Longest Blog Ever
Lee Anne Wong on Anthony Bourdain, going behind-the-scenes, and Thanksgiving dinner.
Hooray! I am finally on vacation, currently on a plane to Los Angeles to spend my Thanksgiving out west. I'm not feeling all that great due to too many mojitos, beers, and sake while hanging out in the Lower East Side last evening. I met up for dinner with Harold and some friends, after two solid hours of happy hour at Paladar.
If you ever get the chance to stop by, visit the Kuma Inn on Ludlow Street, one of my favorite places to chow down in NYC. Awesome Pan Asian treats, tapas style, and the chef, King Phojanakong, might be one of the nicest chefs I've ever met. (The in-flight bloody marys are helping just a little bit.) So I'd like to take this opportunity to address some of the internet chatter and comments regarding my role on Season 2, and the how and the why of how I got there.
I first appeared on set during the Thanksgiving elimination challenge. Lots of fun to see some of the production crew I had not seen since Vegas. The contestants that saw me initially thought I was going to be a judge. I had received a phone call from the supervising producer a few weeks earlier asking me if I could fly out to Los Angeles to work as a culinary consultant for the show. At the time, I had just arrived in Miami to begin work as the chef consultant for an emerging beef company, Uruguay Steaks. I had commitments the week after in Philadelphia and Chicago, so I told them I would not be able to join them for another two weeks and to give me a call later on if they still needed my help.
I was in Chicago about an hour away from teaching a class on that oh-so-delicious ingredient, foie gras, when the Elves called me again asking if I could come out to LA. This was on a Friday. I got approval from my managers at The FCI, flew back to NY on Sunday, and was on a plane to LA on Tuesday morning. Upon my arrival, I sat down with the very sassy Exec Producer, Shauna, to discuss what my role would be in the coming weeks. Because of the rules fiasco with the Camp Glucose challenge, they wanted my help with making the rules clear to the contestants, and also developing some of the parameters for the upcoming challenges.
I could give them a perspective that was missing at the time, as a chef and also as someone who had gone through the process as a contestant. I'd be working with the existing culinary production squad, led by cookbook writer and culinary dynamo JoAnn Cianciulli. I first laid eyes on the remaining contestants while Thanksgiving dinner was happening at the lofts.
Let me start by saying, like, I am not a mentor to the contestants. Andy's last blog about why Tom is not a Tim Gunn persona should make it clear to everyone why there is no mentor on the show at all. I will probably never be a judge on the show either, because of my role with the production company. Therefore, I don't need to be any of the contestants' advisor, mentor, and/or friend. I don't even have to like them. But let me remind you that after time, they became like my adopted children, even though communication between production and the cast is kept to a minimum (that's why they call it "reality TV"). It's the fishbowl effect.
Last year, I was on the inside, and I imagine some of the production crew grew to love us as much as I love this season's cast. Being on crew, you're not in the fishbowl, but you've still got your face pressed up against the glass for the 40 plus days you're in production, because there's very little free time to do much else. Point being, my "snark", is just humorous commentary, calling it as I see it. And really, it's just my opinion, so you don't need to agree. My insight in the blogs/diary to follow will be from witnessing everything firsthand, so take it for what it's worth. There are tons of Thanksgiving fanatics out there. Personally, I see it as a day to overeat and pass out in front of the TV while watching football. The best thing about Thanksgiving though is getting together with friends and family ... and overeating, and passing out in front of the TV together while watching football.
I have had a few lavish Thanksgivings, and I've had a couple where I was flat broke and had to improvise. Enter one of my favorite things in this culinary world: canned goods. As much as I promote and love shopping at the greenmarket for farm fresh ingredients, I always have a cabinet stocked full of my favorite dry and canned goods. They come in handy when there's no money in the bank, or your bank card is lost and there's no cash flow until you get the new one in the mail, or when you're too lazy to get your ass out of the house to feed yourself, or even when you come home after ten too many drinks and get the late night munchies. Watch enough food TV, and maybe some 30-minute magician will show you how to turn your canned goods into magical bean soup.
I thought as a whole, the entire group did a great job in 15 minutes. The Quickfires with a really short time limit are always crazy, and I remember how much pressure there is to get it finished before the clock runs out. So there is a top five, and a bottom five. I wrote about Elia's attitude in my last blog. Here she is again, blabbering about how she shouldn't be in the bottom five, criticizing Tom of all people. It comes across as purely contemptuous, and somewhat hilarious as the words "Assistant Room Chef" splash on the screen under her name during interview. The whole chocolate facial thing makes me think something's not right.
In regards to Frank's death threats, yes, Marcel may be annoying. Yes, he may be a little bit smug. But he is young, and it absolutely irks me to see two grown adults like Frank and Betty beat up on him. Had I been Marcel and had to cook in the room with Frank's underwear and toiletries everywhere, I probably would've put his shit on the floor too. And talk about Sam being an instigator. I was thrilled to find out that first day that Anthony Bourdain would be the guest judge.
I had met Chef Bourdain previously at The FCI, actually at one point selling his books while he sat next to me signing them. I'll make it known now that he is one of my heroes. I had read Kitchen Confidential when it first came out. At the time, I was a line cook at Aquavit, and so much of the book made me laugh out loud. I've eaten at Les Halles several times. Not exactly the best dining experience I've ever had, but I still wouldn't kick it out of bed.
The reason why I admire him is because of his persona. I am trying to pursue a career in food media, and I'll tell you right now I outright envy him. I love that he is so opinionated and doesn't give a rat's ass about censorship or being politically correct, especially when it comes to other chefs. And the places he visits, and the dining experiences he has, from four-star cuisine to street grub ... f****** amaaaazing. He brings humor, experience, and tongue-in-cheek commentary to all of his writings and to food TV, things that are generally missing in the rest of the shuffle. So when I get my own show, he will be a source of inspiration for me. None of this cookie cutter BS that makes up most of the food TV world.
The elimination challenge was my first opportunity to watch some of the cast in action. I was told that the challenge was to make a "cutting edge" Thanksgiving meal. Good God, they all failed miserably. At the dinner table, you can hear Frank's personal feelings get in the way of making any fair judgments about Marcel's dish. Marcel was the only one who actually stepped up to the challenge in presenting something innovative. Again, Carlos, Elia, Betty, Marcel, and Midgely opted to operate as individuals for this challenge, rather than come up with a comprehensive, cohesive menu.
Had I been Mike, and Betty had put her hand over my mouth, I might have gone nuts on her or at least whacked her with the peppermill. (Marcel's moment with the peppermill actually made me cheer for him out loud.) It is stunning to me that outside of Marcel, they all failed to remember that the challenge was to create a cutting edge meal. Soup? Salad? Twice baked mashed potatoes? Creme brulee? Tell me how any of it is remotely innovative or cutting edge? The first thing I noticed was that they had been allowed to bring equipment from the Kenmore Kitchen back to the lofts, and they had brought enough to cook for an army of 100, not nine. This was also my first observation of Michael Midgely. I don't think I need to expound upon this subject, just imagine me with a furrowed brow and wary eye. As for the rest of them, it was not a great first impression for me. I think they had a ridiculous amount of time to cook their meal, something like four hours.
Now it is not necessarily Carlos's fault that he was assigned the salad course, but when elimination is at stake wouldn't you want to say, "Hell no, I'm not doing a salad." Carlos technically got steamrolled by Betty and just let it happen. (We are beginning to see Betty's true colors, blaming the failure of her cutting edge brulees on two other people). Ultimately, it was the lack of vision and backbone that got Carlos sent home. I did get to speak with him briefly at the time, and also hang out with him at the Top Chef premiere party at Craftsteak, and he's a true gentleman. I hope that I will get the opportunity to eat at his restaurant the next time I am in Miami.
I am looking forward to Thanksgiving this year. My boyfriend refuses to let me near the turkey (it's "his" thing). Two years ago a friend of mine bought an outdoor deep fryer (he lived in a basement apartment in Astoria with a backyard). We deep-fried a bird for a party we threw the day before Thanksgiving at his place. Delicious. Then we actually had another party at my place and he was supposed to deep-fry another turkey and bring it over. It was sort of raining out that night so he moved the deep fryer into his hallway that cut through the basement and connected the front of the building with the backyard. Lesson #1: do not deep-fry a 15-pound turkey indoors. There is a very good chance you will come close to burning your building down.
Last year, I didn't get the chance to go home and see my family, but had dinner with Chef Zarela Martinez and her family, which includes Chef Aaron Sanchez of Paladar and Centrico. Aaron's brother, Rodrigo, had bought a caja china, or Cuban roasting box, for a pig roast we had had earlier that summer in Brooklyn. They trucked the caja china up to Zarela's apartment in Manhattan and made maybe the best turkey I have ever had, Mexican style, by brining it in tequila and lime juice and then cooking it in the caja china.
Moral of the story? For any of you that cook, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays where you can and should experiment a little. We all know that the food should be good and damn plentiful, but have fun with it. It doesn't have to be cutting edge, but it doesn't have to be basic either. There is a chef inside of all of us, and part of the reason why I love cooking is because food brings people together (to overeat, and pass out in front of the TV watching football). Until next time....