Earlier today I took a break from the office and headed to the Dusit Thani's UMU Japanese restaurant to have lunch with Dino Ferrari, the new AFC celebrity chef. He did a little cooking demonstration at UMU's teppanyaki grill and then he and his girlfriend Andrea sat down with me for a lunch set of tempura and chicken with soy sauce.
We had a really fun time talking about his experience over five weeks of the AFC Celebrity Chef search, and all the behind-the-scenes events that people in front of the television never really know about.
Of course he's excited to be beginning his one-year stint with E&O as the top creative chef. Apparently he'll be shuttling between E&O properties in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, possibly spending four days in Kuala Lumpur and then the weekends in Penang. The E&O has beautiful properties in both cities, and the Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Penang is especially lovely and historic.
"Where will you live?" I asked him. Dino shrugged but someone else whispered that she'd heard that E&O was giving him a place by the marina of Penang, which is a really swanky new dining and shopping hotspot with fancy yachts parked right in front. It's also got ritzy apartments overlooking it, and perhaps that's where Dino will be staying.
THE CRUCIAL MOMENT
Then of course we got to talking about how he even got into the competition. Apparently he watches AFC all the time and one day he saw the TV commercial for the Next Celebrity Chef search. Immediately he rang up his girlfriend and told her something like: "We're making a video. I'm entering that contest."
So they made a video, and apparently it was a pretty run-of-the-mill-one (in Dino's own words). Lots of people sent AFC very polished and impressive videos but he and his girlfriend just shot one with an HD pocket camera with a very basic spiel. Something like "Hi, I'm Dino Ferrari and I should be your next celebrity chef..."
Well, obviously it worked. Dino made it to the first round of 35 entrants; and he still remembers how he broke the news to his dad, who was in Switzerland at that time. He sent his dad a message -- I guess he meant he sent a text -- saying "Papa, can you call me? It's nothing bad, though."
OFF TO MALAYSIA
I laughed when I heard this. Of course. So many young people never call their parents except when they get into trouble. But this time Dino had happy news. He told them: "I got accepted for the AFC competition and I'm going to Malaysia all-expenses paid."
The next five weeks in Malaysia were really tough even if they were holed up in beautiful hotels like the Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Penang; and they weren't without their share of pressure and intrigues. "Everyone had their own strategy for winning the contest," Dino recalled. "Some contestants tried to impress big-time, while one or two tried to put themselves up by trying to bring down everyone else. I was really shocked, in particular, to learn that one of the contestants who I thought was my friend was actually saying bad things about me in the interviews."
TWO SIDES TO CONTESTANT B
The contestants were all interviewed on video separately and they were all asked to give their opinions of other contestants. Dino says he always said ok things about the others and he thought that this particular competitor -- let's call her Contestant B -- was also at least giving neutral comments about him. Of course they're all competing for the top prize, but he didn't think this was a good enough reason to try and bring down the others.
So it was pretty much a shock for him to learn later on that Contestant B had been treating him nicely to his face but saying bad things about him all along. He only found out when other people who had watched the filming of Contestant B's interviews started telling him about it.
That's when Andrea butt in and reminded him: "You have to understand that not everyone's a nice person." Then she said to me: "He's really like that. He's so nice so he thinks everyone is like him."
Then we went on to more pleasant topics. Or should I say -- more delicious topics? But before we began talking about food, I just had to ask him: "Apart from the cooking, why do you think AFC chose you?"
He didn't hesitate with his reply: "I knew what a celebrity chef does and what they needed. A celebrity chef doesn't only cook; he entertains as well. So I was banking on winning with my cooking skills and my personality. I put everything I knew about being a celebrity chef into this competition."
A SURE WINNER
Pat Montinola, who represents AFC in Manila, agreed when I had a chat with her afterwards. She said: "You know what the makeup artist told me during the first filming? He said, "That guy Dino's going to win for sure. Look at how he's saying hello and talking to everyone."
Then I finally got to ask him the question I really wanted to ask him: Now that you're a celebrity chef. What would you cook for friends coming over on a Saturday night?
He replied: "I usually have about four or five friends over, and they all eat a lot. I'd serve them smoked salmon pasta, which is my favorite dish of all time. On a fancier level, I'd probably serve them a smoked duck salad with a honey balsamic vinaigrette. Then boys like steak, so I'd do a glazed pan-seared steak and serve it with a thick walnut butter and perhaps a rice pilaf with raisins. For dessert, I'd do a mango clafoutis."
EGGS BENEDICT A LA DINO
What's your ideal breakfast? I asked him.
He said: "My own eggs benedict!" Andrea nodded next to him and added: "It's really good. I've never had a better one than Dino's eggs benedict."
I asked him: "What's so different with your eggs benedict?"
He replied: "My sauce is a typical Hollandaise sauce, but I use grapefruit instead of lemon. Grapefruit gives an aroma and a hint of sweetness."
Then he added: "I love to make brunch. I'd do eggs benedict and a stuffed French toast, coated with almonds."
Andrea added, perhaps because we were on the topic of "French" things: "He also does a very good French onion soup."
Dino nodded. "French onion soup is time consuming, but if it's done right, it's really very good. You need four hours just to caramelize the onions. And most people finish it with red wine, but I like to finish it with cognac."
Andrea added: "He likes to finish it with Hennessy. It's probably the most expensive onion soup in Manila."
THE FIRST MEAL
AND A DISH THAT TASTED LIKE CHRISTMAS
"And what was the first meal Dino ever cooked for you?" I asked Andrea. How lucky is she? She has a boyfriend who cooks.
She replied, with a smile: "I knew he cooked because friends had already told me so. But one day he said to me: 'I'll cook for you this weekend.' He made me a mushroom risotto with bread crumbs, and a perfectly-done steak that was better than anything in a restaurant. He also made an ossobucco that tasted like Christmas, for some reason. I guess this was because it had fruits in it. Then he explained the logic behind his cooking, and I said: 'Hey, you're good.'"
If only all of us were so lucky. Just another day in a never-ending and never-endingly eventful Travelife.
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