Local chefs square off at Aloha Kitchen Challenge


Marine Room’s Bernard Guillas joined several of his counterparts at Roy’s La Jolla restaurant last week to give some culinary students a shot at jump-starting their careers.

And much to the chef’s delight, his student, Athena Gilson, “won hands down,” he said. “I was the old guy going at it and working the line.”

He described the Aloha Kitchen Challenge as “Iron Chef for culinary students.”

The July 28 event matched three culinary students from the Art Institute of San Diego with Guillas, Jason Knibb of Nine-Ten and Brian Malarkey, who announced last week that he’s leaving his Oceanaire restaurant downtown to spend time with his family.

Also in on the event were Garrett Mukogawa of Roy’s La Jolla and the restaurant’s namesake, Roy Yamaguchi.

Gillson competed against classmates Bruce Ricketts and Grant Toraanson.

Yamaguchi, who was recently featured on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, said during an interview over dinner, that he enjoys helping to set students up for success.

“Lots of times students don’t like to compete,” he said. “They have to step it up.”

The new world of Internet and food TV, he said, is having a huge impact on aspiring chefs.

“Students watch and see chefs on television … and want to be like the chef on TV,” he said. “Hopefully they will get the education to be great.”

He said for his own part, he doesn’t care about stardom but rather wants to be known for being great.

For being named the winner after being rated by guest judges and diners, Gilson, a San Diegan whose dream is to intern in Hawaii, won an internship at one of Roy’s restaurants.

The judges were Walter Makula, Hawaii native and anchor with Fox San Diego, Patricia Brown, NBC weather anchor, Marcellus Wiley, former Charger and analyst for ESPN’s “NFL Live, Rachel Sebastian, a dancer with the San Diego Ballet, and Michele Parente, food critic for the Union-Tribune.

Sebastian, an admitted Top Chef fan, said she enjoyed the judging experience and was looking for “something that tastes good and has to be beautiful. … It’s pulling at your heart and soul. They have to put as much thought into how it tastes as how it looks.”

Brown said late last week that she picked Gilson’s dish as the winner for its creativity.

While Toraanson’s Duo of Pork “had the best taste and melted in your mouth,” the salmon dish was unlike anything she had tasted before, Brown said, adding that she was impressed by the student chefs’ passion and their appreciation for being able to work with the master chefs.

The challenge involved cooking dishes in Roy’s Hawaiian fusion tradition, from designing the dish to getting it onto the plates.

Guillas’ student won for a dish headlined by Pistachio Sanyo Crunch Tasmanian Steelhead salmon.

Guillas met Gilson twice at the restaurant to “look at the logistics of cooking and plating, praising his student partner.

“She was dedicated, very serious and analyzed everything, but I told her not to overanalyze because that’s where things go wrong.”

For his part, he added. “Life is short, I’m 46 and I believe that if you’re able to pass knowledge to someone and put them on the right path it makes a difference.”

He also praised Knibb and Malarkey “because they are so driven and invested in helping new culinary talents. That makes San Diego very different from the rest of the U.S.”

On the menu

1st course

(Chef Partnere Garrett Mukogawa)

Hirame Sashimi and Pickled Fennel

Japanese Plum Reduction, Yuzu Koshu Aioli

2nd course

(Student Bruce Ricketts)

Ceviche of Scallop and Octopus

Melon Salad, Tempura Shiso Leaf ‘Taco,’ Mango Vinaigrette

3rd course

(Student Athena Gilson)

Pistachio Sanyo Crunch Tasmanian Steelhead

Red Quinoa-filled Squash Blossom

Heirloom Melon Nector, Gooseberry Kalbi

4th course

(Student Grant Toraanson)

Duo of Pork: Ginger Beer & Cider Braised Pork Belly

Smoked Pork Loin

Thai Bird Chili & Peach Relish

Ogo & Green Papaya Salad

5th course

(Pastry Chef Andrea Nunez)

Frozen Peach Cheesecake

Citrus Cucumber Drizzle

Brandon Hernandez contributed to this report.