Chef Michael Chen
The second annual World Chef Challenge took place during the World Food Championships in November, with 20 competing chefs eyeing the prize of not only holding the title as World Chef Challenge champion, but also a purse of $5,000 and a Southern Pride commercial smoker. To get to the final table, each chef had to win their competition of the day - Thursday featured downtown Las Vegas chefs, Friday Las Vegas chefs chosen by an online consumer media contest and Saturday chefs from across the United States hand-picked by the WFC. After three days of competition it came down to last year's World Food Championship's Chef Challenge winner Travis Brust - Executive Chef at the Williamsburg Inn, in Colonial Williamsburg; Joe Parrino – Executive Chef of Andiamo at the D; and Michael Chen - Chef de Cuisine at Yellowtail at the Bellagio. After submitting their final dishes, the decision was made – the honor went to Chef Michael Chen, wowing the judges with his Lobster and Scallop with uni, bacon and micro shiso in a tomato dashi broth.
I consider Michael a personal friend, so besides being excited for his win, I wanted to know more about him and how he stomped his competition; here's what I found out.
What is your educational and career background?
I was very fortunate to decide on a career path at a young age. I enrolled and attended the Culinary Institute of America after graduating high school. I graduated with a Bachelor's degree in 2002. I spent a lot of time working in restaurants during high school, so cooking wasn't completely new to me. Many people were shocked that a "young chef" won the World Chef Challenge, that "youth prevailed over experience." I have worked under some of the top chefs in the country. Anyone that knows me or has followed my career knows that I wasn't the complete underdog as far as experience goes in the competition, even though many people, including the media, perceived it.
How did you end up competing in the World Food Championship's Chef Challenge?
I was approached by Greenspun Media to participate in an online poll. I guess the viewers want to see me participate and compete, so I was offered a spot in the WFC World Chef Challenge.
Travis Brust was the "man to beat." Do you think your experience on Chopped gave you an advantage to beat last year's champion?
Absolutely. Being on Chopped was a great experience and taught me a lot about competition cooking and staying calm under pressure. They have really short time restraints and tough ingredient combinations they make you work with. Being filmed for national television doesn't help calm the nerves either. I also do ACF cooking competitions when I have time as sort of a professional hobby, so that helped a lot too.
How has the win affected you personally and professionally?
It hasn't affected me too much personally. It did take some time for everything to sink in and for me to realize that I am the 2013 WFC World Chef Champion and what an honor/achievement it was. Some people recognize me every now and then and stop to congratulate me. It has given me many opportunities professionally. I got to meet and network with a bunch of great chefs and industry professionals; companies are approaching me with being involved with their products, future events, etc.
Because you are versed in Asian cuisine, do you practice "the harmony of five flavors" (salty, sour, spicy, bitter & sweet), and do you think that palate-pleasing balance was the secret to your win?
Balance is a very important part of my cooking philosophy, not just the Asian repertoire of it. Making simple, balanced, flavorful, well executed, consistent food, plated unique, yet practical is what I'm all about. That's what I was taught by my mentors and that will always be the cornerstone of my culinary thought process. All of these facets were definitely my "secret" to winning.
Did you feel like you had anything to prove during the World Food Championships?
I went in to this thing wanting to make Vegas proud. I wanted to show that Las Vegas is a city with culinary caliber that can compete with any other major food city in the country. I think I was able to get that point across.
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