Several weeks ago we were welcomed into the Panda Express headquarters test kitchen in Rosemead, CA for a Wok Star Challenge. For the first time in Panda’s history, they opened their kitchen to outsiders and gave us, the Wok Stars, the opportunity to learn about basic stir fry techniques from head Chef Andy Kao, the man that developed many of Panda Express’s recipes including inventing orange chicken and even cook for him!
Along with other Wok Star friends Quyen of Kitchen Runway, Cathy of Gastronomy, Patti of Worth the Whisk, H.C. of L.A. and O.C Foodventures, and Jenna of Eater LA, we drew chopsticks Top Chef style and divided into teams of 2. First we were given a basic lesson in cutting vegetables by Chef Andy Kao, emphasizing the importance of cutting similar size vegetables for even cooking.
We all took turns chopping away and then taught basic wok techniques in the test kitchen where Panda Express chefs are extensively trained before stepping into the real kitchen. Chef Andy Kao created Panda Express’s firecracker chicken breast for all of us to enjoy.
After tasting these tender spicy morsels of chicken, the real fun of the evening was just about to begin. There was no time to rest as we were given 20 minutes to come up with a dish to celebrate the Lunar New Year using special ingredients that symbolizes good fortune, prosperity and good health.
And just like in Top Chef, we had to have hands up in the air and finish plating when time was called. Each team presented their dish to Chef Kao who tasted each dish and took meticulous tasting notes. In the end, he chose Quyen and Cathy’s dish of jackfruit chicken to win the $500 prize to donate to a charity of their choice.
Since the first location in 1983, Panda Express has become the largest Asian restaurant chain in America with over 1300 locations and 18,000 associates. Amazingly it’s all still owned by the same family after all these years. From the way we were treated as valued guests in the Panda Express kitchen, we can see that good food is not the only reason why they’ve been so successful. Great customer service and pride in the community was also evident. Join the Panda Express Facebook page to find out about new dishes and how you can get free meals every time there is a new dish!