Young Seattle chef wins national cooking competition

Young Seattle chef wins national cooking competition

Credit: KING

Varin Keokitvon during the National Chaine des Rotisseurs Jeune Commis competition June 11-14 in Scottsdale, Arizona.



Posted on July 1, 2009 at 2:14 PM

Updated Tuesday, Mar 16 at 2:14 PM

SEATTLE - An up and coming young chef from Seattle is gaining recognition after winning a prestigious national cooking competition.

Varin Keokitvon, 25, won the National Chaine des Rotisseurs Jeune Commis competition, which took place June 11-14 in Scottsdale, Arizona.  He advances to the international competition in New York City in the fall, where he'll represent the U.S.

"It feels good," said Keokitvon, a 2008 graduate of Seattle Central Community College's Culinary Academy. "What was important is that I made my instructors proud. That was the main thing for me."

The competition, held annually on the regional, national and international level, allows future chefs under the age of 27 to demonstrate their cooking talents. Keokitvon won the local and regional competitions, held earlier this year at Renton Technical College.

Similar to the popular cooking show "Iron Chef," the chefs at the national competition were given identical "mystery baskets" which contained assorted ingredients. Competitors had four hours to design and prepare a three-course meal for four using those ingredients.

"They set up it differently than the regional and local competitions," explained Keokitvon.  "They only made three ingredients out of 21 ingredients mandatory: dried guajillo chiles, poussin (baby chicken) and striped bass.  The 19 optional ingredients included things like cucumber, miso and plantains."

For his first course, Keokitvon cooked seared striped bass with cucumber salad with miso vinaigrette, fresh avocado, plantain chips. First his second course, he did a roasted poussin with crispy dumplings, sauted corn, guanillo chiles demi and tomatillo sauce. For the third course, he prepared a lemon chocolate tart, chocolate pate sucree with basil syrup, strawberry sauce, vanilla cream and honey tuile.

"It was a little nerve wracking in the beginning," recalled Keokitvan. "You have 30 minutes to write your menu. Once you're prepping it, it becomes easier if you manage your time correctly. Then you have 10 minutes to plate up."

Tasting judges graded entries on taste and texture, originality, and presentation. Kitchen judges graded kitchen techniques, organization, product utilization, professionalism, and timing.

Keokitvon's creations and performance beat out nine other competitors to win the national title.  The prize included a knife kit and an opportunity to advance to the international competition in September, where he will represent the U.S.

"(The judges) said pretty good things about my performance for the international competition to make it better - just helpful tips to help me out in New York," said Keokitvon.

Speaking about his plans after the international competition, Keokitvon remarked, "I would like to go to France in October 2010 to apprentice at Patisserie Grandin in St. Germaine en Laye, Le Pr Catelan in Paris, and Le Jardin des Sens in Montpellier."

Currently, Keokitvon works as a sous chef and instructor at FareStart and at Elliott's Oyster House. His long term goal is to be a pastry chef instructor at Seattle Culinary Academy. He cites instructors Gregg Shiosaki and Regis Bernard as his greatest influences.

"My goal in life is to give back what I learned to the next generation and that's why I took the job at Farestart. But ultimately I want to be the next Regis Bernard," said Keokitvan. "The first time I thought I wanted to become an instructor was during a lecture Gregg Shiosaki was giving. He was so passionate and real and so inspiring that it made me want to be in his shoes right there. That feeling never left me. I've always wanted to be an inspiration to others one day."

Keokitvon hopes to also gain work experience in Las Vegas under world class pastry chefs at some of the luxury hotels, like Mandalay Bay and Bellaggio.

"All the pastry chefs in those Las Vegas hotels are world class champions - the best of the best," he said.

Before graduating from the Seattle Culinary Academy's Specialty Desserts and Breads program 2008, Keokitvon studied culinary arts at North Seattle Community College, where he won the Washington Award for Vocational Excellence (WAVE), which recognizes and rewards students who excel in career and technical education. The award paid for two years of tuition at any school in Washington state.

"I could have gone anywhere, but I chose Seattle Central's Culinary Academy, because my teacher Gregg Shiosaki had moved there. They have amazing instructors," said Keokitvon.

Keokitvon emigrated from Laos to Seattle in 1986 when he was two years old.  He said he always liked to cook, but it wasn't until he was a junior at Roosevelt High School that he considered baking as a profession. That's when he saw the National Pastry Team Championship on the Food Network.

"The teams created amazing desserts and sugar and chocolate showpieces that were unreal, and at that point, I knew that's what I wanted to do," he said. "I never knew it was possible to make sugar and chocolate into works of art. I guess I always loved art and loved to eat so I just put the two together.  Food, sugar, and chocolate are my mediums; the plates are my canvas."< strong>