Recently, I was invited to be a guest judge, along with two other bloggers, at Bento Sushi's inaugural Iron Chef competition. Tasting new sushi creations? Sign me up!
Bento was founded in 1996, and now has 2500 locations across Canada. They're likely best known for their offerings in your local supermarkets and food courts. Marketing themselves as "grab & go", they are nonetheless committed to the environment; from partnering with Sea Choice to ensure they're using only sustainable species to using all biodegradable packaging.
In celebration of the transition to Spring 2012, this year's Iron Chef Competition is about reinvention, renewal and an abundance of creativity.
The actual competition was conceived as a way to engage their batallion of chefs in developing new products, with the winners' rolls being put into production for Bento's restaurants and other outlets. About 5 months prior, 1,100 chefs were challenged to come up with new sushi creations, with the event we attended being the culmination of that challenge. That day, we were tasting the work of the 6 finalists from 5 regions across the country. Tough competition indeed. The 6 competitors were:
- Myungsub Shin (Alberta - 1st Runner Up)
- Beef Crunchy Sushi Roll
- Chicken Sushi Roll
- Beef & Chicken Sushi combo
- Kyoko Kiyan (British Columbia)
- Pepper Tuna Corn Roll
- Tacos Roll
- Tuna Variety Deluxe combo
- Doo Hee Lee (Ontario)
- Spicy Tuna by Cali Roll
- Yasai Delight
- Special Veggie combo
- Amber Saunders (Ontario - 2nd Runner Up)
- Fruit Dragon
- Jalapeño Roll
- Lemon Nigiri
- Ujang Presetyo (Ontario)
- Salmon Connection
- Simply Shrimp
- Zi Zong Chen (Québec - Winner)
- Red Tsunami
- Bento Roll
Each of the 6 finalists had a two-hour time limit to create 3 innovative new sushi rolls or 2 rolls and a combination plate. While the chefs were at work, we were treated to two generous platters of Bento's sushi. I may have overdone it, having gone in on an empty stomach, especially considering I needed to sample 12 more pieces after lunch.
There were a lot of interesting combinations of ingredients on offer, and while the rice was denser and stickier than I'm used to in my sushi, there were a few rolls that really stood out. First off, I agree 100% with the other judges in selecting Chef Chen as the winner. Her rolls were whimsical, pretty and had the cleanest, freshest flavours. I do think something like her Tornado rolls would be better suited to a restaurant setting rather than supermarket shelves, as the spicy mayonnaise could suffer from packaging. My other favourite came from Chef Saunders, who's lemon nigiri was delightfully zingy with a hint of sweetness. I'd definitely buy that.
Many thanks to Brand Manager Tiffany Yo for inviting me to watch the chefs in action and to taste their creations. Thanks also to Bento President and CEO Frank Hennessey and Executive Chef for the whole organization, Daniel Henderson for taking the time to talk to us about the history of the company and their visions for the future.
Bento's current spring offerings are a coconut tempura shrimp roll, wrapped in rice paper, sprinked with toasted coconut and drizzled with their Himitsu sauce; and a seven spice California roll, wrapped in rice paper and sprinkled with a seven spice blend of chillies. Both of these offerings are available until June 2.