Bryan Voltaggio, what else can I say? All the ladies on production loved Bryan (thump thump thump thump ... the sound of beating hearts) for many reasons, but primarily because he was always courteous, a gentleman, and really the easiest to work with of the entire cast. While I hope this experience brought Mike and Bryan closer together, I know it must’ve been heartbreakingly bitter to lose to his brother in the end. However, Bryan’s already got his own restaurant, which is a huge measure of success out in the real world. I think Bryan’s food is incredibly artistic and forward-thinking. Generally speaking, Frederick, MD doesn’t make you think "Culinary Metropolis," but Bryan is truly a gem and I view him as a frontlines man in my generation of modern American chefs, in addition to his already accumulated accolades. And that’s why this show rocks. What incredible talent, Frederick; you are lucky indeed.
Probably the biggest rockstar we have ever had compete on the show, Michael Voltaggio. I first met Mike when I scouted the SLS/Bazaar for our episode on Masters. Slim Shady was a hospitable host and I made him bacon chocolate cookies the day we filmed there. He was in service until 2 a.m. the night before and was there at 5 a.m. to help me and the girls load in.
Let me be clear: Michael was the reason Bazaar had just won four stars in the Los Angeles Times, and the restaurant was jam-packed every night. He had already cooked for me on the several occasions I dined there before that challenge, and I knew he was a badass in the kitchen. Bazaar has an open kitchen and I am constantly observing chefs in their natural environment, scrutinizing how he/she interacts with their crew, watching how they run service, interact with the front of the house, etc. Michael had a full grip on his kitchen then, and I dined at the Langham only a week after he had taken over as Chef de Cuisine. I was setting up an event there for Bravo and it was pure coincidence that he was working there. He gave me a walk-through of his kitchen and I could see that his cooks were excited to be learning new techniques from him and working with new ingredients, as Michael had completely overhauled the menu and integrated his signature style in only seven days. All season we saw his best, without compromise, and while early on Tom had genuinely wanted to dislike Mike’s inclination towards "molecular gastronomy," he simply could not deny Mike’s innovation and talent. Mike takes risks, constantly, which makes him a groundbreaker in our generation. Yes, most of these modern techniques have crossed the Atlantic, having been brought to life in Europe, predominantly Spain and France. But in the hands of American chefs, there are only a numbered few who have got it right and apply the techniques sensibly, and even then, some argue it doesn’t work. The difference between Michael and every cook that’s currently coming out of culinary school and working at these four-star tech restaurants is that he is rooted in classical technique and knows how to make a roast without a recirculator; Most of these young, impressionable cooks I refer to as "trying to dunk before you can do a lay-up." Now would I want to eat his style of cuisine every night? Hell no. But like the meal Jeremy Fox cooked for me and my crew at Ubuntu, Michael’s food is undeniably exciting and thought-provoking. Having already won a Michelin star at such a young age is rares and I once told him that he was the future of food because of his willingness to take risks. I look forward to the next time I see Mike, probably on the West Coast. Harold will always be the No. 1 Top Chef in my heart, but damn. I can’t wait to see what Mike Voltaggio is doing one year, five years, 20 years from now. Congratulations, Michael.
And I leave you guys here. Words cannot express the wide range of emotions I dealt with when coming to the decision to leave the show and go back to being a chef. I had been working at The French Culinary Institute the entire time I was producing the show, but it got to be too much time on the road so I left the school in January to go on the road for the next five months to film finale, Masters, and then Season 6. It has been such an incredible part of my life the past four years, if not all-consuming. I have gotten to travel and live all over the country, work with a crew that became like my family, meet so many talented chefs and marquee industry players, and help build an Emmy Award-winning pop culture phenomenon that has no signs of going away any time soon as the food industry continues its renaissance around the world. But this year I missed the stove. I missed having a kitchen of my own, and thus the decision to get back to it. I signed on for the show four years ago, not knowing at all what to expect, only hoping for the outcome and bizarre dream of winning that first season. While I didn’t win, and like every other contestant kicked off the show, it took me a while to process and get past this, I am not blind to the fact that I think in many ways I did win. I've got a killer resume now. I never wanted to have my own place until I knew I was ready. Most chefs who try it prematurely end in failure. It’s like getting married. And one day it just dawned on me that it’s the only thing that’s gonna make me happy at this point. I’m ready. I want to feed you. I also want to thank all the readers and fans for your input and support the past four years. Hopefully someday they’ll let me back on the show as talent and not as a producer, though contractually I’ll never be allowed to compete on the show ever again. I have some very exciting projects coming up and currently focusing on developing a business plan for my own restaurant(s). Watch what happens. Love you guys. Xo- Lee Anne
You can follow me on Twitter @leeannewong and keep checking out www.zenosupperclub.com for recipes, videos, and good times.