Kulinarya – The Annual Festive Philippine Cuisine Showdown

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By Geraldine Solon
Images by Nash Bernardo

The 4th Annual Kulinarya was held last November 23, 2013 at the City View Metreon in Yerba Buena Gardens, San Francisco. Their mission is to brand Philippine cuisine worldwide; promote local Filipino cuisine oriented dining establishments; encourage people to visit the Philippines; and engage in Kulinarya tours in the Philippines. Aside from the cooking competition, there were various signature dishes by Filipino culinary artisans and novelty items displayed.

Consul General Marciano A. Paynor presented the opening remarks. James Lim, Managing director of Joie de Vivre brand of Commune hotels and resorts, Evangeline Quesada founder of Ramar foods, Jefferson Sevilla, Sous Chef of Google, Francis Ang, pastry chef of Fifth Floor restaurant and Geraldine Solon, Managing Editor of Gastronomique en Vogue magazine were selectively chosen to judge the Amateur and Professional division.

The judges witnessed first-hand how the contestants intricately diced and chopped ingredients in the kitchen. Judging criteria comprised of creativity, presentation and taste. Each chef had their respective assistants to assist with setting-up the ingredients and serving as a timekeeper without cooking or decorating the plates. Each contestant cooked their dishes in front of the audience while their assistants served the finish product to the judges.

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Two contestants competed for the Amateur Chef division. Kathy De Leon grew up in Chicago and found her passion in cooking when she was 15 years old. She delighted the judges with her signature kare kare sautéed in a hearty peanut sauce. “When I moved out on my own, I found myself missing all of my Filipino favorites like adobo, sinigang and kare kare,” she confides. Her competitor, Sheryn Jo Peneza whipped up his own version of beef kaldereta pasta which was packed with flavor. He learned how to cook at a very young age while growing up in Cebu. “I love to eat, that’s why I learned to cook,” he shares.

Four contestants participated in the professional division. Each contestant produced an appetizer, entrée and dessert. Paul Rivera from Honolulu has had over 27 years in culinary experience and will be the next Executive Chef in Hula Grill Waikiki. Paul crafted a shrimp spring roll appetizer with a saccharine banana dipping sauce all wrapped up inside a Martini glass. His entrée boasted of a milk fish sisig parceled up inside a lumpia wrapper hinting that raw tanginess added with aioli sauce. A deconstructed banana lumpia volcano with whip cream on top was what hit the home run for me. Paul combines Filipino dishes with a touch of Asian fusion. The lumpia wrapper is his signature line which adds to the authenticity of being Filipino.

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Neil Syham, owner of Lumpia Shack graduated from Institute of Culinary education in New York. Sisig with a sunny side up egg on top preserved in a brittled crust made my mouth water with delight.  His untraditional chicken aftritada had an Asian flare to it. Neil’s microwaved bibinka cake added a sweet touch to end the course. Neil’s specialty is transforming ordinary dishes into extraordinary delights, well crafted with design and creativity.

Karl Orlanes who is based in Los Angeles held many jobs, working as a bartender, banquet supervisor and a butler. Karl presented the tokwa’t baboy blooming on top of sliced pineapples. The flourishing onions and vinegar tenderized the pork and melted in my mouth. His chicken aftritada dissolved instantly and had me craving more. His warm ginataang bilo reminded me of a cold rainy day during my childhood where I sought warmth from this delicacy. Karl’s dishes expose that Filipino cooking is not limited to one flavor.

Manuel Ramirez from San Francisco owns a family grocery store and restaurant called Inay Filipino Kitchen.  Inay Filipino Kitchen was their brainchild manifested from dinner conversations. Ahi tuna sisig caramelized with diced tomatoes, onions, jalapeno, red bell pepper and mangoes enhanced the flavor. The chicken afritada on top of garlic rice completely blew me away with the aroma. As a chef, Manuel not only knows how to present dishes. He put a wide smile on everyone’s face as he concluded his course with his dessert of exotic fruits on a native teaspoon. He captured the Filipino trait of never ending a meal without a sweet delight.

Sheryn Jo Peneza won the amateur division with a prize of $500 and Neil Syham was proclaimed the winner of the professional division bagging $1000. Each of them was awarded a free trip to the Philippines. The sponsors of the event were delighted to bring Filipino Kulinarya to the mainstream. The evening concluded with a fundraiser for the Haiyan/Yolanda typhoon victims.

I was captivated by the raw talent and passion the chefs radiated. Aside from my roaring taste buds, all my five senses were stimulated that day. As a judge, we are to remain objective and observant. My heartfelt sentiments reveal that each of the contestants took my breath away. Each plate had a story to tell and painted a picture that behind every dish is an artist willing to share a piece of them. So each time you go on a gastronomical adventure, remember the artist that created this dish from his heart especially for you. Truly priceless.