It’s like watching the finals of Masterchef or Iron Chef live. Only, we’re seeing the events happening in the kitchen of Grand Hyatt Manila in Bonifacio Global City over Zoom, along with select media personalities. There are no cuts so we hear hushed voices of contestants frantically mouthing cooking procedures, or looking for missing ingredients—all while trying to keep their composure in front of the judges.
The five contenders onscreen have been judged the best among the 100 participants who joined the East Meets West Culinary Competition Philippines 2020. Each finalist had to demonstrate their culinary creativity utilizing Irish Pork and Beef in Filipino Fusion Cuisine. The tilt was launched by the Irish Food Board, Bord Bia, in August as part of the European Pork and Beef promotional programme.
The five winners—a mix of professional chefs, culinary students, and home cooks—will enjoy an exciting culinary tour in Ireland, planned for 2021. This trip will give them a once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit Irish food producers and top restaurants there. They are also set to attend a cooking class with the legendary Irish Chef Billy King.
The competition was nerve-wracking to say the least, the grand winner and first runner-up later on admitted to ANCX in an interview. Just imagine a world-renowned judging panel evaluating the dishes—Chef Billy King, Executive Chef Owner of Le Chef Restaurant at The Manor Hotel Baguio; Chef Mark Hagan, Executive Chef of Grand Hyatt Manila-Bonifacio Global City; and Chef Philip John Golding, Founding Chairman of Disciples de Escoffier International Asia.
“I was definitely nervous because it was my first culinary competition,” said Donie Bigcas, who emerged as the grand winner in the said tilt. The 21-year-old said he practiced his “action plan” and thought of different scenarios that might happen in the kitchen during the competition. But a scenario he didn’t expect came up—some ingredients for his dish were lacking. Luckily, he was able to source them at the Grand Hyatt Manila’s kitchen. “I remained calm and composed, and tried to hide my nervousness, hoping [the judges] won’t see it.”
Francis Dave Selorio, 25, is not really a newbie in the culinary field; he works as an executive chef in Iloilo City. But even with his professional culinary background, he found the competition terrifying. “Nobody really comes too prepared for a competition as big as this. I had to manage my anxiety,” he told ANCX. “I know this sounds crazy but moments before I started cooking, I went to the restroom and played Footloose on repeat while dancing like drunk in front of the mirror. I guess, it shook most of the nerves away!” Francis won first runner-up.
The winning dishes
Donie’s prize-winning entry culls from his memories of fiesta in his province of Capiz. Bisperas ng Pista, as he calls it, is his interpretation of a nearly forgotten dish. It is inspired by the hamonado which is usually served in special events. “The pineapple atchara reminds me of the colorful banderitas during the festival. While the sweet potato puree is an attempt to promote the crop which is a staple in our region,” he shared.
The Center for Culinary Arts student said he created the dish because he wants to “promote the importance of heirloom recipes with the use of high quality and sustainable ingredients.”
Francis, a seafarer by profession but is someone who “found home in cooking,” prepared Laing-stuffed Pork Belly with Adlai in Rambutan Sauce, which he said is an homage to his childhood. “When I was a kid, we would raise one or two pigs in our backyard. Every day, my grandfather would feed them with laon (taro leaves and rice hull stew). I realized that maybe, pork will pair well with taro leaves and grains,” he shared.
For the dish, Francis stuffed the European Pork Belly with Laing (taro leaves in coconut milk) and served it with adlai (gluten-free rice substitute). He used rambutan, in season now, as the base of his sauce, and then garnished it with pansit-pansitan, an indigenous herb.
The bedimpled Ilonggo admitted he didn’t have much time to prepare for the competition. But he was able to do research and development at the commissary kitchen. Also, something unfortunate happened a few days before the battle—his father passed away. “Psychologically, it was tough but I pushed myself to pursue the competition. It was the last conversation I had with Papa, that he wanted to come with me to Ireland,” he shared with ANCX. “This win is for him and my family, for the living and the departed.”
As a probinsyano, Donie admitted he had a hard time adjusting in Manila because he didn’t have enough background in cooking. So he “feels really blessed” that he got the chance to be mentored by renowned chefs and see them cook live.
From these chefs, Donnie learned “techniques and tips to making world-class dishes even if you don’t have a big kitchen.” Meanwhile, Francis said being mentored by Chef Philip and Chef Mark was everything he could wish for. Chef Philip taught them the value of understanding ingredients and the appropriate techniques. Chef Mark taught them how to tell their stories through food.
“I learned that our cooking should make the eaters feel something, or make them relive an experience because the ultimate purpose of cooking is to bring delight to the palate,” Francis said.
The new culinary stars both said they are eyeing a meaningful career as chefs. Donie said it is his childhood dream to become internationally known and help put Filipino cuisine on the map. Francis, on the other hand, said cooking gave him “a second life.” It relieved him of the trauma of being hostaged onboard a ship. “[Cooking] gave me hope. I want to gain more experiences. I dream of putting up a world-class Filipino restaurant in the future,” he shared.