Allez Cuisine! Judging “Battle Adobo” (MauiNow.com)

If you’ve ever watched – or joined a 12-step program to address your addiction to – Top Chef, Iron Chef, or Chopped, chances are you’ve wished you could be one of the judges.

You are not alone.

Happily, my dream finally came true. Don’t be hating, but it turns out the role is as awesome – better; awesome with a cherry on top – as you’ve dreamed.

On Saturday, the “Master P-Noy Chef Cook Off” at the Maui Fil-Am Heritage Festival saw three excellent Filipino chefs go head to head.

The rules were relatively simple: use proteins normally found in Filipino cooking, but limit the portion to 33%. Utilize Filipino vegetables and starches for the other two-thirds of the plate…and do it all in a makeshift kitchen in the middle of the Maui Mall.

The competitors represented some of the best talent on Maui.

Back to defend his title was Chef Sheldon Simeon of Star Noodle.

Simeon has twice been voted Maui’s Chef of the Year by his peers. He was a James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards semi-finalist. Moreover, he is currently competing against 20 others in the 10th season of Top Chef. The show is slated to premier on November 7.

The first challenger – and first to cook – was Chef Geno Sarmiento of Sarento’s on the Beach. In 1998, he opened Nick’s Fishmarket Maui and later became executive chef on the opening crew of Sarento’s on the Beach. Sarmiento then opened Son’z at the Hyatt Regency at Kaanapali and helped to develop their award-winning menu.

 The final challenger was Chef Joey Macadangdang of Roy’s. Macadangdang was born in the province of Ilocos Norte in the Philippines and at the age of 13 and moved with his family to Maui, where his father labored for Maui Land & Pineapple Company. Macadangdang got his first break as a busboy/dishwasher at Eric’s Seafood Grotto. He became interested in cooking and in 1992, he joined the Yamaguchi Restaurant team and trained under Chefs David Abella, Roy Yamaguchi, and Gordon Hopkins.

First up was Chef Sarmiento’s expertly braised pork belly and lobster on a bed of risotto. The portion was gigantic – and yanked away entirely too quickly – but it was immediately clear that any earlier misgivings about the content of the food that day were misplaced. The pork belly had a lovely lemony flavor and was surrounded by a delightful and savory sauce.

Lobster and pork belly on one plate? One marvels that such beautiful and delicious creations came from butane camp stoves.

Next we were served Chef Macadangdang’s visually stunning kampachi (Almaco jack) prepared three ways. The first was seared and laid atop some of the creamiest and most delicious polenta man has ever known. Something about pork trotters was mentioned, but there were no visible hooves and the flavor worked beautifully.

The second preparation featured two slices of perfectly cut Kampachi sashimi beside a spring roll filled with avocado, rice noodles, and more  raw kampachi. Last up was what the chef called “fish head head cheese.” The alarming-sounding item was actually a lovely preparation of cooked kampachi cheeks and enoki mushrooms tucked in a crisp fried beggar’s purse.

The final dish presented that afternoon was Chef Simeon’s boldly plated, cooked five-ways (braised, seared, fried, roasted and kiawe smoked) pork belly on a bed of pearl barley.  The pearl barley was an experiment: “Hopefully it all comes together,” Simeon commented.

It did. Along with the surprise ingredient of pipinola (chayote squash) shoots – harvested that morning – the plate had cherry tomatoes, carrots, red onion, creamy mashed potato, and a tomato foam. Each bite brought a slightly different flavor profile.

Judging such beautiful and delicious offerings provided a challenge.

Armed with paper ballots and a 100-point scoring system, the competition was tight.

In the end, Chef Macadangdang triumphed with his kampachi creations. Perhaps most impressive – and in a true nod to the Filipino culinary culture – was his use of the entire fish.

Chef Joey was not the only Macadangdang snagging a title on Saturday: his wife took first in the “speedy balut eating contest.” Apparently it takes a lot of salt to choke one of those buggers down, but she did it with a smile.

Thank you again to the Maui Fil-Am Heritage Festival for the opportunity. For better or worse, they have created a monster. We are now going to try to weasel my way onto the judges’ table of every food competition we can find, even if it’s just a friendly barbecue cook off between friends.

That rustling in your bushes? Don’t be alarmed. It’s just us.