Season 1's Lee Anne Wong breaks down the Season 3 premiere.
Welcome to Miami! I was so excited to be asked to take part in Season 3. I flew out to Los Angeles for final casting literally 2 days prior to going down to Miami. We saw 30 some-odd audition hopefuls and decided on the final 15 chefs based on personality, skill set and passion for the craft. I gotta tell you, I love this cast. Not only are they wildly talented, but they are also genuinely nice human beings, with a more mature edge than seasons past. So let's get started...
That beautiful buffet you see at Casa Casuarina was created by none other than me, and my culinary assistant and good friend Shannon Wilkinson who joined me from New York to be my right hand man. We had to decide on a menu with a wide variety of proteins, sauces, garnishes, and table decoration with which the contestants would be able to create their own amuse bouche.
The trick was creating a hors d'oeuvre-like buffet that wouldn't be "too processed," so they would have to actually use those plastic knives to slice and dice, but the buffet would also look lavish enough that they wouldn't see the Quickfire challenge coming. The other challenge for us was actually making all the food, as the "Top Chef" kitchen was not up and running yet. We set up a table in the back production office on set and basically cooked on 2 portable butane burners and a grill in the parking lot. Casa Casuarina didn't have a kitchen for us to use so once on site we plated out of the back of a refrigerated truck on the street, which happened to be a wind tunnel. Good times.
When all the new chefs came together for the first time I could see the nervous energy as they said their hellos and began to size each other up with the usual small talk of "Where do you work? Where have you worked?" Interestingly enough several people (Howie noticeably) barely grazed the buffet or did not eat off it altogether -- again, probably nervous energy. It was fun to watch them scramble and for the most part I think some of them did a great job.
As for Micah comparing herself to Michelangelo...hilarious. Clay and the dreaded apple was also hilarious. With Tre, I think Tom's main complaint was just the use of plain champagne. My observation is why serve hamachi in an oyster shell if there is no oyster meat or juice present in the dish?
Anyways, the main challenge was, well...challenging. I came up with the list of proteins for this, under the strict direction that they had to be unusual and visually appealing at the same time. There were issues sourcing certain ingredients. I wanted the little Japanese river crabs otherwise known as sawagani crabs (alive) but not available; was supposed to get sea cucumber but by the time it got to Philadelphia it wasn't in the best shape to be shipped to Miami; the live sea urchin and abalone arrived via Fed Ex an hour before we were supposed to begin shooting. But once the proteins were all laid out, I think everyone on production was elated. Not only did things look weird and slimy but also the contestants' initial reaction to the sight of everything was appropriately captured. That damn knife block (which every season the contestants want to burn to a pile of ashes by the end of it) comes out again and the first group goes the safer route.
Considering the challenge, and the intimidation of knowing who the guest judge was, I think many of them did extremely well. I wonder what Mike Midgely would have done with a protein like those? I remade Tre's dish for my webisode and I have to say, a billion ingredients went into it, but the end result was nothing short of delicious. One of the pieces of equipment Shannon and I bought for the pantry was a Food Saver, something only Hung ever used for the cooking technique known as sous-vide, which means "in vacuum" in French.
You could tell right away that these two individuals were technically skilled with refined palates when given the right resources (instead of 10 minutes and a plastic knife). Only once did the clock beat me out and I was not able to complete my dish for tasting (as it turned out the judge liked the dish anyways...the gas station challenge). It is such a mortifying feeling knowing you were seconds away from completing your dish and just couldn't make it. For Howie, I am sure he was sweating bullets knowing that he hadn't gotten the frog's legs onto the plate. In the end the question became "Howie's incomplete dish vs. Clay's inedible dish?" the overcooked boar chop. In the end the Southern gentleman departed after only two days in sunny Miami. I didn't get to know him too well but I wish Clay continued success on the West Coast. Until next week, keep it hot.