As soon as the finale of Bravo’s Top Chef Season 9 aired, we received an email notice from Asia Nine, a Penn Quarter restaurant that we’ve visited many times before for both dinner and happy hour. They were announcing an Asian fusion cooking class with none other than Chef Paul Qui, Executive Chef of Uchiko in Austin TX and the most recent contestant to receive the title “Top Chef”. Along with Paul was Chef Edward Lee, Executive Chef of 610 Magnolia in Louisville KY and fellow contestant on the show (as well as our personal favorite on the season). Asia Nine explained to us that they chose to host this particular event as Asian cuisine, fusion and authentic, have been a rising food trend this year and have been following the careers of both chefs for a while. Before the cooking class began, we were able to talk with chefs Paul Qui and Edward Lee for a few minutes.
We posed that the culture for many young chefs seems to be moving around to different restaurants every few years or less to gain as much experience under as many executive chefs as possible. Our question was whether it was better to pull inspiration from as many restaurants as possible or to find one restaurant that fit a young chef’s style and develop his or her craft there solely. Paul commented that it is important to get different experiences and learn in different kitchens to develop your own craft, but you need to stick with restaurants that fit your style and not just some big named restaurant. Ed added that some people do try to pad their resume by working in so many kitchens or studying under so many famous chefs, but the most critical thing is to find a place that suits you as a chef.
For our next question, we asked if there were any of their competitor’s dishes they saw in their season of Top Chef that they were impressed enough with to put on their own menu. Both of the chefs immediately said “No”, that while everything on the show was great, their menu “is a matter of pride.”
Asked if either of them were fans of the show prior to being chosen for the 9th Season, Ed said that he hadn’t really seen a full season before and usually jumped in half way through. Paul agreed that when the last eight contestants were left would he pick it up, the last seasons he watched were the end of Season 8 All Stars and Season 6 (Las Vegas). When asked if there was a previous season’s challenge he was glad not to have done, Paul couldn’t think of any, but voiced his loathing for the Culinary Olympics (gondola) challenge, however stipulating, “It is what it is. They can do whatever to me. It’s fine.”
When asked how a novice or average person could best start cooking Asian cuisine, Paul cautioned that “Asian cuisine” is such a broad term, styles differing from region to region, and it was best to first find a style that you enjoyed. Ed reminisced on one of the first books he bought as a kid by an old London chef named Kim Hon who wrote “these incredible Chinese cookbooks…still the best cookbooks for Chinese cuisine, which is kind of like the basis of modern Asian cuisine.” As it turns out, the series is unfortunately out of print.
Since on Top Chef a contestant is forced to compete in a wide range of styles and challenges, we wondered if their experiences in the season caused them to afterwards change their styles or menus of their restaurant. Ed said frankly, “I haven’t changed my cuisine because of what happened on Top Chef…Maybe our scope has broadened, but our process for making and producing is that same as it was, a slow and calculated process.” Elaborating on how their own kitchens work, both Paul and Ed added that there are plenty of voices in their kitchen, each sous-chef having a voice and hand in making a dish. “If you have more palates involved,” Paul said, “it’s like a think tank to create a dish.” “Otherwise, it becomes all about your ego,” Ed summarized.
For our final question, we asked if there were any restaurants in the DC area (besides Asia Nine, of course) that either of them preferred or were looking forward to visit while in town. Having grown up in northern Virginia, Paul said that his mom did a lot of gourmet cooking so he never really had a reason to visit that many restaurants in the area. He did add that he just went to Jose Andres’ America Eats Tavern and was a big fan the chef’s Mini Bar. Ed mentioned that he had eaten at Rasika the night before and imagined he would also visit Graffiato by Top Chef alum Michael Isabella.
As the chefs took to the instruction table in front of the then seated crowd of 110 eager onlookers, Ed announced that he would demonstrate how to prepare Quick Fried Squid and Bacon Salad with Ginger-Apple Zest. Cooking first the bacon, crisping the meat and rendering out most of the fat, he removed the bacon and quickly added the squid. Ed cautioned to only use fresh squid (the man-hole was used in this instance) and that many people screw up dishes with squid because they cook it for too long, producing a protein with the texture of a garden hose. The squid was sautéed quickly, the chef adding soy sauce, lemon, and pepper, and then instructing that the once the ingredients are add the squid is pretty much done already. The bacon and squid combination was added to a bowl of watercress before the addition of a spoonful of fresh Tahini (sesame paste) vinaigrette the chef had also prepared. Finally, Ed grated fresh ginger and a Ganny Smith apple on top of the dish, mentioning how this ginger/apple combination was great on almost anything, especially seafood. As we are served Asia Nine’s duplication of the chef’s dish, we had to agree that the apple & ginger gave the dish a fantastic cool, acidic taste. The smooth Tahiti sauce worked seamlessly with the squid, complimenting the seafood taste perfectly. The crumbled bacon gave savory taste of fat and a nice contrasting crunch to the soft texture of the squid.
Next up was Chef Paul’s Green Curry Mussels with Spiced Potato Chips and Basil. As he heated a pan and drops green curry and white miso pastes in vegetable oil, the smell of the curry blooming spread through the restaurant like a thick cloud, causing many in the audience to both cough and laugh. Paul added that some people have tried to have him cook with their family’s own curry and the scent usually much more potent. Garlic, shallots, ginger, and large cuts of lemongrass were added and sweated until they’re translucent. Cleaned mussels were then dropped in, coated in the curry mixture and steamed to open after the addition of some white wine. After they open, Paul mixed in some coconut milk and Kaffir lime leaves and simmered. Finally, mentioning that he liked to finish many of his dishes with some sort of fresh citrus, Paul squeezed fresh lime juice over the pan. The mussels and sauce was transferred to a bowl and garnished with potato chips and basil leaves. Although he prefers to use freshly made chips, Paul mentioned that Lays will substitute if you don’t have the time. The curry flavors we tasted in our dish went fantastically with the mussels, the coconut milk elevating what is usually just a broth to a sauce we eagerly scooped up with leftover mussel shells. After given a moment to soak in the same sauce, the basil leaves added a great herb twist.
While it was not demonstrated on stage, our third course was Asia Nine’s own Spiced braised short ribs, a great cut of beef oven cooked with a Panang curry mixture, lemongrass and stock. With only a small nudge from our knife and fork, the meat effortlessly separated from the bone. The short rib was superb, tender and juicy. While the curry sauce that surrounded the beef as it cooked tastes great in its own right, the heavy-handed flavors seemed to cover up the savoriness of the short rib instead of complimenting it. Although each of the dishes we enjoyed were paired with a wine, we have to applaud Asia Nine for the California red blend chosen to match up with this final course, the Zinfandel, Syrah, and Merlot ensemble by far the best compliment to a dish in our meal.
As the other guest and we finished up our final course, Paul and Ed both returned to the demonstration table to field some questions from the audience. What has changed for them since the end of Top Chef? Less time in their kitchens and many more photo-ops. What was their worst/most difficult challenge? Setting up a restaurant in 5 hours for Restaurant Wars right after an all night BBQ challenge. Best hangover food? Fried chicken. Both of the chefs were in good spirits and took time for pictures afterwards with many of the fans in the crowd. They were great presenters and the dishes that Asia Nine’s kitchen reproduced were fantastic. The entire event was well executed and made us eager to see what the restaurant had planned for the rest of the year. Being in the presence of such great chefs encouraged us to expand our own cooking repertoire and pay closer attention to genuine culinary leaders like Ed and Paul beyond what we see on TV.
For a look at Asia Nine’s prepared chef profiles and the event’s recipes, check out Asia Nine Top Chef Cooking Class Info.