Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

I Heart Dave Grohl

Top Chef's culinary producer Lee Anne Wong has something in common with the Foo Fighters — bacon!

First, let me start by saying this episode was a monster, but in it I got one of the bigger thrills of my life. OK, Grant Achatz. I had the privilege of trailing at Trio in Evanston while he was the star chef there. Not only was it fascinating to watch him and his team work together, from conceptualizing an idea to refining existing dishes, but it is even more meaningful to me now to see his evolution as a chef. My meal at Trio may have been the best I have ever had (I distinctly remember each of the 24 courses of my Tour de Force tasting menu), and I have eaten at Alinea on three subsequent occasions, each time a completely different and fulfilling experience. It was an honor to have Chef Achatz join us amidst his busy schedule. Some of you may know he is a recent cancer survivor, having battled a life threatening rare form of mouth cancer. He is a hero and a giant in the culinary world for his courage and focus as he continued to work in his kitchen while receiving treatment for his condition. Thankfully he is in remission now and was able to join us for this very rockin' Thanksgiving episode.

The TC Cookbook/Swanson thing was a complicated challenge for us to figure out. I had to choose the recipes and then stock the fridge with plenty of the ingredients from each recipe, each labeled on it's own tray, and then also supplement the pantry with additional ingredients for when they went to go make soup (unbeknownst to the contestants). For the most part, most of the soups were very good. I was particularly a fan of Danny's Ham and Egg Soup, which was rich and thick like a stew with a soft poached egg in it, crunchy bread crouton like French Onion, and lots of ham and cheese in a rich, flavorful broth. Leah's White Asparagus Soup was very good (I can't believe she hates white asparagus) and we knew by letting her pick her team it would create an interesting dynamic amongst the contestants (The talented vs. the misfits? Well, apparently at least in Leah's mind).

The concert was in Rochester, which is a seven-hour drive from NYC. Most of the crew and the contestants were taken up in buses. Team Culinary, fully aware that we would be building an outdoor kitchen, had to drive a cube truck full of equipment and rentals that would be needed to make sure that the teams could pull this off. I sent Peder up to Rochester in the cube truck that morning (I had to stick around for the quickfire) and he went to the market to set up the Butterball display that evening. Louise and I got into Rochester, driving our mini van (or the party wagon, as we like to call it), late that evening and went to bed right away as we had to build the kitchen the next morning. I love 4 a.m. wake-up calls. I didn't get too much sleep, probably because I was guilt-ridden by actually knowing that the contestants would be finding out that they were cooking Thanksgiving meal with only toasters, microwave ovens, and one hot plate. The funny thing about this challenge is that it was one that I had proposed to Shauna and Liz many seasons ago. I had done an episode of some cooking show for Fine Living in which I showed college students how to make a three-course meal using only a microwave and toaster oven. We all thought it was a great idea, but I more or less had it in mind for something like a fancy, multi-course meal for 20 people, not Thanksgiving for a roadie crew of 60. I actually laughingly told Shauna that I thought it was totally devious and mean that we'd put it upon them for a challenge like this (to which she responds, "I know, but this is Top Chef," which of course is the universal explanation for many of the crazy things we make them do).

There was a ton of discussion over culinary needs in setting this challenge up. How many microwaves and toaster ovens do we give them (one per contestant)? Should we give them a hot plate (yes, but only one)? I made sure each team had trays, platters, hot boxes, sterno, chafing dishes, the necessary equipment and electrical appliances to pull this off. We were outdoors so we had to buy a dozen coolers and order 300 lbs of ice. We built an outdoor pot washing area for each team, as there was no water source. We had to work with Grip and Electric to make sure the microwaves and toaster ovens wouldn't blow a fuse. And so on and so forth. So at 5 a.m., with my eyes still half shut, Team Culinary and the unionized roadie crew from the arena built an outdoor kitchen in less than 3 hours. Surprise! (First REAL challenging twist of the season). Yep. The contestants gave me dirty looks for the rest of the day. BUT, outside of the toaster oven microwave fiasco, they had everything else they could possibly need to make a fabulous meal, including blenders, food processors, kitchen aids, chafing dishes, hot boxes, and a ton of sterno. They had a huge pantry provided, and all the small tools and Gladware they would need to get through the challenge. I was thrilled to see that apparently Eugene was the only one who used his brain at the supermarket by picking up charcoal and making a fire pit out of one of the chafers. Not against the rules. Ariane realized that the hot box could act as an oven also, with the use of sterno and charcoal. This is exactly the point and what we want from our contestants; flexibility and resourcefulness.

I can't speak to the stupidity of both team names but both put out respectable food considering the conditions. The actual eating and serving area was a good ways away from the outdoor kitchen, so they all had to do quite a bit of running back and forth to get their stations set up. I sampled both teams food and at the end of the day, I preferred Team Cougar's a bit more, not to say that it didn't have its missteps. I think for me it was Ariane's delicious and moist turkey and Eugene's sweet and tender smoked pork loin. I found Team Sexy Pants' (again, stupid name) turkey to be dry and the gravy uninspired. Plus Team S.P. put out a salad bar, which may have been suitable for the Foo Fighters but to me screams Ponderosa. Part of being a chef is sometimes not giving the diner the choice, so I would have rather seen them make several interesting composed salads rather than fill a few bowls with canned chickpeas, olives, and shredded bagged cheddar cheese. Did I mention how much the salad bar turned me off? Team Cougar fell flat with not only its desserts (The bar-fait was really not good), but also with its salads and sides. What you don't see is that Richard had also made a mozzarella and tomato salad coated in basil pesto, which was fine, but really had no place on a Thanksgiving menu. It was a close call however, and Radhika's Vegan Cornbread Stuffing was a hit with all of them. And by the way, that episode was by the far the worst clean up I have ever had to do for any challenge in five seasons as the outdoor kitchen was destroyed by the rain, and the serving and dining area had only been "tidied up" by Team Cougar. Cry me a river Eugene. Unfortunately for sweet, sad Richard, his time was up. I thought he was very creative and had a great attitude the short time I got to spend with him. He left me a really nice note in his recipe book, which was turned into me after he left. I saw him recently at a TC event in Grand Central so he's doing well and I wish him the best. So the big thrill of my day? I got to look at the rider in which the Foos talk about their likes and dislikes. They have a whole paragraph dedicated to bacon. Bingo. I made bacon gift boxes for each one of them, complete with Bacon Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookies and Billionaire's Bacon. After the Foos had judged the contestants and were on the way up to their dressing room to get ready for the show, Liz drags them over to say hi to me. Dave Grohl had his back turned to me and Liz says, "Dave, I just want to introduce you to our culinary producer..." and he turns around, points at me with a big smile in surprise and shouts, "Lee Anne!"

I almost passed out. I'm not usually star-struck very easily but this was Dave Grohl. And Taylor. And Chris. And Nate. I love the Foo Fighters and all of their music. So I start babbling like a drunken teenager to Dave and then feebly hand him a bag full of four bacon gift boxes, each individually sealed with bacon tape, to which he responds, "No way! We used to belong to bacon of the month club!" (I love you Dave Grohl). Handshakes, hugs, and the gift of pork were exchanged that day, a memory that will forever be burned into my teeny-bopper heart.

We were allowed to watch the show from stage right. Unbelieveable. Pat Smear was on hand to join them for a few songs. Later that evening I was out at a local bar with the crew when Tom, Padma, Gail, and Shauna showed up. They had been partying with the Foos backstage and said that after the show they devoured the bacon gift boxes and went bonkers over the cookies and billionaire's. Ahhhhh, spreading the pork gospel to the rock gods. It couldn't get anymore perfect and I hope to be able to someday bring more bacon their way. I have to start cooking Thanksgiving dinner for my entire family, like right now. I hope you all have an amazing holiday, and remember: turkey and dumplings the day after.

You May Also Like...

Recommended by Zergnet

Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Hugh Acheson weighs in on the finale showdown between Mei Lin and Gregory Gourdet.

There is always a Top Chef winner but obviously some seasons have a less experienced assemblage of chefs, while others have veritable US Olympic-caliber culinary practitioners. (Congrats to Team USA in the Bocuse d’Or competition by the way! Silver! Silver!)

This particular season of Top Chef could have been a contest of mediocrity, but it bloomed into something very skilled and mature, which is good for judging, but makes writing a blog with poop jokes and rap humor very difficult. I have to say, I was a little worried at the beginning that the whole chef squadron was a little shaky. But early retreats by chefs with bigger egos than culinary skillsets allowed the true talent to rise without being malevolent fools. And that talent really was there. By mid season we were eating their visions on the plate, while watching them battle it out over the food and just the food.

The two most successful chefs of the season made it to the end, and they are ready to rumble in the most respective way they know how. One will plate most of their food on the side of the plate, incorporating Korean flavors and modern technique into the vittles, while the other will weave a more classic story and put food more in the center of the plate like regular people. Should be a good show no matter what, because at the end of the day, it’s just hard not to be really enamored with both of them. They are good people.

Gregory and Mei start out on a hot air balloon ride, because that’s how I like to start every day in Mexico. The country looks beautiful to me even if you are in a basket hoisted hundreds of feet into the air by hot air. The hotel I stayed in was the Casa di Sierra Nevada, which was AWESOME, so if you are looking for a vacation, go there. It's no party town, but it is plenty fun. Great food scene. And to put safety into perspective, I felt safer wandering around St. Miguel than I do my hometown. Anyway, the balloon ride looks like fun and allows for that finale moment of almost tearful reminiscence and contemplation.

So their balloon ride lands in a vineyard, and Tom and Padma are waiting to put a halt to this sentimentality. The task is put forward and the challenge, this final culinary joust, is to create a meal that is the meal of their lives. They pick their two sous chefs per person; Gregory picks Doug and George, while Mei picks Melissa and Rebecca.

They prep their menus after a good night’s sleep. The prep I will not talk about too much, but suffice it to say that each team seems very pro and super on top of things.

Traci des Jardins, Sean Brock, Michael Cimarusti, Gavin Kaysen, and Donnie Masterton are dining with us, all of them amazing chefs. Like amazing amazing. The kid’s table, at which I am the head, is made up of Sean, Traci, Gavin, and Gail. It is a super table. At the table I decide to hold true to the tourist warning of not drinking the water. I thus only drink wine and the phenomenal beauty of Casa Dragones tequila, a concoction that will make me sleep soundly (but probably by dessert) on the table.

Mei hits us with an octopus that I really, really like. It resounds with flavors of coconut, avocado, and fish sauce. It is deep. The only flaw is that maybe it is a bit over done. The over cooking made it kind of crunchy and she could easily have been cooking it to that point on purpose. Second course from her is a congee, with peanuts, carnitas, egg yolk, and hot sauce. It is so f----ing delicious. Like stylized comfort food that you just want to eat all the time. Comfort food, when perfect, is perhaps the hardest food to cook, because it is by definition food you are very familiar with, resulting in people having a lot of preconceived notions about it. This congee would have silenced all critics on congee. It was that good.

Mei is gliding through this meal. She has palpable confidence, but is still a nicely soft-spoken leader. In my years of watching people lead kitchens, I have always been more taken with the allegiance that soft-spoken leaders cultivate in their staffs. Her third course is a duck course, and like the congee, she has cooked duck at least twice this season, but in entirely different ways. This duck has kimchi, braised lettuce, and huitlacoche on the plate. Huitlacoche is corn smut, a term I just yelled in a coffee shop, making everyone uncomfortable. It is a good plate, but my refrain about duck skin continues. It was a bit chewy. All in all, the dish just was texturally challenged. It needed a crunchy texture. But it was good still. Her last is her version of yogurt dippin’ dots with strawberry-lime curd, milk crumble, and stuff. It was blow-you-away amazing. Very complex, but very successful. Tom says it is the best dessert on Top Chef he has ever had, and I definitely concur, though he has tasted many more than I have. The toasted yogurt base was amazing.

Gregory steps up with a brothy octopus with cashew milk, fresh prickly pear, and also xoconostle, which is the dried version of prickly pear, kind of like a prickly pear fruit roll up. It is a strong dish, and may be the winner in the Octopus Olympiad. His second was a strange soup that was redolent with flavor until you choked with a shrimp head lodged in your gullet. Strange and a little unrefined for me, and pretty much everyone else. It was a wanted textural element, but made a rustic soup weird. The whole dish needs to be compared to the comfort food of Mei’s congee, and in that context it is no contest.

Third course from Gregory is a bass with carrot sauce, tomatillo, vegetables, and pineapple. It is a strange dish. I am worried for Gregory at this point. It is not like the dish was bad, but the dish was just not a winner winner. Well, let’s not rest on that notion, because his next and final course is a stone cold stunner. Simple short ribs in mole with sweet potato. It is purity on the plate and equal to the idea of Mei’s congee in nailing comfort food. Kudos. He’s back on track. This is a close contest.

Judges' Table comes and we deliberate. I am not going to mince words and hold off on this: It is really close, but this season’s winner is definitely Mei. Well deserved. Gregory is the consummate pro in placing second and is going to be a force to be reckoned with in this restaurant world. His win versus addiction and his success in cooking shows one tough person with oodles of talent.

Mei. Mei. You rock. You are a chef’s chef. You make food that excites and makes us ponder. You are a leader and a super cool person. You are the winner and will always be a winner. Onwards.

Until next season. I loved this season. Thanks BOSTON. And thanks San Miguel di Allende. You are awesome places to work.

Read more about:

You May Also Like...

Recommended by Zergnet