Louisiana food writer Poppy Tooker reflects on her time judging the North America Best Dish for the ‘Inspired by Art’ Ōra King Awards.
My two week judging assignment took me from coast to coast and revealed some of North America’s greatest young talent. All thirty-somethings – Mia Li, Yael Peet and Jonathan Granada are chefs to watch! All were tasked with creating a dish inspired by art designed to showcase New Zealand’s Ōra King salmon.
The competition began for me at Lenoir, a tiny establishment contained within a pair of cottages in Austin’s trendy Bouldin Park neighborhood. When I arrived, Chef Mia Li was already cooking for videographers sent by Ōra King, so I got to observe her at work.
Mia’s mis en place was laid out in exquisite detail. As she reduced the coconut cream red curry sauce for her dish, a sous chef carefully blackened the outside of an avocado. Using chopsticks and tweezers, Mia assembled her final dish, something entitled “Strips of Earth.” The original piece of art which inspired Mia’s dish hangs in the Broad Museum in Los Angeles.
On a dark, hand hewn earthen plate, Mia spread a pool of cream coloured sauce with perfect viscosity. Then, she carefully placed the Ōra King salmon. Cooked for just moments at a low temperature, the salmon appeared raw but was perfectly cooked through. Across the plate, Mia scattered a confetti of indigenous Texas ingredients like peanuts and peaches combined with exotic elements like ajiamarillo peppers and galangal. A piece of fatty salmon belly had been fried crispy in the style of Mexican chicaronnes. Mia placed it on top of the fish, then garnished the plate with an iridescent strip of dehydrated Ōra King salmon skin.
Taking a tiny glass vial of red curry oil she had crafted herself, Mia carefully dotted the cream sauce surface bringing light to the final product. Both taste and presentation of Chef Mia Li’s dish displayed her amazing skill level. No wonder she had been chosen in the top three.
Next, I traveled on to Brooklyn, New York to find Yael Peet at a Japanese speakeasy of a restaurant called Karasu. Located in back of Walter’s, a bright, busy American eatery in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, you might never find Karasu without a couple of tips from locals. After travelling down a hallway, I opened a door and my eyes tried to adjust to the darkness inside. Yael Peet, a tiny sprite of person greeted me. We were alone in the quiet, dark space.
At the bar, Yael had carefully set a place for me. A glass teapot was ready to infuse the Ōra King salmon broth was placed above a black earthenware bowl holding a carefully designed landscape of food. The rare single belly fin of the salmon had been marinated and roasted to perfection. Dotting the plate were single rings of leek, some filled with a leek cream, some with salmon roe.
As the performance began, Yael carefully lit a punk, which she blew out and placed smouldering, into a sheaf of wheat and straw. Yael revealed that prior to becoming a chef, she had studied animation, so the art that inspired her competition dish was her favorite short – Disney’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Next, Yael poured hot broth into the teapot. As the Sorcerer’s broom continued to smoke, she flooded the bowl with salmon dashi flavoured broth. I took a taste of the Ōra King salmon as Yael explained that she regards them as the “fois gras of the sea!”
Yael continued with her personal Sorcerer’s Apprentice tale. Her former animation professor had recently dined at Karasu. Once she tasted the amazing food Yael turned out of the tiny Karasu kitchen (with no gas and no hood!) she knew her former student had taken the right path.
Finally, I arrived at Otium, a Timothy Hollingsworth property adjacent to the Broad Museum in downtown L.A. What an interesting coincidence that Mia Li’s “Strips of Earth” which began my Ōra King judging adventure is displayed there in the Broad!
Initially, my cab driver had a hard time finding Otium from the address contestant Jonathan Granada had given me. Chef Jonathan rushed across the green lawn that front Otium to greet me. Set back far from the street, nestled in the museum’s glass walls, Otium is an urban oasis.
I was glad to see how prepared Jonathan was because I had found his entry a bit troublesome. Instead of a single dish, he presented five dishes, each inspired in some way by the lives of Anthony Bourdain, Paul Bocuse and the young chef himself. Jonathan had crafted his own personal art from black and white images of Bourdain and Bocuse images, creating a collage.
From the tobacco leaf wrapped salmon loin to a second loin with a scallop and truffle mousse filling presented in puff pastry, Jonathan’s cooking absolutely dazzled. He cleverly, disguised two different pieces of Ōra King salmon by meticulously frenching the fishbone, giving the illusion of a salmon “shank” and “loin.” Anthony Bourdain and Paul Bocuse would have thoroughly enjoyed the meal Chef Jonathan prepared for me.
My Ōra King salmon judging experience leaves me in awe of the breadth and scope of today’s young talent in America. It was an honor and pleasure to watch such imagination executed with great mastery of skill. All three of the finalists were winners, having made Ōra King salmon such a passion project in their culinary lives.
Jonathan Granada was the winner of the Best Dish North America award. Learn more about the Ōra King awards