In the last one hundred meters of this gruelling 400 meter race that has really been a marathon, I actually spent a lot of time enjoying the view- the people, the food experiences, the return to my roots. This run has never been about breaking any records, since I will always be watching the backs of those I deeply respect in this great vocation that has to do with food and service (and there are too many of them to mention in this city alone). I’m just looking to beat my personal best.

Of course, along the way, I knew I could not get to the finish line without the help of friends, not to mention those who have already started working directly with me in the restaurant. Some of those friends dropped in today to wish me well and test their recipes. The first two Yakitori Top Chefs to show up were this year’s winners of the Taco Takedown Competition at the Harbourfront Centre, and . The lovely couple brought with them winning attitudes and winning yakitoris. Paula’s chicken thighs marinated in her locally-famous “Dragon’s Piri Piri” sauce is a no-brainer on the menu. She uses the tastiest part of the chicken and fortifies it with a spicy kick to the, well, thigh. It’s a glorious creation, breathes Lisbon, and is lightly brushed with her citron-olive oil. It will find many devoted fans. Peter reached deep into his roots for his yakitori as well. His pork butt glazed with oregano-honey-dijon mustard sauce took you to a Greece that lay way past the Danforth here in Toronto. He will be offering his signature tzakiki sauce for dipping as well on our menu. It will have you screaming OPA! all night (just don’t use my plates and please keep your voices down). I am now looking forward to the other Yakitori Top Chefs, all of whom will be dropping by this week with their generous offerings to the menu.

Meanwhile, Chef Shin and I went to work on some of our own signature dishes. I wanted to do Korea’s national streetfood, Duk Bok Ki, and give it its rightful and proud place here in Ontario, a dish that would also reference what was local and seasonal. So, we took a buttercup, my favourite winter squash, with its orange flesh that tastes very similar to the squash that Koreans have enjoyed for centuries. We scooped out the insides, warmed it up in the oven, while sauteeing the rice cakes at the same time. We then added the almost-finished (and spicy) rice cakes into the opening, added aged cheddar and mozzarella, and put it back into the oven to bake for five minutes. After removing it from the oven, we sliced it down the sides so that cheese and rice cakes could spill itself all over the plate. The final product almost knocked me down. There is an earthy-sweetness to it that just balanced out the spices exactly in the way I had hoped. At $12.95, to be shared at the table, I think it will be a huge hit. It doesn’t matter what I think. Why don’t you try it and tell me yourself?

We moved onto our own version of my favourite Mexican dish, chile relleno. Instead of the milder poblano chili pepper, I wanted to use the longer and hotter Korean version. (Besides, who in their right mind would want to compete with the great Pepe Hadad of ?) After de-seeding it, we battered it with Korean rice flour, stuffed minced pork and chicken into it (I still had the taste in my mouth of the one I shared with Jaime in Korea), and dropped them into the deepfryer. Cheese doesn’t really work well with the pepper we were using, so we decided to keep it out of it. The finished product needed some tweaking on the seasoning, but on the whole, it was very good.

Finally, we finished with the seafood noodle soup (it was all about spicy dishes today), as we prepared the beef stock for tomorrow’s “Japa-Pho”, destined to be THE showstopper on our menu. With , owned by Guu, just a stone’s throw from us, we didn’t want to compete with their ramen offerings, some of which are outstanding. Our seafood noodle soup was excellent, albeit a bit too spicy. So, along with the Korean-style bouillabase that I made in Korea and the “Japa-Pho”, we had all we wanted to offer by way of noodle soups.

Ah, friends and food. Is there more we require in this life?

Oh, and did I mention the “Japa-Pho”, by the way…?