I never thought this day would come.

When I was eight years old (1982), we had to start using notebooks. Each day our teacher had us write the day in our notebook like this: 10/14/82. It was then that I started thinking about patterns in dates. And since the numeral 1 could possibly look like a slash, the date 11/11/11 would be pretty cool.

I did some calculations (we had learned how to add and subtract the year before). I figured I would by 37 by 11/11/11.


Would I be writing in notebooks by those days? What would I do that day?

Well, this day has come, and no, I didn’t write in any notebooks. I did write it in an OhmyNews post for the day, and I made sure I had posts written for ZenKimchi and ZenKimchi Dining. I spent the day at the Korea Food Expo 2011. It was my third day there. I did an interview with SBS TV, walking around the expo and checking stuff out. I found some cool stuff, including something from Jeju that resembled limes. Will need to investigate that further.

My week was busy and all related to the Korea Food Expo. I had agreed, as a favor to some of the folks at Arirang, to do a bit for MBC TV and participate in this cooking contest run by the Korean Food Foundation. On Monday, my old PD from the Arirang show shot me eating foods in Yeouido. It was a decent time. I like this PD. He’s serious and efficient.

On Tuesday, I went to Costco and such to get equipment and a bottle of gin for the cooking contest. On Wednesday, I met my friend June at the COEX. She was my partner, and we were to do the cooking contest together. The cameras followed us around. We had a menu set out to really kick some ass.

Yet there was confusion. The original form I was sent about the contest emphasized creativity. The theme was “What Korean dish would you introduce to your friends?”

I was coming up with a traditional menu. But I double checked the form, and it said something about original recipes being encouraged with 10 points being given for originality. So I used some recipes I make regularly and from the website. I then got a call on Sunday saying that my menu was too “international.” So I changed it to Galbi Jjim. I had been perfecting my Galbi Jjim recipe down to the smallest details. I planned to serve it with kimchi mashed potatoes, cucumber muchim, and a yuja martini.

June and I arrived at the cooking area and saw a few friends of ours from broadcasting. We were antsy. We checked if all our ingredients were there. Of course they weren’t. They had told me that if they had any trouble finding any ingredients they’d inform me. Well, they didn’t, and we were missing a few. It took some struggles. A few ingredients they couldn’t get for us.

We sat there waiting through a bunch of tedious speeches. When you’re in a cooking contest, you just want to cook, not listen to speeches. Finally they gave us the green light.

June and I had everything timed and planned carefully. We were doing something complex. Most of the other teams were serving single dishes. We were doing four separate things. I had to make sure the ribs were started right away since they had to be braised within the 80-minutes contest time. June worked hard in prepping everything. We’re both having to answer questions from media people, including our own MBC team, while we were cooking. I got annoyed at one point and asked them to leave me alone a bit.

Things were going smoothly. I tasted the Galbi Jjim sauce, and it was perfect. The other stuff was turning out even better than I had planned.  I had just put the potatoes in the pot to boil when it was announced that there were only 10 minutes left.

That was fast!

Turned out they gave us the wrong time. There were really 15 minutes left. But since they said ten, I rushed through finishing the dish. They said five minutes, and I rushed to mash the potatoes and mix them and plate everything for the judges. We had to make one small plate for the judges and a large plate for the public. After I had plated the judges’ plate and put it on the judging table, the announcers corrected themselves and went back to ten minutes. So our plating was rushed, and it looked rushed. It looked awful. But I think it would have been difficult to fix. One thing I didn’t anticipate was how sepia toned the elements were. Nonetheless, they turned out tasting perfectly. I tasted it. June tasted it. Even the media tasted it, and they all agreed that the Galbi Jjim sauce kicked ass. Our yuja martini was also great.

We put together the plate for the public and got it out there before time ran out. Other teams weren’t finished but were allowed to finish. They then had us line up behind our dishes at the judging tables. There were twenty teams, so the tables were divided in two. The judges were at the table opposite us. I waited for them to judge our dish like they had us do at the CJ competition I did last year. But before the judges came over, the organizers asked us to move our dishes to the public table.

I thought there was a misunderstanding. We already had our public tasting dish set, so I didn’t move my judging dish to the public table. The public went through and ate the dishes. They were mostly students. There was this one old man who broke in line and was eating everything. One team said he even tried to swipe some of their food while they were cooking.

(Great security.)

June was mixing cocktails like a fiend as I washed the glasses. Then the organizers stopped us to announce the winners.

I don’t remember the details of all who won. There were five. One dish was bulgogi bibimbap. Another was ddeokbokki. Another was japchae. Those, coincidentally, were the very same dishes the government wanted to promote in their food campaign. Our Galbi Jjim didn’t even place. I started running through reasons in my mind. Maybe the plating was too ugly? The galbi was too tough? How could Japchae, a generally bland dish, beat Galbi Jjim–braised ribs?

I found it amusing that before announcing the winners that one of the judges emphasized that everyone was a winner–as if we were a little league team. Kinda fell shallow since one of our friends’ team made a monstrous kimbap-chocolate-meat-marshmallow concoction as a joke.

June and I were deflated. We had worked very hard and didn’t win. I figured, “Well, those must have been some great dishes.” One of the winning teams was a pair of TV celebs. Then one of our friends (from the chocolate kimbap team) pointed out how much of a fraud the whole competition was. He noticed that only half of the dishes got tasted by the judges. I went back to the judging table and found that he was right. Our Galbi Jjim wasn’t touched at all.

Our group of stragglers wandered to our cooking station and finished off our food–which everyone thought was the best. I collected our glasses and the equipment I brought while June helped our friends polish off the gin.

We were really let down. It wasn’t that we didn’t win. I have no problem losing to dishes that are better. It was that we worked hard on a contest that was a farce to begin with. It was a PR stunt.

The TV crew had asked me ahead of time if I’d be available for more shooting that evening, and I had agreed. By the time the contest was finished, I regretted agreeing to that. That evening, I made my way up to northern Seoul to a pretentious hanjeongsik restaurant. I was at a table with some of the winners of the contest. I think I was the only one who hadn’t placed. We then went through this whole thing with the blowhard celebrity owner of this restaurant explaining how Korean cuisine is superior to western cuisines. (shoot me now) He was speaking Korean strangely, and I was just too tired to focus. So all the other contestants, whose Korean was better than mine anyway, chastised me for not being as good at Korean as they were. I hadn’t felt so out of place in years. At least in those situations where my Korean isn’t as good as the people around me I can take comfort in the notion that my expertise was more in Korean food. But since the people at the table had beaten me in this competition, I didn’t even have that to lean on. So I felt extremely small and deflated. I just wanted to get out of there.

After further investigation it became more obvious that the judges didn’t taste many of the dishes. Strike another one for the Korean government’s food campaign.

The next day I was scheduled to participate in the Asian Food Forum at the COEX. I arrived at the very beginning to listen to the speakers. I was part of a panel, the last event of the day, to discuss Korean food globalization. Yet by the end of the day, all the government officials and most of the food company execs were gone–the people who you’d think would be the most interested in something like this. I joked that it showed how dedicated the government was to actually promoting Korean food. It still turned out to be a good panel discussion. I just wished that the officials stuck around to listen to it.

Some positive events came out of the week, though. I did have a great time at the forum. Met some great folks and strengthened ties with others. Learned a lot, too. I also got a call today about reviving a web contract that was put on hold earlier this year. So things may turn out pretty well.

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