In our new feature “Chefs in the Air,” we’ll check in with chefs around the world who just returned from a trip to find out what their traveling experience was like.
Our first “Chef in the Air,” is Wonny Lee, Executive Chef of West LA’s entertainment industry hot spot Hamasaku. Lee recently returned from a cooking competition in Japan and was gracious enough to talk to Fly&Dine about his experience.
What brought you to Japan?
The Washoku World Challenge is a Japanese cuisine competition in which individuals of non-Japanese nationality engaged in the field of Japanese cuisine are eligible to participate. Chefs trained in various countries around the world competed on the subject of original Japanese cuisine. I was lucky enough to have been chosen one of the ten finalists for the Washokyu World Challenge, which was being held by the Ministry of Agriculture. The magnitude of the contest didn’t really hit me until the day of, when I realized that all the major media outlets in Japan were there to cover the contest. Although I didn’t win the experience in itself made up for loss.
What airline did you take and what did you eat on the flight?
Japan Airlines. There were two meals. The first consisted of beef with a sweet demi-glace over pasta and steamed vegetables, salad, and fruit. Dessert was blood orange sorbet.
The second meal served was Yoshinoya. It was “gyudon” or beef bowl with pickled ginger, steamed vegetables, and salad.
What was your best meal in Japan?
Two Michelin Star Waketokuyama in Tokyo. The chef was on the consulting board for the Washoku World Challenge and he had invited all of the contestants in to dine the day before the contest. It was a traditional kaiseki meal with seasonality as the focus. It was the beginning of winter, and so, one of the dishes prepared was turtle soup. The texture and almost oxtail-like flavor was none I had ever tasted. It was a very comforting dish and reminded me of my grandmother’s oxtail soup. The rest of the meal was outstanding and each course was a perfect balance of flavors and textures.
What do you look for in terms of food when you travel?
The one thing I ask myself when I arrive is… Where do the locals eat? I want to immerse myself in their culture and cuisine.
What’s the best thing about Japanese food?
The purity of the flavors, and also the product is the star, and not the sauce or the technique used to prepare a dish.
If you could create your perfect meal on a plane, what would it be?
It would consist of a bowl of steamed rice, a small soup, grilled fish, and pickled vegetables. Or a double-double, animal style with fries. I would be happy with either one!
Thanks so much, Wonny! Hope you get to go back and win the whole thing next year. Stay tuned for the next “Chefs in the Air!”