People whose job it is to predict the next big trends in dining say they see Asian cuisine winning over South Jersey palates in the near future. That's why Harrah's Resort in Atlantic City hosted Supreme Asian Chef Culinary Battles, a cooking competition to find the top chefs in Asian cuisine.
"Indian food is the newest trend coming into this area and people like to be on the cutting edge of food," says John Whelan, the executive chef at Caesars Entertainment Corporation, which means he oversees all the eateries at Harrah's, Caesars Atlantic City, Bally's Atlantic City and Showboat Casino Hotel. "In the near future, I think Asian cuisine is really going to explode. It's what sushi was 20 years ago."
Whelan hosted the contest Monday, in which 13 chefs from Sri Lanka to China, and Pakistan to Vietnam competed at Harrah's Viking Cooking school. Celebrity chefs from national cooking shows including "Hell's Kitchen" season 10 (Chef Justin Antiorio, of Bin 14 in Hoboken) and "Iron Chef" (Chef Anthony Amoroso, who beat Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto in Battle Branzino) were on hand to judge and give contestants feedback on their submissions.
Restaurateur and panelist Chris Walsh, who was at the forefront of the transformation of New York City's meat-packing district into a restaurant hotspot with trendy places such as STK and Ten June, agrees with Whelan.
"Sushi now is as American, in dining culture, as pizza," he says, adding the trend of adapting traditional cuisine to American palates can be seen in Italian, Indian and basic American eateries across the U.S.
Of course, not all Asian cuisine is created equal. The flavors vary as widely as the people and landscapes on the vast continent. With such a diverse area to cover, the contest was split into two categories, South Asian and East Asian. And cuisine was the deciding factor of which category each chef fell into, not geography, explained Vien Pham, Caesars Entertainment's multicultural marketing manager.
But what united all the contestants was a passion for cooking their native cuisine - and a lot of seafood, primarily shrimp and lobster. The judges said they were united by their love of cooking and promoting diverse cuisine in the resort.
While the event was a competition, the focus was on highlighting the featured cuisine more than making the contestants sweat. The Supreme Asian Chef contestants were allowed to prepare pre-determined dishes they've served for years in their respective eateries. This was different than Antiorio's experience on "Hells Kitchen," where he had little idea what his ingredients would be, and had to deal with Chef Gordon Ramsey yelling at him to boot.
As Corporate Chef of Joint Ventures for B.R. Guest Atlantic City, overseeing Dos Caminos, Bill's Bar & Burger, and Atlantic Grill, Amoroso said he's no expert on Asian cuisine. Instead, he was judging contestants based on balance, technique and presentation in their dishes.
"I think in all food, it doesn't matter what, it should have proper seasoning, the right amount of heat, the right texture," he said. "If it's sweet and spicy, it should be balanced. If it's fried, it should be crispy, that's the kind of thing I'm looking for."
He praised winning East Asian chef Sai Pituk's Goong cha Nam Pla; a shrimp Carpaccio with herb-infused fish sauce and carrots, crystalized onions and shallots as "my favorite thing I've eaten all day. The balance is great, it has a lot of texture and I love the crispy onions." Later, he said he could see the offering on his menu.
That was good news for Pituk - who has a Thai restaurant in El Paso, Texas, but has been in the area with her husband and children since Hurricane Sandy - because she hopes to move her business here. She explained Thai food has four basic flavors; sour, bitter, sweet and salty. And the judges agreed she'd nailed all four in her "hangover food" dish.
South Asian winner Senthilkumar Rajasekaran's Idiyappam, or string hoppers in mushroom stew with sweetened coconut milk, followed the southern Indian tradition of vegetarian cuisine, but fish also is widely used in the region. He said he chose the dish because it is healthy - using steamed rice flour in the vermicelli-like noodles and no oil - and popular. For his part, Whelan was impressed by Rajasekaran's use of a handmade wooden tool to press the noodles onsite.
Rajasekaran and Pituk will compete against winners from Chicago and Philadelphia Jan. 28 at Atlantic Grill inside Caesars Atlantic City and the competition will be shown on TV Asia and DISH network this spring.
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