While St. John Catering owner chef Mathayom Vacharat has plenty of experience whipping up delicious, beautiful meals in a variety of settings, last week was the first time he did so in a make-shift kitchen under a tent in front of thousands of spectators.
Not only did the St. John chef create a tantalizing dish during Banco Popular’s Ultimate Chef Challenge on Wednesday, April 29, during St. Thomas Carnival’s Cultural Fair, he so impressed the judges he walked away the winner.
With two burners and a few pots and pans, Vacharat and six other top chefs from St. Thomas, St. Croix, Water Island and Tortola battled it out before a huge crowd of Cultural Fair-goers.
“There were make-shift kitchens with two burners and a couple of small mixing bowls,” said Vacharat. “You pretty much had to bring your own knives and a lot of your own stuff. But we live on an island where you can’t always get everything you need, so I know how to make due with what I have.”
The competition’s theme was “Virgin Fresh,” a V.I. Department of Agriculture and Department of Tourism initiative boosting local produce and protein. Just a half hour before the competition started, the judges revealed the two featured mystery ingredients — local honey and papaya.
Each chef had one hour to produce an entree and side dish highlighting the ingredients. Vacharat’s five-way papaya chicken dish topped the competition and earned the St. John caterer the title of V.I. Ultimate Chef.
Vacharat’s winning dish consisted of pan-seared chicken topped with caramelized honey and fennel seeds atop a green papaya and cucumber slaw in a fresh papaya, lemon grass and habanero sauce. The dish was accompanied by yucca potato pancakes filled with plantains and papaya mash and finished with a savory papaya cannoli.
“I took some of the papaya and shaved it and made a little wrapper out of it and then I stuffed it with plantain and papaya,” said Vacharat.
Although last week was the first time Vacharat made the papaya-heavy fowl creation, he’s no stranger to improvisation.
“I’ve never made that dish before, but in the catering business we’re pretty used to creating new menus all the time,” said the chef. “We try to standardize things, but people often have special requests so we’re used to making things up on the fly.”
While the Ultimate Chef Challenge was Vacharat’s first time taking part in a cooking competition, he does have experience being on the other side of the table. The chef was a judge in last month’s Taste of St. Croix.
Cooking for his first time under the pressure of competition was a blast, Vacharat explained.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “I had fun with the other contestants and being in front of all those people.”
In addition to bragging rights and the Ultimate Chef title, Vacharat also took home $1,000 from Banco Popular and a gift basket from NACO Restaurant Supply.
The other competitors in the Ultimate Chef Challenge were: David Benjamin, a sous chef at the Ritz-Carlton’s Bleuwater Seafood Restaurant on St. Thomas; Heidi Erwig, chef and owner of Heidi’s Honeymoon Grill on Water Island; Jennifer Litwin, the chef de cuisine at Oceana Restaurant and Wine bar on St. Thomas; Davide Pugliese, the owner and executive chef of Brandywine Bay Restaurant and Capriccio Di Mare of Tortola, BVI; Dennis Vanterpool, assistant specialty chef and assistant sous chef at St. Thomas’ Mariott Frenchman’s Bay Windows on the Harbor; and Brian Wisbauer, executive chef of Zebo’s Wine Bar and Restaurant on St. Croix.
Judging the competition were Carrie Freyn owner of Perky Provisioning, Edward Sternberg of NACO Restaurant Supply, Inc., Antolin Velasco Velez of Banco Popular, and Caneel Bay Resort’s Larry Nibbs CEC, ACE.
For more information on the Ultimate Chef Challenge and for recipes from the competition — which will be available May 15 — check out www.viultimatechefchallenge.com.