(PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - It was grace under pressure.
During the finals of Scripps Network’s Food Hero competition last month in Singapore, the four contenders were all smiles, cracking jokes and dishing out witty answers to questions from media.
And though all four finalists - Anton Amoncio of the Philippines, Farris Danial Abdul Rahman and Koh Kay Kim of Malaysia, and Pattaya Benjavari of Thailand - had just met one another, they instantly became friends. Already they had agreed that whoever won that night would treat the rest of them to dinner.
Even when time came for them to prepare recipes, they all remained unflustered amid the nosy and noisy crowds.
It may be because, by this time, they had already honed their skills, what with five weeks of rigorous challenges and elimination rounds they had to undergo.
First they had to submit an audition video. Then to further test their hosting skills and onscreen personality, they were asked to produce and edit videos of their search for great eats under US$8 (S$11.40) in their respective hometowns.
They were judged by a panel of production and creative experts on their personality, appeal and ability to create original and engaging content.
While all four may possess those qualities, in the end it was Filipino chef Anton Amoncio who was declared this year’s Food Hero.
CHEESY LAMB RACK KALDERETA
700g to 900g Australian lamb rack, cut into individual lamb chop cutlets
¼ to ¾ cups cane vinegar
Pinch of salt and pepper
⅓ cup canola oil
5 birds’ eye red chilies
1 large onion, chopped
8 cloves garlic, minced
1 cinnamon stick
¼ tsp whole peppercorns
3 bay leaves
1½ cup whole peeled canned tomatoes
5 tbsp tomato paste
3 cups water
3 medium-size potatoes, cut into batons (or quarters)
2 red bell peppers, sliced
3 green bell peppers, sliced
½ cup green peas
FOR THE MORNAY SAUCE
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
60g Gruyere cheese
Pinch of nutmeg
Salt and pepper, to season
1. To make the Mornay sauce, melt the butter in a pan. Blend in the flour, stirring until smooth. Whisk in the milk and simmer, stirring continuously, until the sauce turns thick and creamy. Reduce the heat and stir in the cheese. Continue stirring until the cheese melts completely. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper.
2. Trim off the excess fat from the lamb. In a bowl place the lamb cutlets and pour in the vinegar, salt and pepper to brine the lamb for about 30 minutes.
3. In a large pan, heat the oil and toss in the chillies. Fry until the chillies are aromatic. Transfer chillies to a small plate.
4. Sear the lamb cutlets in the same pan, browning the meat on both sides. Make sure the pan’s temperature is constant. You may have to do this in batches. Do not overcrowd the pan as this could lower the temperature and keep the meat from browning evenly. Remove the meat from the pan and set aside.
5. In the same pan, saute the onions and garlic until fragrant. Toss in the cinnamon stick, peppercorns and bay leaves. Return the meat and the chillies back into the pan and add the brine used for the meat (vinegar, salt and pepper), the whole peeled tomatoes and the tomato paste.
6. Stir in the water and bring to a boil. Once it starts boiling, cover the pan and turn the heat down. Cook for another 15 to 20 minutes. Add the potatoes. Cover and cook for about 45 minutes to an hour or until the meat is tender.
7. Add the bell peppers and peas and cook for another five minutes. Just before serving, spoon the Mornay sauce on top.
And no one was more surprised than Amoncio himself.
“I feel like I just won the lottery because I had only one chance in a million,” he said in a post-event interview.
Not only is he Asian Food Channel’s new Food Hero, he’s also the first Filipino and the first male to win the title.
It’s quite an honour for a 27-year-old who at first considered making music his career. It was only after a few semesters at College of St. Benilde that he decided to enroll instead at the Center for Culinary Arts in Katipunan, Quezon City.
Amoncio doesn’t really know what tipped the competition in his favour, because the others were equally good and articulate, he added.
Perhaps one factor was the palpable passion he exuded for food and cooking, as well as his exuberant personality. Quick to smile and answer questions, he was an only child who grew up mostly among adults.
He remembers savouring the home-cooked meals of his grandmother.
Among the dishes she would cook was chicken tinola, using native ingredients such as malunggay (moringa) and papaya. It was this recipe, given Amoncio’s own spin, which he prepared for his audition video.
“The video allowed me to share my food story,” he said.
It’s a story that will continue to unfold as he assumes his new role. Already he’s expected to join Scripps Network’s roster of talents, just like past winners Sarah Benjamin, Debbie Wong, Michelle Lean and Ili Sulaiman, who now have their own shows on the Asian Food Channel and Food Network.
Here, Amoncio shares his recipe for Cheesy Lamb Rack Kaldereta, which he prepared during the finals.
It’s based on one of the bestsellers at Antojos, his restaurant in Quezon City (now temporarily closed).
The dish is made aromatic with the use of chillies, bay leaves and cinnamon stick. The “cheesy” part comes from the topping of Mornay sauce.
I’ve kitchen-tested the recipe and found it hearty and delicious, even without the Mornay sauce. This will most likely be a family favourite.