Cooking with an Iron Chef

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So I’m in Medway still, and thus leaving myself open to any adventure that comes my way. A roadtrip down to Tennessee fell through, and I haven’t really had the energy to pick a place to go backpacking, so when my little sister asked if I wanted to come down to Philly for a fancy lunch that she was putting on with her class, I jumped on it.

The backstory: Hannah (my sister), is a Culinary Science major. Which means that she studies the science behind food – what makes it taste good, what people like, and how to make people like foods. They even go as far as how marketing affects the food, and how labeling something can affect how it tastes (its true; if you call something “Salty” people will say its saltier than a “non-salt” version… even if their exactly the same). But within Culinary Science, Hannah’s focusing in on Korean Cuisine. And once of her professors was able to get a guest chef who specializes in Royal Korean Cuisine.

The guest was Chef Myung Lee, a woman who was on the first Iron Chef Japan competition. She didn’t win, unfortunately, though from what I’ve heard the general consensus is that she should have. And after eating some of her food? Yeah, I agree. But even before trying her food, I knew that this was just the adventure I had been waiting for, and that there was no way I could possibly pass it up. So I packed my bag for a few days and jumped in the car.

When Hannah first told me about the lunch I was expecting that she’d be in class most of the day, I’d show up at some point and join maybe 20 or 30 people, and we’d all eat. Whew… I was more wrong than I could imagine, though in a very good way. I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I headed down towards Philly, and if I had known… yeah, I definitely would have come down anyways. I just may have packed a different set of clothes.

The ride down was simple and straightforwards. I had my folks GPS unit, so directions weren’t a problem. And I had a water bottle and a big bag of combos, so staying awake wasn’t a problem either. The only problems that I had to deal with, actually, were traffic on the way down and finding a damn parking spot once I was there. And, of course, finding that actual building. See… no one warned me that the entrance to the building wasn’t actually on the same street as the building itself. Instead, its a few hundred feet down a sketchy side street. Yay Philly, way to be logical! But find it I did, and within an hour of meeting up with Hannah and her boyfriend I was asleep on the pullout couch, ready to wake up the next morning and meet Hannah for the event.

I met her at 10:00, after moving my car out of the 2-hour-only parking spot, and Hannah handed me a chef’s coat and chefs hat. “Because you’re in the kitchen”, she told me. Makes sense, So I put them on (painfully, in the case of the hat. Stupid Velcro catching on my hair…) and followed her into the kitchen. “This is Chef Lee”, she told me, “And this is Evan. You’re shadowing him. I’ve got class. Have fun!” and quickly disappeared before I could ask any questions. At this point I was a bit confused, but asked if I could help with anything and was pretty quickly put to work setting the kitchen up for the class that was coming in.

I soon found out that the “Lunch” didn’t start until 4:30, and Chef Lee was actually guest-lecturing at Hannah’s Korean Cuisine class at 12:00, after which they’d all be doing a hands-on cooking lesson before helping to prep the lunch. So I gave a hand where a hand was needed, and generally worked with Evan to get everything ready for Chef Lee. I even got to work with her a little bit, but at this point it was mostly just setting things up and making the room look pretty. Soon enough noon hit, I headed to the lecture hall, and I got ready to learn lots about Korean cooking.

Actually.. I didn’t learn much in the lecture. Chef Lee is a very to-the-point woman, and her lecture was pretty quick. It gave a very good overview of the style and theme/theory behind Korean food (example: their food is VERY colorful, since part of the Korean Religion is the importance of the five colors), but she quickly moved everyone into the kitchen to start the hands-on portion of the lesson. Before we left the lecture hall we got a quick plug from a sales rep for Sanpio, a company that sells Korean ingredients in the USA and sponsors Chef Lee (and the rest of the class, it seems). The plug was quick, and wasn’t out of place… they had donated all of the food for the meal, after all.

In the kitchen I sat back and watched, since I didn’t want to get too much in the way. The lesson was on preparing Kimchi; a rather iconic Korean dish that takes advantage of the main uniqueness of Korean cooking – fermentation. Not in the “booze” sort of way, but in the “let it sit and rot a bit, and it’ll get really good” sort of way. Strange sounding, I know, but it was amazingly delicious with a really unique texture that I haven’t really had before. Definitely worth trying out if you get a chance.

The lesson was over pretty quickly though, since the main time-consuming part of Kimchi is letting it sit and ferment, and so after the few students who weren’t helping with the meal left, we all jumped into the prep work. At first I was just following Evan around and helping him out with whatever Chef Lee had him doing, but after a bit she assigned me to a few stations of my own; mostly prepping rice or noodles, though one of the jobs was putting together some of the Tofu plates and prepping one of the Teriyaki sauces. I didn’t do too badly actually, and got a few complements on my form (which boosted my ego a bit more than it should have). My proudest part was when Chef Lee asked me for my opinion on one of the sauces, and then actually took my suggestion; I had thought it was a bit clean and could use some more saltyness, and she actually had me add a bit in, before saying that it was perfect. Yay! I’m not actually a bad chef!

Prep time took us right up to when the meal started at 4:30 – We were poking and prodding at a few of the dishes until the last few minutes, trying to get the presentation and plating down perfectly. Throughout the day we had been planning out how to serve everything, choosing what would be presented where, and Evan and I had been assigned to the cold-dishes section, serving fish pancakes, Kimbap (See recipe below), and tofu sections. Thats right, you read correctly. Yours truly ,the adventuring engineer, got to not only cook in a kitchen for an Iron Chef, but got to serve and plate the meal with the rest of the kitchen staff.

Serving the meal went pretty quickly, and we worked our way through a rather epic amount of food, plates, chopsticks, and serving trays before the end. We had to re-stock the plates seven or eight times, and the fish-cakes disappeared within the first fifteen minutes of serving. This was the first time I’ve ever worked on a serving-line, and I’ll admit that it was very impressive how many people we served. Our first lull came at around the half-hour mark, after opening, and by then we had went through three stacks of plates, one platter of tofu, and the entire platter of fish-cakes. That equates to nearly 80 people in 30min… not bad. Not bad at all, for roughly 45s per person to plate and serve… especially since we were living up to the image of an Iron Chef, and thus the plating had to be 5-star quality. Ok… maybe only 4-star, but you get the idea. Fancy shit.

And the thing that most surprised me was the fun I was having. I highly doubt I would enjoy this if I did it day in and day out, but for a once-off experience it was really fun getting to make the food look pretty, and answer peoples questions about it. At one point a woman asked for us to hold the sushi, but when we told her that it wasn’t sushi, but Kimbap with ham and pinapple, she asked for double instead. The next woman, of course, turned out to be very Jewish (and thus Kosher), and held off on the Kimbap instead. So it sort of balanced out. You’d be surprised how few people actually read the signs placed right in front of the food.

The rest of the Tofu and most of the Kimbap was gone within an hour and a half (it slowed down a lot after that first half-hour), and so I excused myself from the line to go change into normal clothes and try out the dishes that I hadn’t gotten to try yet. The food… was… AWESOME! I really have to give it to Chef Lee; the entire spread was perfection, and everything worked really well with everything else. Hell, even the drinks were tuned to the meal – My favorite was this cinnamon drink that really highlighted the taste of the beef dish. The beef dish was a really cool sort of cheese-steak-style beef with onions and teriyaki sauce, served on a lettuce leaf. Mmhmm… not a place, a lettuce leaf. RAD! And it wasn’t alone… pretty much everything on the menu was a neat twist on what you’d expect, and everything showcased a specific color as well as flavor, tying back into the 5-color theme of Korean food.

After getting a heaping plate of food I found my sister and we found a table, chilling out and chatting about everything. She had been in class for the entire prep-time, so I brought be up to speed on everything while we ate, and once we were done we went off to find Chef Lee. I got a few pictures with her, thanked her for letting me help out and she, of course, returned the thanks wholeheartedly. I have to put this down – She was NOT what I was expecting a famous chef to be like. Watching Iron Chef, Hells Kitchen, or Top Chef on TV you get the feeling that famous chefs are rather high-strung and a bit dickish… Chef Lee was not at all. If anything she was really laid back and relaxed. She had the air of “come on, I CLEARLY know what I’m doing. I don’t need to show off or stress, this’ll be easy” that must come from so many years in a kitchen. And honestly? We had eight hours to prep this… I’m sure she could have done it in an hour if she was going at 100%, so it was probably relaxing for her, hehe.

After heading out from the meal (Hannah needed to do some debriefing stuff with her advisors) I wandered around Philly for a few hours, following my adventurers mindset deep into the city. Although I didn’t consciously choose my path I found myself orbiting around UPenn’s main campus, exploring their academic buildings and athletic fields. I checked out the innards of the UPenn stadium for a bit, thought it got a bit boring thanks to the ease of entry… for a “Secured building”security was REALLY lax, and the lack of a challenge in sneaking in ruined the fun for me. I did enjoy exploring the rest of campus though, and their athletic fields were a really neat bastion of green in the middle of Philly’s sea of gray.

I wandered around town for a few hours before the call of dinner started to sound loud enough for me to listen, and I started hunting for a food-truck. Unfortunately they were all gone, except for a “late night cookies” truck that was clearly tailored for the late-night-stoner crowd. I ended up at a place called The Landmark; a fairly swanky bar and grill that had fires (yes, actual “fwoosh” fires) outside in its outdoor bar area. Yeah… I’ll admit it, the fires are what brought me in. I planned on joining one group around a fire, but unfortunately the rain showed up as I was walking over, and so I ended up getting myself a table inside. Dinner was quick and simple, though I am proud that the waitress was so taken with me by the end that she actually hooked me up with an extra basket of BBQ wings in my To-Go bag. Seriously… she just walked up after I had paid the bill, and with the cutest smile ever asked me if I liked wings. And then handed me a huge bag of them, telling me to come back soon. Win.

The rest of the night was a short-but-awkward party at Hannah’s place, followed by lots of sleep. The party was kinda cool, in that her advisor was there hanging out with us, but more than a little awkward thanks to the fact that both Hannah’s Ex-boyfriend and current-boyfriend were in attendance. Meh, Do Not Care, I had fun chatting with everyone about random kitchen stuff, and by the time everyone left and I crashed I was feeling very happy with how the day had gone.

Tuesday was filled with driving home… a long process made a bit quicker by good music and an AMAZING ice-cream bar that I commandeered from a vending machine off of the Jersey Turnpike. Yeah, you heard me right… an ice-cream bar. It was one of those awesome chocolate-crunch ones with the vanilla filling, but it had that extra solid chocolate bar in the middle that takes it from a deliciousness of 8 to a delicious of 11. Aside from that… it was driving. Boring and monotonous, but a good chance to get caught up on my zenning-out and trying to decide what the hell to do for Halloween.

Kimbap Recipe – (Taken from Koreanfood.about.com)

Ingredients:

  • Dried seaweed (nori)- 4 sheets
  • 2 cups cooked rice
  • 2 tsp sesame oil
  • 2 tsp salt
  • TRADITIONAL FILLINGS
  • 1 carrot, julienned
  • cucumber, cut into long strips
  • 2 eggs
  • beef (bulgogi)
  • 1/2 pound of spinach, parboiled
  • pickled radish, cut into strips
  • imitation crab (optional)
  • fishcake (optional)
  • ALTERNATE POPULAR FILLING SUGGESTIONS:
  • smoked salmon and cream cheese
  • kimchi and cheese
  • spam, mayo, and veggies
  • ham and cheese
  • tuna salad with romaine lettuce and cheese
  • fresh or seasoned vegetables for vegetarians

Preparation:

  1. When rice is almost cooled, mix with sesame oil and salt.
  2. Stir fry carrots briefly with a dash of salt.
  3. Stir fry cucumber with a dash of salt.
  4. Whisk eggs until evenly yellow and fry into flat omelet.
  5. Cut cooked egg into long strips.
  6. Cook bulgogi according to recipe directions.
  7. Using a bamboo sushi roller or a piece of tin foil, lay the dried seaweed shiny side down.
  8. Spread about ½ cup of rice onto 2/3 of the seaweed, leaving the top 1/3 bare (if you moisten your fingers or a spoon to pat down the rice, you’ll get less of a sticky mess).
  9. Lay the first ingredient down around 1/3 of the way up from the bottom of the seaweed.
  10. Lay the other fillings down on top.
  11. Roll from the bottom (as if you’re rolling a sleeping bag), pressing down to make the fillings stay in.
  12. As you continue to roll, pull the whole thing down towards the end of the bamboo mat.
  13. Spread a tiny dab of water along the top seam to hold the roll together.
  14. Set aside and continue with other seaweed sheets.
  15. Cut each roll into 7-8 pieces.

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