lee's dish had a sculptural quality.
    Recent Kapiolani Community College culinary school graduate Kenneth Lee tasted his chap chae as a clock counted down the time left in Monday's competition.
    Shayna Robertson was partly inspired by a trip she took to Korea in 2013.
    A cameraman filmed competitors Shayna Kum Siu Lum Robertson, left, Kenneth Lee, Ian Robertson and Aaron Miller as they gathered ingredients for the third-annual cookoff sponsored by the Korean government.
    First-place winner Grant Sato plates his dish during a competition Monday at Kapiolani Community College.

• More photos: Chap chae contest

Some waxed poetic about the ties of two countries affected by war. Others had their eyes on the contemporary, the practical, the local and healthful. Each with their own distinct perspective, six competitors — two attorneys, a food broker, a construction manager, a cook and a chef — applied their creative efforts to one thing: whipping up a unique version of chap chae, the traditional Korean dish made of sweet potato noodles, meat and vegetables, and seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil.

Philosophies and approaches aside, it all came down to taste, and the winning chap chae was full of that. The victor was chef Grant Sato, a culinary instructor at Kapiolani Community College, where the competition to promote Korean culture was hosted Monday afternoon. The assignment was to present the dish before three judges using a secret ingredient, and Sato’s culinary weapon of choice was Hawaiian Crown pineapple juice, reduced to a syrup. Its sweet acidity eliminated the need for processed sugar and punched up Sato’s vegetarian version, dictated by the chef’s focus on a healthful dish made with local ingredients.

Sato won $500 and a 10-day trip to Korea, where he will compete against chefs from Norway, France, Vietnam, Malaysia, Russia, Thailand, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the Philippines, Algeria and Peru, plus another U.S. chef from New York.

If he wins the contest, not only will Sato take international top honors, but a prize of $10,000.

The third-annual contest is presented by the Korean government.

"Korean food is growing in popularity around the world, so it gives winners a chance to visit Korea and increase their skill at cooking Korean food," said Sungsoo Kim, deputy consul general in Hawaii.

"Chap chae is one of the most popular traditional foods; it’s standard for special occasions. It’s an easy dish for showcasing what you can do."

Hawaii’s competition, one of 17 regional contests globally, was filmed with plans to televise the contest in Korea in September during "chuseok," Korea’s thanksgiving holiday.

WATCHING SATO cook is to witness meticulous attention to detail and an extremely delicate touch. As a couple of contenders employed flambes, the chef gingerly placed fresh greens into a pan and seasoned them with the lightest hand, drop by drop, turning them gently as they cooked. He ensured each noodle was well coated with seasonings, layering flavors gradually as he gently massaged the noodles again and again by hand.

It was this attentiveness that carried Sato to victory, said judge Joan Namkoong, a local writer. She shared duties with retired chef and former restaurant owner On Jin Kim; and Jeung Sun Chung, chef to the Korean consulate general.

"The use of the pineapple juice was a nice touch, a good representation of Hawaii. It was very tasty," Namkoong said. "Each of the ingredients was very well seasoned, and when they were incorporated, they all tasted good together."

Sato said his approach to cooking is to allow each product to shine.

"I think of the farmers’ efforts in growing this food, and I want to present it in the best way possible," he said. "I try to ensure that the diner has the essence of what each item is, so that a carrot is still a carrot. I try to keep it in its natural state."

Second-place winner Kenneth Lee, a recent KCC graduate, created a contemporary chap chae that was artistry on the plate. Lee twisted the noodles into an abstract coil and dressed it sparsely with toppings using tweezers. The big finish: a tall strand of noodle fried to a crisp that topped the dish with flourish. His secret ingredient: rice vinegar, to pickle the carrots. The effort won Lee $300.

Third-place winner Aaron Miller, who went all-traditional save his secret ingredient of macadamia nuts, admitted he doesn’t work from a recipe. He said the nuts add a richness and sweetness to the dish. His prize was $200.

Korean judge Chung, who knew authentic chap chae better than anyone else in the kitchen, said through an interpreter that the version served in her homeland has more toppings than noodles, and that Miller’s version, chock full of beef, onion, red bell pepper and more, reflected the original dish best.

Ward "Chip" Cruea, a trained chef who works as a food broker, attempted to transform chap chae into a surf and turf with fresh local chili prawns. Cruea was in familiar territory during the cook-off, thanks to competitions he and his friends stage for fun.

The contest brought out the competitive spirit in married attorneys Ian Robertson and his wife, Shayna Robertson. The couple took a trip to Korea in 2013 and tried as much food as they could manage.

Shayna Robertson said she was amazed to see the presence of Spam in classic dishes, and she spoke of how war — World War II in Hawaii and the Korean War in Korea — similarly affected the food cultures of both places. Her entry featured crispy Spam for texture.

Ian Robertson brought a western favorite, bacon, to his chap chae, saying the smoky meat reflected his affection for grilled Korean meats.

After all was said and done, judge Kim offered some food for thought: "I was disappointed that some (contestants) didn’t really taste their food. Some of the noodles were barely seasoned."

In spite of that issue, Kim said she was impressed by contestants’ enthusiasm for thinking outside the box.

"They were very good at being creative in trying to adopt local flavors," she said.

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