News: Spice it up! 3/3 Marine cooks up a win
Story by Christine Cabalo
MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII - Turning up the heat, Lance Cpl. Nhia Xiong won the Chef of the Quarter contest at Anderson Hall Dining Facility held June 7 at Marine Corps Base Hawaii.
Xiong served up a winning meal of Hmong Thai food including larb, a spicy ground meat, and tofu stir-fry. Xiong is a food service specialist from 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.
“I love spicy food,” said Xiong, born in Thailand and of Hmong descent as well as a native of St. Paul, Minn. “My thing is, it’s not spicy enough if you aren’t crying at the end of your meal.”
He and two other food service specialists qualified for the competition by submitting their contest recipes and scoring high on a written test about the culinary arts given to several Marines at Anderson Hall. Once the top three chefs were chosen, each had to prepare their menu for a lunchtime crowd and a three-judge panel.
The runners up, Lance Cpl. Brandon Smith and Lance Cpl. Jeffrey Hall, also drew on their cultural backgrounds to craft a menu for the contest. Smith, from Combat Logistics Battalion 3, featured food from his Irish heritage.
“I cooked a lot of dishes that reminded me of my grandma,” said Smith, of Lake Elsinore, Calif. “Some were tweaks of family recipes.”
His menu included Irish roasted salmon, kale with bacon and onions, and chocolate beer battered cakes with Bailey’s sweet chocolate ganache. Smith also wanted to incorporate parts of his favorite Irish dish, shepherd's pie.
“Traditional Irish food is known for its starches and meats, so I made sure to include mashed potatoes with cheddar cheese,” he said. “It brings back childhood memories of how mashed potatoes were my favorite food.”
To win over the judges, Smith’s competitor Hall showcased a Jamaican menu. His dishes included a barbecued jerk chicken marinated with a Jamaican lager beer and fresh vanilla ice cream for dessert.
“Jamaican food is a very natural kind of food,” said Hall, born in St. Ann’s Parish in Jamaica but a native of the Queens borough in New York City. “It’s healthier and more vegetable-produce based because we use a lot of fresh products. We don’t use a lot of specialized kitchen equipment.”
Although the three food service specialists had a clear vision for their menus, not everything went according to their initial plans. All three said one of the biggest lessons they learned during the contest was sticking to a schedule.
“You need to have proper time management for cooking,” said Hall, a Marine with 3/3. “I thought I was covered when I started the chicken, but I did it too late and noticed it needed more time to cook. I put it back in to cook, but by the time I got it out to serve it was late.”
Winning chef Xiong also ran into challenges just trying to craft his menu. Initially planning to make a traditional Thai green papaya salad, he needed to improvise when he learned he wouldn’t be able to special order papayas. Checking what was available at Anderson Hall, he came up with a succulent cucumber salad that he paired with spicy ground meat larb.
While serving their meals, the chefs also had to answer questions from the judges and the diners at Anderson Hall. They discussed their cooking process, what inspired them to create their dishes and even the culinary history behind the foods they served.
When asked about what aspiring home chefs can do to create a winning meal, Xiong said people should take the time to taste their food as they cook.
“Find the right taste for you,” he said. “I like things spicy, and I’ll add extra spice. You might like more sugar or sweetness, so you should add what you like into it. It’s up to you.”