Not a single Korean competed in last Thursday's Top Chef Korean Food Challenge at the San Diego Wine & Culinary Center.
The idea was to see what would become of Korean ingredients in the hands of chefs who don't ordinarily cook this type of food.
The contest was put together by Cathlyn Choi, host of the TV cooking show Cathlyn's Korean Kitchen, and sponsored by buzz KOREA, a global tourism campaign. The show will air on SoCal PBS station KOCE April 7 at 9 p.m.
The six competitors, working in teams of two, had 30 minutes to turn a basket of Korean ingredients into whatever dish they drew.
That meant coming up with instant versions of things that take hours, even days, to get ready, such as kimchi.
And the winners were — executive chef Bernard Guillas and chef de cuisine Ron Oliver of the Marine Room in the La Jolla Shores Hotel. Guillas prepared the rice bowl bibimbap in the traditional stone pot, then deconstructed it. Oliver made an upscale dish out of rustic tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes).
Tijuana chef Javier Plascencia and sous chef Adria Montano, representing Plascencia's new restaurant Mision 19, were second. However, Plascencia produced what may have been the contest's best dish (disclaimer: I was one of the judges), a fruity, tangy galbi jjim that paired grilled thinly sliced beef with pine nuts, jujubes (Asian dates), sweet peppers, mushrooms, carrots, green onions and shredded daikon. Plascencia spooned this onto banana leaves and gave it a shot of chicory wood smoke. Montano transformed the spicy chicken stew dak galbi jjim into a shooter.
Executive chefs Brian Hirsty and Graham Norton of the Bluewater Grill in Tustin drew the toughest assignment. Hirsty tackled gujeolpan, a royal dish of crepes with nine accompaniments. Norton turned the makings of kimchi into a warm salad, laced with Korean wine.
But last could be first, because the chefs now have to win the popular vote. Snippets of the show will appear when www.buzz-korea.com puts up a page the last week of February. Viewers can cast votes online the first week of March.
Surprisngly, L.A. chefs were no-shows, too busy to compete. The odd result is, there will be no Korean top chef from Koreatown's home city.