SUNSET PARK — Today, Miyoung Michelle Suh, a chef-instructor at the Art Institute of California in Santa Monica, is in South Korea, en route to Kajikistan to support members of her church as they perform mission work in the former Soviet bloc country.

Three weeks ago, she was scouring every supermarket in Scottsdale, Ariz. for perfectly-sized miniature Granny Smith apples.

“When I designed the recipe, Granny Smiths were in season,” Suh explained. “As the months passed by, they got harder and harder to find.”

Suh, an accomplished chef with a resume spanning multiple five-star restaurants and a host of instructional experience, was battling against one of the most accomplished pastry chefs in the country for the title of the western region’s Pastry Chef of the Year.

The theme: apple.

Suh got the word that she had beat out hundreds of other applicants for the shot at the title in January, and set about creating a work of culinary art, a hot dessert that would delight the eye as much as it teased the tastebuds.

Her efforts resulted in the Queen’s Apple, a mini Granny Smith tucked into a baked dough filled with an almond and lemon liqueur mixture and topped with a whipped thyme sugar cream.

An apple tuile, a thin crisp of sugar and apple, formed the queen’s crown, and the dessert rested on a swathe of caramel.

“It had to have marvelous flavor, had to be unique,” Suh said. “It’s not grandma’s apple pie.”

The plate contained seven separate components, including an apple confit to give brightness and aesthetic, and the whole creation had to come together from start to finish in an hour.

The challenge was immense, Suh said, with each component from tuile to the whipped cream going through multiple variations before arriving at the perfect harmony of texture, tang and sweetness.

“I tried every size and variety of apple,” she said. “I’ve never studied apple like this before.”

She chose the Granny Smith variety for its tartness. The miniature version cooked faster than the large one, which couldn’t be pared down to an appropriate size without losing texture, a compromise Suh knew wouldn’t fly with the judges.

The tuile alone went through three other variations — cranberry, chocolate and caramel — before Suh decided that the apple version complemented both the flavor profile and color palette of the dish.

She finally stopped making changes to the dish two days before the April 30 competition.

“My husband said I lost a year of my life,” Suh joked.

A day before the competition, Suh packed every tool she would need and every ingredient that could reasonably travel into her husband Kenny’s car and set out to make the long drive to Scottsdale, Ariz.

They couldn’t get the implements of pastry destruction through the airport.

It was a homecoming of sorts for the couple, who both attended the University of Arizona after emigrating from South Korea in 1983.

Kenny studied to get his masters in business, while Suh attended art classes before stepping back to take on her new role as a mother to her daughter Catherine, who also attended the competition.

Upon rolling into Scottsdale, Suh began the frantic search for the ingredients she would need to take on her competitor.

Paul John Padua is the executive chef at the Ahwanhee Hotel in Yosemite National Park, a resort that hosts foreign royalty as often as it does high-class travelers.

He works the people-facing end of the industry, performing under the high-stress environment of food production for a hungry and demanding audience.

Part of the challenge — and the reason Suh was so eager to compete — was to break from recent years focused on instruction and prove she still had it.

“As an educator, you miss the real life aspect of it,” Suh said.

The missing Granny Smiths turned out to be a major road block, however. It was far too late in the process to switch apples, and buying the larger versions would compromise the integrity of the dish.

Suh began to worry. She went back to her hotel, oversized apples in hand, when her daughter Catherine called — they were in luck. One of the mid-range markets still carried bags of mini-Granny Smiths, out of which Suh was able to salvage the four she needed to make it through the next day’s competition.

The next day, entering a foreign kitchen with nothing but her tools, ingredients and months of preparation behind her, Suh’s nervousness and tension fell away and she began to cook.

Suh’s professionalism, focus and attention to detail are legendary at the Art Institute. She was originally hired to teach classes on Asian cuisine, said Chef Christophe Bernard, director of the culinary program there.

“When we learned that she was actually a pastry chef, it was like opening a jewel box,” Bernard said.

Out of that jewel box came four perfect portions of the Queen’s Apple.

Although it wasn’t enough to win her the title, Suh was thrilled to get the opportunity to demonstrate her skills in a competitive setting once more.

“It’s a male-dominated industry, and I’ve survived as both an immigrant and a woman,” Suh said. “We have so many girls here in our school. I want to send a message for the women and minority groups that they can accomplish things.”

ashley@www.smdp.com

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