Lee Anne Wong

Lee Anne Wong breaks down the holiday episode ... one partridge in a pear tree at a time.

on Dec 18, 2008

The partridge in a pear tree: Radhika's improvised braised duck legs on toasted brioche with (check it out) Indian spiced pear chutney, was very good, though the bread was also still too thick.

All I can say is what an interesting Judges' Table it was that evening. The contestants having worked late the night before, were tired and not in the mood for criticism. Tom's little talk with them didn't really help at the time and even though they all escaped elimination at the end of the evening the contestants were complaining about the fact that Natasha Richardson was a judge and how she was unqualified, basically blaming everything but themselves for their performance. I ended up having another conversation with them the next morning. It was true that they had served mediocre food rather than amazing food. My pep talk came from a contestant's perspective, and while I got the death stare from some contestants (cross arms with the back-the-f***-off-look), I think I was able to get my point across to others. They had been frustrated and felt restricted by the rules of the challenges but I let them know that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to really challenge themselves and have fun with it, as it is rare for any chef to be able to receive direct criticism from a panel of experts on a regular basis. It's a chance to find out what you are doing wrong, both in cooking and in team dynamics, and correct your mistakes. These are lessons that last a lifetime, like what NOT to do for a wedding menu, and not allowing your teammate to serve the overcooked carrots. I also told them that it did not matter who was judging them. We are in the business of serving people so any customer has a right to their opinion and I am positive Natasha Richardson is more qualified and her palate more well traveled than even some of our contestants (I am sure she and Liam Neeson have eaten all over the world in the finest restaurants). Bottom line: it doesn't matter that she's an actor. And that's really what Top Chef is all about, or at least what I got out of it. As chefs, we make ourselves and our food open to criticism on a daily basis, but are usually somewhat restricted by budgets, seasonality, food genres, etc., and in most normal situations your customers won't come back to your kitchen and nitpick over the details of the food they just ate. It is through our creativity and thought process that we can overcome these restrictions and still deliver a knockout dish. Our challenges are meant to inspire our contestants and make them think (hence Gene and the improv charcoal pit), and I have always said that it is the talent and individuality of our contestants that drive the show, not the challenges. We just needed to make this bunch see that this was an opportunity to let go of all of the restrictions that they were so used to dealing with on a daily basis and have fun and just cook. You see it when Harold made the popcorn ceviche, and even when Hung made a Smurf village out of cereal. There's levity in the ridiculousness of being on Top Chef and I think now that we're pretty much done filming I think they get that it's one of the most unique experiences of their lives. For more behind the scenes, here's an interview I did last month with Zagat. Best wishes for a safe and happy holiday to all and I'll see you after the New Year!

Xoxo- Lee Anne