My Life On The F-list
Lee Anne Wong reveals the challenge behind the challenges.
Hi all. I get an "A" in tardiness, but that's only because I love to work. I missed blogging last week due to producing a very entertaining spot for the A-List Awards (watch what happens...). I'm sitting between two crusty old dudes on a plane on my way to Aspen, so I'm going to blog on the entire finale, even though I haven't seen the final episode. I'll go from memory, so please excuse any discrepancies with the final edit. Any typos are due to the fact that neither gentleman will give me any elbow room.
Ahhh ... the lovely isle of Puerto Rico. So close, but so far away. I was lectured many times on my continual mental faux pas of being in a tropical climate and repeating references to "back in the states" or (even worse) "in America ...", as Puerto Rico is an official US property, and while in Hawaii in January, I repeatedly and then comically kept insulting my relatives who live there ("Hawaii is part of the US"). Just doesn't feel like it because I live in NY. Point being, I'm glad I finally got to visit Puerto Rico. Actually three times within a few months; once for the scout, second time to do a photo shoot for Food & Wine and Rums of Puerto Rico (it's out this month, check it out -- I learned how to surf), and then finally for grueling two weeks of finale shooting. Within all three trips to PR, I got to visit many areas of the island, each with its own unique vibe and culture.
We filmed primarily in Old San Juan and have been working with the Puerto Rican Board of Tourism for the past year and half on setting up this shoot. Our contestants stayed in a really lovely hotel, El Convento, which we had stayed in for the scout. High ceilings -- they count for something. In developing the challenges for the entire finale, we had several things we had to consider: time, space, and resources. We wanted to choose a location for the frituras Quickfire that would give an authentic feel to the episode. The Reef Bar ended up working perfectly, as it had a spectacular view of Old San Juan, and a fairly well-equipped kitchen. Shannon and I packed up a measured amount of equipment in Chicago to ship to Puerto Rico, as we knew obtaining certain items would be difficult or expensive once on the island. And that's what we do -- move our blenders, pots, pans, and other small tools into any kitchen space to make sure our contestants have everything they need to create some great food.
The space at the Reef Bar was small and our main concern was whether two deep fryers would be enough and thankfully it was. The other decision was whether or not we should make them cook one or two frituras for the challenge. I always refer back to what Harold, Tiffani, and Dave went through, having a triple Quickfire with the high rollers and Cirque de Soleil, and I said two dishes in 40 minutes would be more challenging than one fritura dish in 30 minutes. Besides, this is the Top Chef finale. They've made it this far, so pressure should be not unfamiliar to them.
We wanted to find out who had done their homework and who hadn't. When you're going to a place like Hawaii or Puerto Rico as a finalist, you'd think you'd do your homework on the culture and cuisine, and especially because we give the final four a few months off before we film finale. Surprisingly, Stephanie readily admitted to production not studying up on PR before coming to finale. Before I get into more detail, let me say that I feel beyond fantastic about the final four. Not only because there were three women in the finale, but because all four of them have a very different point of view with their cuisines and cooking style, each extremely talented in their own way. All of the conspiracy theorists and haters out there should know that each one of them, including Lisa, fought very hard to get to this stage. I didn't even make it to finale, so please understand that the game itself is still based on individual challenges and the producers are not whispering in Tom or Padma's ear.
OK, the food. In comes Wilo Benet, one of the top chefs in Puerto Rico as our judge. I had eaten at his restaurant, Pikayo, during the scout and his pigeon pea risotto with chicharron changed my life. Shannon and I shopped for this Quickfire all over the island, visiting farmers' markets, roadside stands, and the Mercado to stock all of the local produce and proteins for this challenge. The best was when we bought the maduros from this little stand down by Caguas. The gentleman running the roadside stand raised more than one eyebrow when I went to purchase over four full bunches of maduros (sweet, yellow plantain) and then smiled when he realized I was going to buy a whole lot more.
I was surprised by both Antonia and Richard, when each had a dish that did not incorporate plantains as part of the fritura, instead using it as a condiment (in Richard's case, twice). I sampled all of the frituras and agreed with the judges in their choices for winner and loser. Stephanie's pork and shrimp fritter kicked ass, especially drenched in brown butter, and her tuna toston was surprisingly light.
Again, Antonia's non-use of the plantain in her oyster fritter raised an eyebrow, and her slaw on a sweet plantain seemed uninspired, as I stocked the fridge with giant prawns, calamari, smoked salmon, foie gras, bacon, and another multitude of proteins. Lisa's dishes were very aggressive in flavor, but tasty nonetheless. Richard went the same way as Antonia, the rawness of the plantains getting them both in the end.
The pig challenge was extremely exciting to set up. First of all, Shauna and Liz told me, "This is your challenge." Had I actually participated I would've taken them all down. I came back from Puerto Rico and had a pig party for my birthday, which I had planned months beforehand, and I make it a point to cook a whole pig every year. This included our friend the swine, roasted whole in a caja china, grilled ribs and pork belly, various pork centric appetizers, including a giant charcuterie selection, a whole smoked Ossabow pork shoulder, Chef Michael White's jowl sauce, bacon chocolate cupcakes, bacon peanut butter cookies, and of course, a bacon bar with 10 different varieties of bacon from artisan producers in the South. Let's just say it was an amazing party and I received e-mails and phone calls all week from friends who complained of sweating and smelling like pork for days afterwards. Shannon and I worked with the Executive Chef of La Fortaleza, Luis Velez Vasquez, on getting the pigs and everything we needed for this challenge. First of all, the three of us were the only one who handled the dead pigs. Everyone else was grossed out by the sight of a whole dead animal (and a magical one at that). Let me remind you, bacon does not grow on the bacon tree.
We had bought four brand new Forschner cleavers with a meat mallet. They were not cheap. When three of the four broke during the butchering time Shannon and I debated on sending the broken ones back to the company with a note that said, "Thanks a lot." So we scored our contestants some machetes, which was kind of hilarious. Going back to the pairing of the contestants with eliminated chefs, Stephanie was very diplomatic in her assigning of partners. Dale almost did her in later on though. Richard impressed me with his butchering skills and preparation of the pig. In reality, he created six dishes in the kitchen, four of which made it to the table. He had our favorite politician Spike to help schmooze the crowd. I tried most of their dishes and the ones that stood out for me were Stephanie's blini with coconut braised pork (fresh blini out of the pan, lesson learned from the zoo challenge), Richard's pork and bean stew, using beans Spike found at the Mercado, and finally Richard's coffee braised pork shoulder. Chef Luis and I had spoken afterwards, as he had attended the party as a guest and he said, "I loved that dish because it was a 'chef's dish'." Meaning it was a dish that simple, yet sophisticated, and downright delicious. I wasn't there to see it but the I'm sure winning the Toyota Highlander was a nice surprise for him. Top Chef does Price is Right.
Sadly, my dear Antonia, and I absolutely adore this lady, was sent home. Her pigeon peas were indeed undercooked, and there was not a lot of texture or color to any of her dishes. I was actually setting up the kitchen for the final challenge when she had to do her exit shot. She sniffled, and I gave her a hug and welcomed her to my team: Numero Cuatro Chef. Other team members include Elia and Malarkey. I had the opportunity to socialize with her last week in NY for the A-list Awards and she reminds me of me in so many ways, meaning we have a very similar sense of humor. I'm out in Los Angeles often enough so I'm psyched to eat at Foxtail next time I'm there.
Final Challenge. First of all, can I say how mind blowing it was to see Eric Ripert, Dan Barber, and April Bloomfield all cooking in the same kitchen together. I divided the selected proteins in a manner that each contestant would have an ample choice of shellfish, seafood, poultry, and meats, with accompanying specialty proteins that would showcase or highlight that particular protein. (For example: quail eggs with the quail, foie gras and duck fat with the duck, and sweetbreads, kobe oxtails, and beef tongue to pair with the strip steak.) However, the contestants were not allowed to share proteins so I had to be sure that each list would be a list any chef would be psyched to work with. Ariane Daguin from D'Artagnan generously donated our meat proteins and the Chef's Garden also supplied us with some killer microgreens and vegetables. (I made a beautiful food display in the kitchen, which you never get to see.) Here's a run-down of the protein selection each chef had. Eric Ripert's list consisted of: caviar, clams, sea urchin, lobster, hamachi, snapper, poussins (baby chickens) quail, quail eggs, chorizo, bacon, veal tenderloin, and rack of lamb. Dan Barber's table had abalone, calamari, scallops, tuna, halibut, guinea hen, duck, duck fat, foie gras, prosciutto, pork belly, rabbit, and venison. April Bloomfield's table had oysters, octopus, head on prawns, jumbo lump crab, mahi mahi, organic chicken, squab, pancetta, sweetbreads, oxtails, beef tongue, wagyu strip, and ostrich steaks.
From a culinary producer's point of view, it's a little frustrating to see our chefs go for the same old proteins again and again, even with such a selection. (Scallops: Official Sponsor of Top Chef.) And Lisa and the damn prawns. Leave the shrimp alone already and show me that you can cook something else. It drove me bonkers because getting all of those beautiful proteins to the island of Puerto Rico almost shaved ten years off my life in stress alone. (My fish arrived two hours before we began the final challenge.) Obviously there was quite a bit of repetition, especially from Richard, so I was puzzled by some of their protein choices.
Let's talk about the meal. I sampled each dish too. Richard's smoked scallop was good, if not slightly underseasoned and the scallop may have been overpowered by the sweetness of the mango. I remember wishing the scallop had more smoke flavor. Lisa's prawn was well-prepared, and her chili sauce was very nice, but the dish suffered from being drenched in too much chili sauce and the giant pile of potato chips on the plate, which gave it a very unrefined feel. Stephanie's snapper was cooked perfectly, though I would think by now everyone would know Tom's intense dislike for truffle oil, which slightly overpowered the delicate flavors of the clam and white asparagus broth. It was rich dish, but not heavy, and certainly the most elegant of the three.
For the second course, I liked the idea of Richard's dish, and it was good, but because it was all piled together in a bowl it became hard to distinguish all of the ingredients. I love a soft poached egg, and foie gras, but there was also braised guinea hen, morels, peas, and some other stuff in there. It was sophisticated but the dish lacked acid and salt to balance out the many ingredients. I gotta say, I was not a fan of the presentation, or the idea of a soup with a chicken dumpling as her poultry course, but Lisa knocked it out of the park with her coconut soup. The flavors were bold and refreshing. Stephanie's dish was OK, but the lobster flavor was lost with the addition of mango in the sauce (which complements the quail well) and the ravioli could've used more lobster.
For the meat course, I was sad to see Richard do pork belly the same way for the second day in a row, especially when he had rabbit and venison (and Dan Barber). The dish felt incomplete, with just a pickled radish salad on top. While some would debate the fattiness and crispiness of the pork belly, it was still delicious, of course. It's pork belly. Lisa's wagyu steak was beyond black and blue. As Tom said, you need to cook a piece of meat like that a little more so the fat has a chance to melt. The sauce was cloyingly sweet and distracted from what could've been a solid dish, had the beef been cooked properly. I remember thinking it would have been more interesting had she put some braised oxtail or sliced and fried beef tongue on the plate to accompany the steak.
Stephanie's lamb dish killed them, probably being the most surprising and satisfying dish for our judges. I made it a few weeks ago for "Wong Way." It was just me, a producer, our DP, and one of our co-EPs. We devoured the lamb at 8 in the morning.
Dessert was interesting. Props for the bacon ice cream, as you all know by now I put the bacon in everything, including dessert. But it's the third time we've seen banana scallops. Lisa's coconut black rice was a salty sweet surprise, with candied coconut, salty taro sticks, and ripe mango. Stephanie's dish was weird and unrefined. The vanilla cake was good, but the combination of the banana, pineapple, and ricotta never quite came together (and I even made the ricotta fresh for her). All you season five potentials should study up on your dessert.
All in all, it came down to which meal they would rather eat again, and Gail had said as much when I ran into her the next day. All three chefs are immense talents and have nothing to be ashamed of. Stephanie and Richard were particularly hard on themselves at Judges' Table. Richard is one of the most creative chefs I have ever met, humble and focused, and a great competitor without having to be nasty. I want to congratulate him on his newborn baby and I have no doubt his future is paved in gold. I observed Lisa from a distance the entire season and would occasionally hear about the situations that made her so unpopular, but at the end of the day she's a badass cook and quite frankly I adore her confidence. She's now over at Mai House, where I'm sure she'll be able to excel with her signature flavors.
And at last, THE FIRST FEMALE TOP CHEF!!!! I'm never allowed to say it, but I was rooting for Stephanie since block party. She is a creative and resourceful chef, with a good knowledge of how to balance flavors and textures. Add the fact that she's got a stellar attitude both in and out of the kitchen, she's a natural hero and role model not just for females but for all cooks out there. Congratulations, Stephanie, you have no idea how happy I am for you. I'm sure I'll see her soon. It's been fun kids.
Till next time.