Indonesian chef Denny Boy Gunawan is one of 10 contestants vying for the top prize in season two of ‘The Amazing Food Challenge’ on the Asian Food Channel.  (Photo courtesy of Asian Food Channel)

Chef Denny Cooking Up a Storm on TV

JANUARY 12, 2015

Indonesian chef Denny Boy Gunawan is one of 10 contestants vying for the top prize in season two of ‘The Amazing Food Challenge’ on the Asian Food Channel.  (Photo courtesy of Asian Food Channel)

The reality TV show “The Amazing Food Challenge: Fun in the Philippines,” which airs on the Asian Food Channel at 9 p.m. every Thursday, showcases the creativity and skills of 10 Asia-Pacific culinary enthusiasts in cooking Filipino food.

During the competition, the contestants face gruelling physical challenges, including racing through the markets, mazes and rivers across the archipelagic nation as they out-smart, out-run and out-cook one another. The end of each episode sees the elimination of one participant, until only three remain in the finals to compete for the grand prize of $30,000 and a three-day travel package in the Philippines.

The first season of the TV competition concluded in June 2014, with Hong Kong resident and sport buff, Jun Wu, as the winner. The show’s second season kicked off on Nov. 27 and is still enjoying its run with Indonesian chef Denny Boy Gunawan as one if the 10 contestants. 

“I am excited, happy and extremely blessed to be able to represent Indonesia in this competition,” Denny said in Jakarta last week.

During the screening process, the 32-year-old beat out more than 50 other culinary enthusiasts from Indonesia for a spot on “The Amazing Food Challenge.”

Upon receiving news of his acceptance into the show, the young chef readily took leave from his post as corporate chef de cuisine at JJ Royal Brasseries to embark on a 25-day culinary adventure in the Philippines.

Denny says he has been passionate about food for as long as he can remember, first learning how to cook at the tender age of five.

As a young boy, he was fascinated by the delectable dishes his parents whipped up in the kitchen — even the “experiments” his father conducted.

For the Bandung-native, cooking is in his blood: his parents run a business baking and selling traditional Indonesian snacks in his hometown. 

“I loved to help my parents as they were cooking,” Denny said. “I helped prepare the ingredients or stir the dough.”

Like his father, young Denny loved to experiment with food.

“But we were not rich,” he said. “So, I couldn’t just play around in the kitchen and use up all the ingredients my parents needed to bake cakes and cookies.”

A resourceful, young Denny instead convinced his friends to give him access to their kitchens, including the ingredients available in the refrigerator, to conduct his culinary experiments.

“Their parents usually went ballistic when they discovered the mess I made in their kitchens,” Denny said with a laugh.

Recognizing his talents in the kitchen, his older brother urged Denny to take professional cooking courses at the Bandung Institute of Tourism (STPB).

After graduating from his studies, Denny packed his bags for the Middle East to work in the region’s top five-star hotels, including the Fairmont Bab Al-Bahr Abu Dhabi, Grand Hyatt Dubai, the St. Regis Dhoha and The Address Dubai Mall. 

But what may have seemed like an exotic vacation in glamorous locales was actually a gruelling experience.

“I worked 16 hours a day in the kitchen,” he said. “I prepared fine-dining meals for 50, as well as banquet dishes for 10,000 people.”

It was in Dubai that he met with New Zealand executive chef, Dwayne Cheer.

“I worked under him for about one year, but it really felt like 10 [years],” Denny remembered, adding that in the short time the two chefs worked together, they argued almost daily.

Each day, Cheer challenged Denny’s boundaries and demanded him to be better.

“But it was a turning point in my life,” he said. “Thanks to him, I can be who I am today.”

After long, hot days in the kitchen, Denny went home to watch cooking competitions on TV.

“I used to imagine how it would feel to be one of them; feeling the pressure from all the judges and the watchful eyes of millions of viewers,” he said. “And I also liked to imagine what I’d do differently if I were them.”

Those reality cooking showed stirred within Denny a competitive spirit, ultimately pushing him to participate in multiple culinary salons and the “Junior Chef of the Year” competition in Dubai.

Although he didn’t win, Denny says he gained far more from the experience than prize money.

“I learned about various human characters from my fellow contestants and how not to crack under pressure,” he said.

Denny returned to Indonesia in 2013 and almost immediately found a position at a French fine-dining restaurant in South Jakarta as executive sous chef.

But several months into the job, he resigned to compete in the first season of “Top Chef Indonesia” on SCTV. Denny managed to reach the grand final and finished the show as runner up. 

Following his brief stint on television, Denny landed his current post at a growing bistro in Senayan City Mall, South Jakarta, where he leads and supervises a kitchen staff of 85.

“I always say to my staff, there are good chefs and there are great ones,” Denny says. “[To become] a good chef, you just come to work and cook. But to become a great chef, you continuously search for perfection.”

The Amazing Food Challenge

Still, Denny’s insatiable thirst for adventure and competition spurred him to sign up for “The Amazing Food Challenge: Fun in the Philippines.”

“This [competition] is different and unique,” he explains. “[Contestants] are challenged to prepare Philippine dishes in their traditional methods of cooking. I’d say [the country’s methods] are among the most unconventional ways of cooking.”

Denny openly admits he has no experience with Philippine dishes.

“But Dubai has a large Filipino community,” he said. “So, I have tasted some of their dishes and enjoyed them, especially kare-kare [oxtail stew] and adobo [meat stew].”

The corporate chef admits the steps he took to prepare the competition — by devouring e-books on the archipelagic nation’s food —  is far from sufficient to face nine other determined and experienced contestants.

“So, my strategy is just to cook something that tastes good, and then style it in the Filipino way,” he says.

Among his opponents are Hong Kong-based food-and-beverage student Kenton Wu, and Singaporean Alec Wing who works in technology sales.

“Wu is young and really determined to win this competition, while Wing is the most senior among us,” he explains. “[Wing] truly understands the characteristics of each ingredient.”

To kick off the competition, the pilot episode challenged contestants to prepare a traditional Philippine cake.

“[The dish] is cooked in a very traditional way; out in the open and in an earthen pot with charcoal,” Denny says. “I had no way of gauging its temperature or whether it was already done.”

Nevertheless, Denny managed to complete his first task with great success and is now gearing up for challenges of the next episode. 

Denny is confident his cooking skills and positive attitude will carry him to finals, which is scheduled to air on Feb. 19.

“I’ve come to win,” he says, adding that he plans to use the prize money to establish his own restaurant in Jakarta, where he lives with his wife and 5-year-old daughter.

“It will be a rustic fine-dining restaurant that uses all Indonesian ingredients,” he said. “I believe that Indonesia has all the resources to make great dishes.”

For more information on “The Amazing Food Challenge: Fun in the Philippines,” check out Asianfoodchannel.com/afcfoodchallenge2.

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