Season One's Lee Anne Wong gives her take on the new crop of cheftestants.
Wow! It's almost been an entire year since I flew out to San Francisco to be a part of this brand-new reality series cooking competition. What an incredible year! So much has happened for me, as a chef, personally and professionally. I can remember how exciting it was get together every Wednesday with my castmates to watch Top Chef with a crowd of our friends. Bizarre, fulfilling, and definitely hilarious. And when it was all said and done, and we had had a super blowout in the East Village to celebrate Harold's victory, part of me wondered what would happen next. After all, number four is a ways away from number one. As it should happen, I wouldn't have to wait long to find out.
I spent my summer traveling, cooking in Ohio, South Beach, Philly, Chicago, and finally landing in LA around August, when I was brought on after five episodes to work with the production company for Top Chef Season 2, assisting in the culinary department. All this and I still managed to keep my job at The French Culinary Institute, where we were getting ready for our biggest fall season ever. Working behind the scenes was such a tremendous and eye opening experience. While the hours haven't changed (from cast member to production), I had a great time getting to work with many of the production people I wasn't allowed to talk to last year! Being on the other side of the fishbowl was nice for a change. So, what IS my opinion of the Season 2 cast? To be honest, I did not get to meet them all. I would've liked to, though. I remember the first day I came on to the set, and some of the new cast realized I was standing in the room. I think they thought that I was brought on as a judge.
I jumped at the chance when Bravo asked me to write a blog about Season 2, not only because I got to see the behind the scenes drama and truth, but also because I came to know the cast and sort of think of them as my children. They really inspired me and also brought a smile to my face, while I was reminiscing and really sympathizing with them at times.
So, let's talk about this new cast, and who deserves to be here. Is it hard to be objective, you ask? Sometimes. Is it difficult to not compare them to us? You betcha. I always applaud the casting department (Randy and Danielle) over at the Elves for getting together such a diverse group of yahoos for season 1. It's hard to find personalities that could top or even match individuals like Miguel, Tiffani, Stephen, and Ken. It was also interesting to watch if anyone had the culinary skill of our current Top Chef, Harold. The biggest difference between Season 1 and Season 2 is that Season 2 has a head start. They've seen the show. They know what it's about and what they'll be subjected too. (There was actually one Season 2 contestant who had never watched the show, and I thought to myself, "Are you serious? What an idiot!")
So I got to sit down and watch the first episode of Season 2 in the comfort of my NYC home with none other than Dave Martin, who happens to be staying with me this week, and also writing a blog for Bravo. If only you could all see our raised eyebrows throughout the 50-plus minutes of footage. Let me start by saying that for the new cast members, I know exactly what you were going through. It is interesting how some lessons will never be learned, no matter how many times you watch the rerun on TiVo or your iPod.
The first thing I noticed was, again, the diversity of skill levels for this cast. Some people owned their own restaurants, others were line cooks, some were executive chefs, others had no formal training. Culinary skills are absolutely necessary to get anywhere in this competition. But as we saw with last season's finale, people skills count for something too. So when Marcel and Ilan meet for the first time, and Marcel wants to show Ilan his knives, I knew this was going downhill fast. Let's face it: $100,000 is a LOT of money. And it's not money for nothing, like picking out some lady in a really small dress with a briefcase and saying "Deal" or "No Deal."
The title of Top Chef is also about earning the respect of the judges and your peers. There's a skill set behind winning it, and no one is going to hand it to you. So Marcel has chosen the competitive route ... he is not here to make friends, he is here to win. Great, but be prepared for high school all over again, and the social isolation that comes with trying to set yourself apart from everybody else. I will not divulge more about this impending drama, but trust me, it makes for some great TV later on! I am ASTOUNDED by my first impressions of some of the new cast, very much in a Stephenesque kind of way. (It's more like disbelief.) "I always get what I want in the kitchen" .... Sorry sweetie, it's not a beauty pageant, and I'm certain the judges don't want to sleep with you either. And that crazy Otto guy who's pumping his hips on TV ... yeah, not sure what to make of that one.
Aside from the egos and personalities the only thing I could do really was watch how they cooked. I was in Miami when they filmed the first episode. The week before, Andrea, Candice, Miguel, Dave, Stephen, Harold, and I were out in Ohio cooking together, and I remember Harold flying directly to LA to judge the first episode. We had spoken later that week and I asked him how it went. He didn't elaborate much, but he said something to the effect of how "interesting" everyone was. He didn't have to call poison control, which is a good sign.
The first Quickfire challenge: Flambe something. REALLY not that hard. A little bit shocked that some of them had never flambeed something, but hey, playing with fire is not all that hard ... unless you are using red wine. I was not impressed by many of the presentations, though I do think some of them knocked it out of the park with flavors. Emily's Pork Chops and Apples looked tasty (I am partial to anything swine), as did Sam's Sambuca Flambeed Shrimp. Funny, I know H and I have a lot of the same tastes, so when he picked those two -- along with Betty's Coconut Curry -- I knew they had to be pretty good dishes. They break up the group into teams for the elimination challenge (this feels vaguely familiar). The twist? Cook with a mystery box of ingredients you would probably otherwise never have in your house, let alone together in a box.
A few weeks ago I had to recreate Ilan's winning dish for my cooking webisode on the Bravo site. I remember thinking, "Good gravy! Artichokes, and escargots? Processed American cheese slices?!?" I wasn't sure that I would've been able to think of something to do with those ingredients, plus a potato and cocktail peanuts. Maybe escargots and potato croquettes, crusted in peanuts with an artichoke cheese dip??? It still doesn't sound appealing to me. Now, that bright orange cheese can really throw anyone off the presentation aspect of this challenge. I was really turned off by a couple of dishes: The ravioli, the artichoke potato cake, and Suyai's mess. However, I commend them for getting anything done at all with those ingredients. It was disappointing to see Suyai throw in the towel so quickly. And for Otto to claim he had a "bad day" ... well, it's the second day, bud, and the first elimination challenge. Not the best time to use the "I've had a bad day" routine.
Besides Marissa's "Sweeney Todd" like moment, when she chopped off her finger into her snail tart (just kidding), there wasn't a whole lot of excitement with this group. I remember thinking that I admired how calm Elia works, and how funny it was for Ilan to say he had no idea what he was doing.
In comes the next group, and the next set of weird ingredients. Frog legs, chicken livers, peanut butter, cornflakes and eggplant. Now, somehow in my mind these ingredients make a little more sense together, for their richness and textures. Most people took the route of deep-frying their frog legs, which is great. It is a known fact that most people can't resist a little deep-fried food every now and then. I always say that you could put dog poo in a wonton wrapper and deep fry it, and sure enough, someone will eat it. They'll probably lick their fingers too.
Anyways, most of the frog leg dishes looked great. I really was thrilled that Betty came up with such a unique dish, with her frog leg and chicken liver cake. And Mia's dish just looked hearty and appetizing. It was good to see the ladies coming out on top. What is so incredibly interesting to me is to see the other castmates judge each other's dishes. It was apparent that there was going to be no love for Marcel from any of the cast. Unfortunately, I don't think his dish should've been in the bottom four, so I'd have to agree with him on that one. Of course, saying, "I don't really know why I'm here in the bottom four," is a ballsy way to separate yourself from the other three cooks standing with you. And again, not a great or modest way to make friends. But I like the fact that he stood behind his food, garlicky or not.
Now: When Harold announces Ilan as the winner, watch Mia's face very carefully. Not a whole lotta love there, either. It's kinda comical, actually, the scowl on her face. Dave and I were slightly surprised how this cast did not mince words when it came to commenting on each other's food and throwing each other under the bus for this first elimination challenge. So the feathers are out, and egos are running high.
I look forward to the next few episodes, when the layers start to get peeled away like an onion. There are a lot of personalities we have yet to see, because it's hard to get a feel for everyone in a one hour time slot. I see a couple of stable, focused people. I also see a few individuals who would be better off keeping their mouths shut. A few eccentrics, and maybe one or two who really have no business being there at all. Thankfully, it's not up to me and I am positive you will all form your own opinions over time. Should make for some VERY good TV.
For the record, this is an extremely talented group of individuals, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Their personalities and skills will come shining through in their cooking, and also in all things caught on camera (which is pretty much every minute of the day). I hope that they will bond the way that we did, but I also know that there will be plenty of drama, and even a few tears shed. I guess we'll just have to wait and see. Shoot me for saying it, but: Watch what happens ... only on Bravo!