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Top Chinese Chef Crowned in Vancouver

An oil painting by late artist Chen Yifei features a woman playing bamboo flute.

Vancouver on Monday crowned Hong Kong immigrant Tony Luk as its top Chinese chef 10 months after a U.S. magazine called the city home to the "best Chinese food in the world."

With 12 participants going head-to-head in the first annual Chinese chef of year competition at the Rainflower Restaurant in suburban Vancouver, each contestant had 30 minutes to create an entree and two side dishes using locally produced chicken, tofu and geoduck, a large mollusk from the clam family, for the main ingredients.

Finally, Luk won the gold medal for his creation of drunken free range chicken with a Yunnan wild morel mushroom sauce.

Following on the praise of Vancouver's Chinese culinary scene in the February edition of Conde Nast Traveler, which proclaimed the city "home to the best Chinese food in the world," the accolades have since attracted such media giants as CNN, ABC television and the New York Times.

Craig Stowe, who created the Chinese Restaurant Awards three years ago, said the Chinese chef of the year was a natural companion event.

He added that he had been aware for some time that Vancouver stood out for the quality of its Chinese food in North America and wanted to honor the chefs for their adherence to cooking with the freshest local ingredients.

He plans to promote Vancouver as a culinary tourism destination.

"I traveled the world and recognized the fantastic Chinese food here, but they needed a bridge between the western world and the Chinese world," said the former wine merchant.

"So I went and approached the best Chinese food critics and said, 'you have an unsung hero in Chinese restaurants," he said. "I'll raise the funds. I'll raise the sponsorship and you focus on finding the best signature dishes out in the community.' It's been a great synergy."

While most of the chefs in the competition learned their trade in such culinary hotbeds as Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Beijing, Todd Bright took a more unusual route.

Growing up in Australia, Bright apprenticed in a Cantonese restaurant in the small town of Toowoomba, Queensland, literally learning his trade from the bottom up.

"I started in there (at the Ming Jade Restaurant) washing dishes, moved up to frying rice and the woks stations, and eventually to sort of a sous chef position," Bright said. "I traveled the world after that and Chinese food has always been just in my heart. It's a fun thing to cook and I'm very glad that I had a chance to be part of this competition."

Now the executive chef at Wild Rice, a trendy Chinese fusion restaurant in downtown Vancouver, Bright said the local culinary scene was blessed with abundant seafood and fresh local produce available nearly year-round.

"One of the biggest things that I can bring (to Chinese food as a westerner) is just the styles of cooking. I was French-trained as well, so I can bring a lot of different cooking methods and types of ingredients that usually fly under the radar of Asian chefs," he said.

While the Chinese have been in British Columbia since the late 1800s when the first wave came to build Canada's national railway (mainly Cantonese, Hakka and Toisan speaking laborers from Guangdong province), Conrad Leung arrived in 1975.

As the head of the Asian culinary arts department at Vancouver Community College, the Hong Kong native graduates 20 cooks every six months who are capable of making more than 150 Chinese dishes.

Leung, who was one of the four judges at the chef competition, said the majority of his graduates find jobs with casinos, hotels, restaurants and supermarket chains.

"It's all about 'fusion' as Oriental tastes go into the mainstream," he said.

As someone who grew up in the restaurant business in Hong Kong's Sheung Wan district where his father owned the Silver Dragon, Leung said Vancouver's Chinese fare has improved a lot from when he first arrived and "Western Chinese food" was served to the masses.

"The second generation (of Chinese chef in Vancouver) is coming up and they are getting more new ideas, more matches with different cultures, like fusion and so on, different presentations, different tastes and different herbs," he said. "I think we will have a very bright future."

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