... or how I turned into a nervous wreck, sabotaged my team and possibly poisoned their head honcho.
But first things first, yes, I readily admit to occasionally eating at Panda Expresses. As far as fast & mall foods go, I find it pretty decent -- they have a slew of freshly chopped & cooked vegetables (a whole fridge's worth!) that gets incorporated into almost all their items, they let you sample up the wazoo before you have to commit to an order (try doing that @ a burger joint,) and of course the infamous Orange Chicken, a sinful dish that capitalizes on primal tastebud desires: something sweet, something meaty & something fried.
So when I was invited to participate in their Wok Star Challenge @ the Panda Restaurant Group HQ in Rosemead (as well as an opportunity to meet with their exec. chef Andy Kao,) I enthusiastically replied yes -- even if my own wokking skills are on the rudimentary side.
And when I saw the other bloggers I'll be competing with (Cathy of Gastronomy, her hubby Vernon of Stellar Recipes, Hong & Kim of Ravenous Couple, Patti of Worth the Whisk, Quyen of Kitchen Runway and Jenna of LA Canvas/Eater LA,) I was SO ready to raise my white flag, only to feel majorly relieved and thankful to discover the everyone's going to be randomly paired up, and that I'll be Hong's sous-chef for the night.
After our team's decided, we were escorted to their cafeteria and test kitchen (structured as a typical Panda Express restaurant) where we were given a brief history of the company, met Chef Kao, and watched as he demo-cooked their latest entree dish, the Firecracker Chicken Breast to coincide with the recent Lunar New Year.
After a quick lesson in cleaver chopping (again, thankful that I got to chop bell peppers and not the onions, or I'd be BAWLING w tears!) and a demo on wok handling & cleaning, we were shown the table of ingredients . . .
. . . given a quick rundown of each item, and then "you have 20 minutes to prepare and plate a dish to judge, starting NOW!"
Commence eight bloggers freaking out, trying to conceptualize a dish while grabbing ingredients like we're on Supermarket Sweep.
After a minute of discussion, Hong & I decided to go for some originality points and utilize kumquats in our chicken dish by infusing the cooking oil with thin slices of it. As Hong stir-fried away, I took on the role of expediter, shuttling back and forth between the ingredients table and the cooking station with extra components needed. Simple enough, right?
And yet, I still fail-whaled when Hong's request for rice wine turned into me dumping an ounce or two of LEMON JUICE into the wok. After sampling the puckery piece 'o poultry, I tried to compensate by squeezing a generous dose of honey into the stir-fry. Can't go wrong with sweet & sour, right?
Nonetheless, I am just glad we finished & plated in the 20 minute time frame. We named our dish "Fortune Chicken" as a play on ubiquitous - though not exactly Chinese - fortune cookies, to reflect the lucky yellow-red colors of the entreé and as an homage to the numerous good luck blessings that come around Lunar New Year (which I could use a LOT of for this cookoff.)
Let Chef Kao's tasting and judging begin. And I agree with Cathy the man's got quite a poker face . . .
. . . not to mention the diplomatic charm of UN ambassador when he ever-so-politely told us that the Chinese sausage in our dish was undercooked! Eeek! But I did love how he tried to assuage our fears of almost food poisoning him by saying, "I bit, but I didn't swallow!"
The winners of the night were Cathy & Quyen with their Spicy Jackfruit Chicken, which is was totally delicious (and I even packed some of it to-go!) And as winners, Panda Restaurant Group donated $250 to each of their chosen charities: Southern California Golden Retriever Rescue & Cooking Matters Los Angeles (formerly Operation Frontline, the benefactor of last year's BloggerProm.) Congrats!
And after all that excitement and tension, we relaxed over a Panda Express meal cooked by Chef Kao; which of course included plenty of their Orange Chicken. Woohoo!
Despite not winning (I knew my chances were slim anyways,) it was a wicked fun time to hang out and cook with other bloggers (without worrying about the clean-up too!) and get a little inside look about company. So thanks to Panda for hosting the event and the swanky parting gifts (including a wok, which worked out well for me since I was already shopping around for something to replace my skillet.)
Now that I got the cook-off out of the way, will I fare better at a Bloody Mary mix-off? Stay tuned...
More photos from the cookoff on my flickr here