Bowing to a 300lb tuna and being cooked for by a Hilton head chef - UCB students dish up experience of their prize trip to Japan
With over 10,000 UK restaurants now offering Asian food, it’s no wonder Zest Quest Asia – the brainchild of top Indian chef Cyrus Todiwala OBE – is dubbed “the student chef's competition for the 21st century”. Here, we talk to two of the UCB team that clinched this year’s trophy with a migration-themed menu, and how their prize of a culinary tour to Japan left them itching to go back…
Whilst bowing in Japan is, pretty much, standard etiquette and can quite simply mean ‘good morning’, it is, ultimately, a mark of respect.
However, it wasn’t just the respect UCB Culinary Arts Management students Peter Price, Hugo Montgomery and Alex McLaren and chef lecturer Lewis Walker received themselves throughout their 10-day trip that bowled them over.
“We visited an auction at one of the biggest wholesale fish and seafood markets in the world and the buyers actually bowed to the fish,” said Peter. “Wherever we went, the massive respect shown toward food and ingredients was unbelievable.”
It’s five months since third year students Peter, Hugo and Alex were picked to represent UCB in Zest Quest Asia, supported by the Master Chefs of Great Britain, after showing flair and fearlessness when it came to experimental cooking.
With Brexit such a hot potato, the team eventually decided on a migration-themed menu, with Asia at its heart. “We did a lot of research before we even cooked anything to technically understand Asian food better, one of the criteria being that the menu had to be sustainable,” said Peter, who comes from Hereford.
“We wanted to explore the journey of people from Sri Lanka, India and Africa to Britain over history, bringing each element and influence into each dish.”
Pol sambol to poached pear
For starters, the team dished up Sri Lankan marinated North Atlantic mackerel, Ceylonese fish croquette wrapped in idiyappam noodles, tomato and tamarind fondue, garlic fried spinach, kiri hodi coconut sauce and pol sambol.
This was followed by a Royal ‘Thali’ with roast loin of Scottish Speyside venison, chana dahl, bhartha, peanut sauce, spiced pea puree with fried paneer, mint sauce, aloo gobi, glazed pearl onion and roti bread.
Dessert was Gloucestershire Williams pear and saffron zarda, chai tea soaked date and pear samosa, saffron poached pear, date puree and duqqa spice.
Their culinary knowledge was then put under the microscope when they gave a ten-minute presentation covering food culture, provenance and sustainability.
Wowing a panel with their contemporary twists on classical Asian dishes and composure, the team found themselves bound for the Land of the Rising Sun.
Efficiency on a plate
As well as the eye-opening trip to the world-famous Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, where the team witnessed a 300lb tuna being expertly filleted and auctioned in the space of 30 seconds, the culinary tour also included a stay at the Tokyo Hilton.
“I was totally mind-blown by the absolute precision with which the kitchens at the Hilton were run,” said Hugo, aged 21. “Yes, the Japanese are known for their efficiency, but it’s incredible to see it in the flesh. I’ve never seen anything like it.
“The best bits about the Hilton experience for me were being shown how to make sushi, teppanyaki and kaiseki by a real master, and sitting down with the executive head chef for a nine-course menu, made right in front of us on a teppanyaki grill. He even cooked his personal ‘signature’ dish for us, which was amazing.”
Peter, also 21, added: “What impressed me was the lack of waste. They literally use everything. With beef, they’ll take the prime cuts such as the steaks and use all the leftover meat to make burgers etc. They keep the fat too. All very sustainable.”
After the Hilton, it was off to Osaka on the Shinkansen or ‘bullet train’. “It was like being in an airplane,” said Peter. “We were going 200mph and did the 312 miles from Tokyo to Osaka in two-and-a-half hours.”
In Osaka, the team visited Kobe, where they were taken on an excursion to a beef farm, followed by a Wagyu beef dinner, an experience they savoured enormously.
Then, it was off on a VIP tour of competition sponsor Panasonic’s technology centre and a factory visit with hands-on demonstrations of its commercial kitchen equipment. This included a test drive of its hot-off-the-press, induction heated worktops, which allow professional chefs to fast cook with any kind of metal pot, pan or other vessel, including those made of aluminium and copper.
“To be able to put any pan on it and have the temperature regulate itself is pretty new territory and it’s great that chefs like us will have this versatile kind of technology to work with in the future,” said Hugo. “I think we were the first visiting chefs to have a go and they were really keen to hear our feedback.”
Bringing the tour to an end, a captivating trip to Kyoto for an injection of history and culture was one of Peter’s absolute highlights.
“I fell totally in love with the culture,” said Peter, who had never been outside Europe before the trip. “The Kyoto Imperial Palace was just incredible.”
We’ll be back
The adventure continues for the team in the summer with a trip to Cressperience in Holland courtesy of micro herb and vegetable producer Koppert Cress, their prize for also winning Best Presented Menu at Zest Quest Asia.
For now, however, the chefs are still basking in their incredible time in Japan.
“I would really like to go back and spend a year working there after I finish uni,” said Peter. “This experience has, definitely, given me the travel bug and I can see myself doing food product development across the world one day.
“What I would say is that this experience wouldn’t have been possible without the support from chef Walker and the other UCB chefs who took time out of their schedules to give us guidance and ideas. We couldn’t have been supported better.”
Hugo, who lives in Bristol, added: “I’ve travelled most of my life and I’d put Japan in my top three places in the world. I will, definitely, be heading back.
“I did eat too much, though, largely because everything was so ridiculously good. I couldn’t get enough of the street food and the tasting menus at the Hilton, they were the best. Loved the little, whole squids.
“I also brought back a load of chef knives. Surprised I got through customs.”
Interested in competing in Zest Quest Asia?
Zest Quest Asia was launched in 2013 to promote the cuisines of Asia to UK resident catering students as an outlet for their culinary skills and a platform for a potential career in Asian cookery. Now in its fifth year, it is a truly 21st century competition, with all things Asian having grown in prominence around the world.
To date, over 100 student chefs from the country’s most prestigious catering colleges and universities have competed for the distinction of having displayed the best knowledge and skills in Asian cuisine. The 2018 contest was launched by Cyrus Todiwala and Lewis Walker at the PACE Conference on May 3 at the Hilton Hotel, Liverpool. For more information, visit zestquestasia.com.