Friday, March 14, 2014 | 2 a.m.
“Top Chef” contestant Shirley Chung became a fan favorite as she won several weekly episodes of Season 11 in New Orleans, but there was a coast-to-coast collective sigh of sympathy when our Las Vegas chef was eliminated after making the final three and competing in Maui.
Celebrity chef and judge Emeril Lagasse raved about her cuisine during filming, so much so that one of her winning dishes was added to the menus at all of his restaurants, including here in Las Vegas.
During our weekly coverage of her progress, Shirley, who had worked here for acclaimed culinary kings Thomas Keller, Guy Savoy and Jose Andres, told me that she was weighing several offers to open her own dining venue here.
She wanted it to be her culinary vision rather than executing the visions of the star chefs for whom she had worked.
“I had all their knowledge in my head, but everything I did was carrying out their vision,” she told me. Shirley planned a nearly three-week trip to South Korea after the final episode aired on Bravo. She wanted to gain further knowledge of those culinary traditions so she could incorporate it into the global Asian cuisine restaurant she’s planning here.
“Cooking without borders,” she laughed.
I asked her to be a guest columnist and write her own travel log of her remarkable overseas journey to open-air markets, country hillside towns and local kitchens and top restaurants.
Here are her own words and photographs after she landed and got over the initial shock of the capital of Seoul being hit with the century’s worst snowstorm:
I stayed with my friend’s parents in their house in Dongducheon for most of my trip. Her mom is an amazing home cook and taught me how to make kimchi and many other traditional Korean dishes and condiments.
The first day I was there, we went to Moran Shijang, the biggest open market in Seoul open to the public every five days. Our main agenda for this trip was to buy Korean Chunyang chili pepper.
Making kimchi is such an art. The best kimchi is made of Korean chili pepper that’s tree ripened and left to dry under the sun. So to make good kimchi, I had to start with picking out the best dry chili.
While we were in the market, Auntie took us to a hand-cut noodle stall. They roll and cut your bowl of noodles to order. The only thing they serve is noodle in anchovy broth and a side of kimchi. I discovered during this trip that the majority of the restaurants I went to serve only a single item. I guess if they are that good, they really don’t need to serve anything else but their specialty.
Making kimchi became a two-day process for me. First, I started with hand cleaning every single chili, then off to a rice cake house to grind them into powder. Ten pounds of chili yields only a little bag.
Prepping all the ingredients and macerating the Napa Cabbage with sea salt took six hours. After it is soft and pliable, the salt has to be completely washed off. I made a marinade with rice slurry, chili powder, baby shrimp paste, anchovies and herbs.
One of the secrets to complex and delicious kimchi is to adjust the seasoning with shrimp and anchovies, but no salt. In two days of hard work, I made just two tubs of kimchi that took four to five days to ferment. I packed half a tub and brought it back to Las Vegas. It was really, really good, and everybody loved it.
For the second part of my trip, we stayed in Dongdaemun, the fashion district of Seoul. The shopping center is open from 10 a.m. to 6 a.m. — yes, 6 a.m. Our strategy was to eat and drink throughout the day and start shopping after midnight.
Street food is a dining experience you have to have when you are in Seoul. I was so excited to break open my “egg muffin.” Even though true Koreans drink only Samgyetang — ginseng chicken soup — during summer, we had to have some. It was perfect for the unusually cold weather and snow.
There’s a lot of specialty food all concentrated in one area. Dongdaemun is the home of Jokbal Alley and braised pork trotters (feet). Beautiful! I can still taste them. I really enjoyed it!
We started our bar hopping fairly early, but we were a little disappointed with the cocktails they served. They all look very pretty, use fresh juice and fruit, but are light on the alcohol. There’s a dirty martini that I called a pretty martini.
One of the popular bar snacks is seaweed with a side of soy sauce. I love it! Korea is the biggest and best producer of seaweed, or Nori.
The No Ryang Jin Soon San fish market is the biggest fresh seafood market in South Korea. I finally got to have live baby octopus for the first time. I took too large of a bite, and the tentacles were sucking on my throat as I was trying to swallow!
The cool thing is there are a lot of restaurants next to all the seafood stalls. After you purchase your live seafood, you just take them to any restaurant, and they will prepare them for you to eat.
Whang Jang Market is the famous fermented and dry seafood market. Hon Lin is the best condiment shop. I had fermented fish intestine for the first time, loved it and brought it back to Las Vegas. The shop owner told me that it’s very common for her customers to send her condiments abroad. She packed my order as the “Ship to U.S.” special.
I finally got to taste Korean beef. It was the perfect blend of Kobe and American Angus, fatty but still a great flavor. I am sold on it, but too bad it’s impossible to get Korean beef outside Korea.
The steak is unseasoned. It’s just about the true flavor of the beef, served with three-year-aged sea salt for dipping. Steak tartar is served with pear and garlic shoots with a farm fresh egg yolk and sesame.
Korean food delivery is 24 hours. We ordered fried chicken and beer after we finished shopping, and it was delivered to our hotel at 2 a.m. The fried chicken had a light honey and spice glaze, and one order was a whole chicken that they cut up and fried to order.
We spent some chill time at the cultural region Insadong. This area has a lot of Korean art galleries, traditional fashion houses, unique gift shops and really cute tea and coffeehouses. I drank pumpkin and rice tea made of freshly grated pumpkins.
Some of the best meals I had were at my friend’s house. The floor is heated, as it is their tradition to sit on the floor. Each meal is accompanied with different types of kimchi and condiments. My last night there, Auntie made me braised bell fish with radish, chicken with potato noodle, soft tofu stew and marinated baby squid.
I have so many wonderful memories of this trip, and I still remember all the enjoyable tastes. It was a wonderful journey meeting incredible people and experiencing so many culinary adventures.
This was the first of many trips I have scheduled. There will be a lot of travels so that I can be even better and have more knowledge from other parts of the world to add to what I can do already.
There are continuing discussions and negotiations with different groups who want me to open my own restaurant. One may very well be in Las Vegas, but it will definitely continue to be my home base wherever we decide later this year.
Now I have my own vision for Shirley’s cuisine. I accomplished that, and I have my own creativity now.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.
Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.
Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.