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Pinoy chef bags top prize in ‘Food Hero’

Singapore – Filipino chef Anton Amoncio recently bested three regional rivals from Thailand and Malaysia to bag the top prize in ‘Food Hero 2016,’ an annual search for the region’s best young chef and TV host conducted by Asian Food Channel and Food Network. Part of his prize is to travel all over the region and appear on cooking shows to be produced by both cable channels.

Amoncio, who used to own and manage Antojo, a Filipino and Spanish restaurant in Quezon City, is so far the only male and Filipino to bag the title in the contest’s three-year history. He and his fellow contestants had to undergo a series of challenges during the past three months in their respective countries prior to meeting each other during Thursday night’s finals at the White Rabbit restaurant in this city.

THE TASTE OF VICTORY – Filipino Chef Anton Amoncio smiles for the camera as he prepares his Cheesy Lamb Rack Kaldereta, the dish which brought him victory during Asian Food Channel’s ‘Food Hero Asia’ competition in Singapore Thursday. Besting three competitors, Amoncio won the right to host several programs on the Asian Food Channel and The Food Network channel. (Alex Vergara | Manila Bulletin)

THE TASTE OF VICTORY – Filipino Chef Anton Amoncio smiles for the camera as he prepares his Cheesy Lamb Rack Kaldereta, the dish which brought him victory during Asian Food Channel’s ‘Food Hero Asia’ competition in Singapore Thursday. Besting three competitors, Amoncio won the right to host several programs on the Asian Food Channel and The Food Network channel. (Alex Vergara | Manila Bulletin)

“I had to close Antojo after sales dipped by as much as 60 percent because of the traffic caused by the Skyway construction,” he said. “I was planning to reopen it in Makati, but that would have to wait because of this.”

Since it’s a made-for-TV contest, the contestants were also judged on how well they speak and register in front of the cameras. They had to initially videotape themselves while cooking to qualify in succeeding challenges. For the videotaped challenge, Amoncio cooked tinola, a recipe handed to him by his grandmother.

“Tinola is a dish my grandmother usually makes for me when I was sick,” he said. “I consider it my comfort food. Instead of the farm-raised chicken, she used to go to the market in search of live, free-range native chicken. She also used malunggay leaves for her tinola instead of talbos ng sili because she felt that I needed the added nutrition. I was exposed to cooking early on because of my grandmother. She is my all-time food hero.”

Amoncio’s winning dish during the finals, which he dubbed as Cheesy Lamb Rack Kaldereta, is a globalized version of a well-loved Filipino staple with Spanish roots. Apart from using lamb instead of beef, the 27-year-old chef, who trained for two years at the Center of Culinary Arts (CCA) in Quezon City, didn’t add liver spread to his cheese- and tomato-based sauce. He also sautéed his dish using cooking oil, which he earlier used to fry siling labuyo or bird’s eye chilli.

“The dish was inspired by one of my bestselling dishes in Antojo,” he said. “I pan-fried the lamb before frying the chili to allow its spicy flavor to seep evenly in the dish.”

Apart from Amoncio, this year’s finalists are Farris Danial Abdul Rahman and Koh Kay Kim from Kuala Lumpur, and Pattaya Benjavari from Bangkok. Past Food Hero winners such as Singapore’s Sarah Benjamin, whose Filipino nanny introduced her to sinigang, adobo, and longganisa, Malaysia’s Ili Sulaiman, and Hong Kong’s Debbie Wong also graced the event.

Amoncio, an only child, was also drawn to music at an early age. He sings and used to play the piano before “my fingers got a bit stiff from all that cooking.” He initially took up music production at the De La Salle-College of St. Benilde before dropping out and moving to CCA.

“We have plenty of talented, innovative and successful chefs in the Philippines who have paid their dues,” he said, when asked if he considers his feat as part of Filipino food’s long overdue recognition on the global culinary scene. “As a Filipino, I just want to get other people curious about Filipino food. Once they do, it’s a start. Okay, we now have this Filipino guy on AFC. So, what is Filipino food all about? Instead of imposing, I want to enlighten them about our food.”