Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Longest Blog Ever

Gail Has No Problem With Blood

Make George's Cravable Breakfast Sausage

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

Make Doug's Winning Mussels

Tom Colicchio Answers Your Restaurant Wars Qs

Gail: It Wasn't Keriann's Day

Make Doug's Winning Braised Pork!

Gail: We Had a Tough Job This Week

Make Katsuji's Authentically Delicious Stuffing

Hugh: The Demise of Cornwallis and Aaron

Make Gregory's Winning Dumplings

Richard: Chefs Please Follow Instructions

Richard Tries Money Ball Soup

Make a Home Run-Worthy Popcorn Crème Brule

Hugh: Where There's a Will There's a Fenway

Gail: Keriann and Aaron Were Being ---holes

Make the Winning Surf and Turf

Gail: We're Taking No Prisoners

Richard Goes From Player to Announcer

Tom Talks Boston

Gail: There Was No Season 11 Underdog

Hugh Wants Nick to Be Kind to Himself

Gail: It Was Difficult to Let Go of Shirley

Big Easy to Ocean Breezy

Gail: The Final Four Are Like Our Children

Emeril Is Proud to Serve Shirley's Dish

Hugh: Enough With the Mexican Food Hate

Gail on Favreau, Choi, and Finding Yourself

Hugh on Poor Boys, Swingers and Food Trucks

Emeril: Nick's Choice Is Part of the Game

Nick's License to Immune

Hugh's Sitting on the Dock of the Bay

Hugh Decides Eight Is Enough

Gail Talks OvenGate

Dookie Chase Makes Everybody Cry

Fin, Found, Floundering

What Danny Meyer Taught Gail Simmons

'Top Chef' Goes to Hog Heaven

Gris Gris Boucherie Ya Ya

Brian and Travis' Dud Spuds

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.... leeannesblog_caj_320x240.jpg

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

So she's going to take more time shopping at Whole Foods -- and ask for the best of Melissa's basket and Adam's shrimp.

Bravotv.com: Let's dive right in. How did it feel to go shopping?
Gail Simmons: Shopping at Whole Foods was fantastic and hilarious. It made us realize that you need to be strategic, which was the point of the exercise for us. They gave us 30 minutes, but we took a little longer. We didn't let the producers push us around! We’re not contestants and we weren't going to stand for it! So, you realize how little time you have, and how big Whole Foods can be. You spend a lot of time running around.

 

My strategy with my pantry was to get a lot of fresh, delicious food that you can cook in lots of different ways. A good balance of proteins, fish, fruits, vegetables, spices, fresh herbs, grains. But I didn't want to get too much. Everyone has different strategies; Padma got a ton of different ingredients. Tom's pantry was very pared down. Richard and I were somewhere in the middle.

 

Bravotv.com: Let's start by talking about the two dishes that came from your pantry?
GS: Katsuji and Melissa. They used the same protein, but their dishes were very different. They both used shrimp which one of the proteins that I bought. I bought something else too, something that I know has given people trouble in the past (which is why I specifically chose it) -- chicken wings. And I really wanted people to use them. Instead, they chose the easy way out because shrimps cook quickly.

Melissa's used a lot of fresh vegetables, which I was hoping she would: dill, mint, artichoke. I was so excited about all of it. I think it was beautifully done, a lovely salad with that little shrimp on top with spiced yogurt. But it was just a salad with a quick-cooking seafood. It was so similar to what she had done in Restaurant Wars when she made a scallop with grapefruit salad. I believe she could have done so much more. Melissa keeps saying she wanted to focus on her knife skills, and, of course, your knife skills have to be precise. But I need to see more than just knife skills. I want to see cooking skills, I want to see roasting skills, braising skills. I want to see her hands get a little dirtier and her dishes not be as superficial. It was a light, lovely dish. I was happy to eat it for lunch. But when you're competing against six other really talented chefs, we all want to see a little more depth. Katsuji on the other hand went big. He used his ingredients in a really powerful way. The potato salad, the poached shrimp had bold seasoning and I loved how they went together. It was a great dish. It may not have been the best of the day, but I was actually really happy with what he chose to make.

 

Bravotv.com: So for the rest, let's talk about who was on top and who was on bottom.

GS: At the top there was Gregory who really was going for Padma's heart there. He did great with his coconut milk curry. A really balanced, powerful dish. But it's something we’ve seen from Gregory many times in the past. In fact, in the first challenge he made a similar spicy curry dish with chicken. As much as we thought it was a delicious bowl of food, it was so typical of what we expect from Gregory. George's food was really exciting for us. This was my first time tasting his food and meeting him on Top Chef. He did a great job. The kebab was moist, seasoned really well, and the lentils were beautiful too. My only small issue with the dish is I couldn't understand why he separated the lentils from the kebab in two separate dishes. Why not put lentils on the plate and the kebab right on top, with a dollop of the yogurt? It seemed a little bit disconnected to me. But all-in-all, a really strong dish. Doug had the winning dish of the night. He used Richard's crazy pantry in a way that I thought was smart, clear-cut, and creative. The chorizo and mussels and peppers, just how Tom said, go together well, as do the cauliflower and the garlic. There was sweetness, there was spice, it was light and fresh but had a soulful, rustic flavor we all loved. You could see use of technique. On the bottom were dishes that tried to stretch and didn’t come through. Mei did a great job overall, except her lamb was undercooked. You want lamb medium, medium rare, but the center of that meat was raw to the point where the texture was chewy and almost cold. It would have been better if she had been able to cook it five minutes longer. We talked about Melissa's mistakes already, which also landed her on the bottom. I totally applaud Adam for trying to make a quick-flash marinade. He's been in the middle for so long and he thought "I gotta go big or I gotta go home." He tried to go big and unfortunately, he went home because of that technique. I get the idea of what he was doing, I don't doubt that it could've been successful if it were perhaps done in a different setting, with a little more control. But the flash marinade of his shrimp did not cook it as needed. It was still grey, it was still raw, and the texture of raw shrimp is not appealing. It's squeaky, it's squishy, and it becomes sort of mushy. We wanted it firm and cooked through. It's not like fish that you can eat sashimi-style Unfortunately Adam's hard work, his big risk sent him home.

I will miss him. I think he's an incredibly articulate, clever chef. I think he has an extraordinary career ahead of him. I'm excited to see him back in New York City. I can't wait to eat his food again. Also I want to say of this entire episode that was it was thrilling to see our superfans in the kitchen. We've never let people come into the kitchen in that way before, even though people ask us all the time. It brought so much good energy to have basically a live audience with us for the day. Everyone was so psyched. It was amazing to be around people who really love the show, to let them eat food from our talented chefs. SO much fun!