Nov 7, 2022
THESE YOUNG CHEFS aren’t the talents of tomorrow – they’re cooking up a storm today. Take 10 professional cooks and chefs, all under the age of 30, and ask them to present dishes that highlight their technical skills, demonstrate their commitment to sustainable practices in the kitchen and reflect their culture, heritage and personal stories.
That tall order is in essence what the San Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Competition does. Chefs from the Americas, Europe and the Pacific had already been chosen to advance to the worldwide finals, to be held in Milan in 2023, when last week the chef from the Asia region was selected from a pool of 10 talented young candidates who had been named best in their local competitions.
It’s not just bragging rights at stake, said Kevin Wong. The former winner for Asia placed third in the global competition in Milan in 2021, and less than a year later opened the doors to Seroja, now one of the most talked-about restaurants in Singapore. The title helped him stand out in a crowd. “It gives you a lift,” Wong told us.
With their mentors, the 10 finalists traveled to Bangkok to duke it out – culinarily – in the gleaming new kitchens of The Food School. Cooking under the watchful eyes of a panel of star-studded chefs, the contestants had to do everything themselves. Their mentors were able to offer advice, but no hands-on assistance. Each chef had just five hours to prepare one elaborate dish that could change their careers. With clockwork precision, they were expected to serve and present their dishes to the judges in a 15-minute window, failing which they could face elimination.
Judge Vanessa Huang, chef-owner of Ephernité in Taipei, was impressed with the wide range of inspiration that the chefs drew on, from social responsibility to nostalgia and family recipes. “For some of them it’s the rational side, and for some of them it’s the sentimental side,” Huang said. Xu Yu Chan from Restaurant Labyrinth, for example, served Memories of a Hometown Assam Laksa, with a sauce that alone had taken two hours to make.
Huang was joined on the competition’s jury by Pichaya ‘Pam’ Utharntharm of Restaurant Potong and Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn of Le Du, both in Bangkok, as well as Daniel Calvert from Sézanne in Tokyo and Dave Pynt from Burnt Ends in Singapore.
“It’s stressful,” said Han Seo Hyun of Restaurant Naeum in Singapore, mentor for his sous-chef Ian Goh. “It feels like we’re competing.” Han, also known as Chef Louis, knows what he’s talking about, having been a San Pellegrino Young Chef competition Asia finalist himself in the 2017 edition.
Chudapa ‘Joy’ Chansaming from Elements in Bangkok was one of the few chefs who managed to send out her Ocean Memories with time to spare, but she was so emotional that she needed a deep breath and a sip of water before being able to explain her technically faultless grouper dish to the jury.
But timing was a challenge for almost all of the competitors. Yu Chuan Cheng, from the Mandarin Oriental in Taipei, started his presentation so late that it was cut off by the competition’s relentless timekeeper. And Ian Goh delivered with just four minutes to go. His Heritage Lamb was a nod to the Singaporean’s Hainanese ancestry and French training. Even though the tension in the room was palpable, he kept his cool, delivered the background of his dish articulately and took questions from the panel with one minute left on the clock.
It paid off. Ian Goh was not only named best in show, taking the ticket to Milan as the Regional Young Chef Academy Award for Asia, but he also received the Food for Thought Award, an online vote in recognition that his lamb dish embodied his personal views on food. “I’m honestly quite surprised because of the excellence of the other competitors,” he said from the stage.
The Social Responsibility Award went to Xu Yu Chan from Labyrinth and his reinterpretation of laksa, a nod to his sustainable practices from sourcing to advocacy. The Connection in Gastronomy prize rewarded Steve Yi-Chung Chiu from Xiang Se in Taiwan for The Grace of the Tibetan Forest, a dish that is both modern and traditional, inspired by his time exploring food and nature in his wife’s native Tibet.
In his first comments to Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia after winning, Goh reflected on his presentation. “I basically felt that as a chef I failed because we should always be on time, there are absolutely no excuses. That’s really on me,” he said. “But I’m really happy, and I can’t thank my boss enough. He has really supported me.”
After the nerve-wracking day of competition, the chefs and judges reconvened at the Penthouse bar of the Park Hyatt Bangkok that same evening. “It’s about partnership and camaraderie,” said mentor Chele González of Gallery by Chele in Manila. “Thank you for reminding me how much I love cooking,” said judge Daniel Calvert, before quipping, “I’m still full!”
Ian Goh will compete in the San Pellegrino Young Chef global competition in Milan in 2023. The date has not yet been announced.
All photos courtesy of S. Pellegrino Young Chef Academy.