De’ plane! De’ plane!

Lee Anne Wong takes you behind-the-scenes of the Thunderbirds challenge.

I had the privilege of meeting and working with Chef Mark Peel on Top Chef Masters. What a great guy! Our EP, Liz, thought it was so amusing to have Mark Peel for our potato challenge. It’s little things like that that get us through the day sometimes lame, I know.

I sourced a wide variety of potatoes for this one: Idaho, Yukon Gold, red and white skinned varieties, purple Peruvian, Japanese sweet potatoes, jewel yams, Rose Finns, German Butterballs, French Fingerlings, Russian Banana, and several other varieties I can’t remember. I LOVE potatoes. In fact, I just roasted off a bunch of fingerlings yesterday with olive oil, whole garlic cloves, and fresh thyme and rosemary, and then made a buttermilk anchovy dressing to spoon on top. Delicious.

I make potato risotto all the time, and while I loved Mike I.’s idea, his potatoes were definitely salty and slightly undercooked. I was REALLY impressed with Ashley’s 30-minute gnocchi. I don’t think I would’ve handled Preeti’s asparagus mishap so well. Jen’s mussels with potatoes in lemongrass-potato sauce was sophisticated and flavorful; something you’d happily spend money on in a fine dining restaurant.

Every season there are what we call "big challenges." We have two segment-producing teams, in addition to someone who handles all of the Quickfires. That way each segment-producing team is coordinating every other challenge, leapfrogging, which gives each team technically four to five days to produce an episode. Team Culinary however, has to produce every single day, every episode. Nellis was a beast and probably one of the toughest episodes for my team and myself.

I worked with the Nellis executive chef/culinary director on deciding what should be in the kitchen pantry-wise. There are rules and nutritional guidelines as to what is stocked in the kitchen to feed the airmen. I had to create my pantry list based on an inventory list centered around bulk varieties of dry goods, frozen proteins, fruits and vegetables, limited dairy and fresh produce, and fresh proteins. (Yes, Spam is on the Nellis pantry list). I forget why but the kitchen was completely empty at the time, so I had to bring in all of the food from the outside, to make sure it was a quality and variety our chefs could be creative with. We had to make several separate trips to Restaurant Depot with our cube truck; once for dry goods, and once for fresh and frozen product and drive literally a ton of food out to Nellis to stock the kitchen. Angie and Barrett took care of this the day before we shot, while Louise and myself were handling the potato Quickfire and packing equipment to be taken over to Nellis the next morning at the crack of dawn.

We scout every location days before the challenge is scheduled. Part of my job is to let the producers know if the kitchen is big enough, if there is enough equipment, if there is enough stove and oven space. Sometimes the condition of the kitchen IS the challenge. I looked around, and thought, "Oooooh. Mean, very mean. But doable." Besides, the chefs of Nellis cook for hundreds in this kitchen everyday! What was glaringly obvious was the fact that there was no stove or surface burners. There was a tilt skillet, a kettle, two standing convection ovens, one combi oven, a deep fryer, and two woks. No blenders, only a giant Hobart mixer standing in the corner. When the chefs arrived, it was plain to see they were upset about the situation, but they also avoided using the woks for the most part! A wok has well over 80,000 btus, and clearly some chefs had never used one before.

Because our chefs are such pros, they handled this challenge exceptionally well (Can you imagine this in the hands of Season 5?) Very smart of them to put Jen, who had immunity, in charge, and clearly she stepped up to the plate. As they paired up, it was clear that some menu ideas were better than others. The Air Force didn’t transport their food across the base; we did, as we do for all challenges. I left the kitchen they were cooking in two hours before their time was up to head over to the hangar to get that set up. We had dropped off all of the equipment that morning, and had to get both buffet lines set up with tables, tablecloths, chafing dishes (which we had to purchase electric, because we couldn’t have sterno in the hangar because of the jet fuel), soup warmers, heat lamps, cutting boards, towels, water, and tools, etc. Weezy and I also made 30 gallons of lemonade for the troops. In addition to setting up the drink station, we worked with the art department on dressing all of the dining tables and the buffet line with plates, utensils, and cups. Angie, Barrett, and Cirstan stayed behind to transport the food. When they made the drop off to us, Angie and Company headed back to clean up the kitchen while Louise and I stayed on to manage the serve-portion of the challenge in the hangar.

It was such a great opportunity for our chefs to be able to meet and feed all of the airmen and women of Nellis. So let’s talk about the food; the clam chowder was just a bad idea altogether. It was literally 100 degrees out that day and while classic clam chowder is made with milk, Ron and Jesse thickened it with a ton of heavy cream. That said, it was flavorful and REALLY rich. Mike Isabella’s Greek salad was bland and the shrimp were borderline undercooked, which you can do with live spot prawns, or other fresh varieties of shrimp. But these shrimp had been frozen and really needed more cooking time. Beyond that the salad was bland and a bit generic.

Hector and Robin’s three bean chili was very good. Also a little heavy for a hot day, but well-seasoned and filling. Bryan and Mattin teamed up for a tasty but tame roast beef with mushroom demi and a cauliflower gratin. Kevin and Eli’s BBQ Pork with potato salad was absolutely delicious and perfect for a hot day. The bread pudding was cavity-sweet but who doesn’t love chocolate and peanut butter? Mike Voltaggio was the only chef who made an unusual and innovative dish; braising the bacon and making an Asian style lettuce wrap was a genius utilization of the slab bacon and the cases of fresh Romaine lettuce we had stocked in the fridge. It was original and pleasant addition to the menu.

Sadly, the pasta salad was akin to something you’d buy in the grocery deli section. Preeti’s a young chef, and her inability to admit there was something wrong with the dish is what got her sent home. But what a great episode! It was such a pleasure to meet and work with the staff and officers at Nellis. I know it was an honor for our chefs to have been able to cook for the troops and I was standing there when they applauded our contestants, a moment I’m sure they won’t forget.

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