Thank You and Good Night.
Lee Anne Wong goes deep behind-the-scenes of the finale, and says goodbye to her role as a culinary producer.
Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets. Far and away the most exciting finale in Top Chef history, it was truly anyone’s game. I haven’t seen the episode yet, so I am writing from memory, the Wong point of view. The producers, Tom, and I set the rules for the final challenge. Because of time constraints, Bravo had only wanted the chefs to do a three-course meal, with one of the courses being a set mystery box and one of the other courses HAD to be dessert. We managed to convince them to make it four courses by adding the childhood memory twist, hence the Moms. Which by the way, reality TV gold; one mom, two brothers, one prize ... and the love between Yukon and his mom was enough to make me cry.
After Brix, the next morning Team Culinary and I headed to Long Meadow Ranch at 5 a.m. to pick up all of the food leftover from the previous challenge with our cube truck, the Culinary Van (which we appropriately named "Vanischewitz") and a refrigerated truck. Not fun. What WAS amusing to me was the fact that we would be filming the final challenge up in Healdsburg at Cyrus Restaurant. Chef Douglas Keane had been part of the Napa round table that sent me home. When I had scouted Cyrus back in September, it took us both a few minutes to realize this, but gave me a good excuse to give him a little light-hearted ribbing (Cindy Pawlcyn got her fair share during Masters). We caravanned it an hour up to Healdsburg, and began the painstaking process of building out another kitchen and pantry for the chefs. Chef Doug and his crew had cleared their kitchen of pretty much everything and we loaded in all of our equipment, all of the food from Long Meadow, rental plates, and just about everything else they could possibly need for the final cook-off. All of the produce was in cardboard boxes that were falling apart, so we had to style all of the food out in appropriate sized Cambros and lexans. It really did take us almost nine hours to build out the kitchen. I had worked with their sous-chef, Amos Watts, to order a wide variety of proteins and some extra ingredients, which were not on hand. But everything else I had sourced at Whole Foods or from Long Meadow.
There was a bit of debate over the mystery box and whether or not the chefs would be required to use all or just some of the ingredients in the box. We agreed that if we put challenging but sensible ingredients in the box they would have to all utilize all of it, but they would have access to everything else in the pantry. Amos had let me know that matsutake mushroom season was in full swing, and me, just having been in Japan at the end of the summer when the matsutake season was just starting there (I ate many, many mushrooms), jumped at the chance to feature these in the mystery box. I consulted with Tom on my ideas for the box. He suggested we put two seafood proteins in the box that the contestants would be required to use. Dungeness Crab season was in full swing in Washington and Oregon, so by the time this aired I knew it would be Dungeness season in Northern Cali. We tried to get sand dabs but they were not available so we settled on local rockfish. I added Meyer lemons, kabocha squash, and a fragrant and slightly sweet herb, anise hyssop to the mix, with Tom’s approval that the chefs could make some very interesting dishes out of those six ingredients. Anyone who thinks that those ingredients don’t go well together should try watching Chopped and just be happy I didn’t put string cheese into the box.
To add to the chaos, this time we brought back ALL of the contestants, as we filmed the reunion the day after the finale. Everyone was staying at the Meritage, which is kinda in the middle of nowhere, so I get back from set one night and all of the ex-contestants are sitting in the lobby bar getting fairly shitfaced and being less than inconspicuous. We don’t actually tell them what’s going on either, and every season we change up the twist. They kept asking me what was going to happen ("We all had to bring our knives...") as I chugged my Maker’s on the rocks, and I told them it was so they could stab each during the reunion show. Over the years, I have enjoyed getting to know the contestants, though I am not allowed to be friendly with them during the show. Richard Blais had been under the misconception that I "hated" him, which is hilarious because it is so far from the truth; I was just not allowed to answer the billion questions Richard would always throw at me during rules (I don’t hate you Blais; I hated the fact that you always tried to trick me into revealing details about the challenge). I thought it was great the way we handled the sous-chef situation this time around. The producers had asked me, "Is it fair if Chef No.1 pulls knives with two contestants who had been eliminated early in the game vs. Chef No. 2 who may pull Jen and Eli as sous chefs?" First, I am sad I never got to torch the knife block in the parking lot. Secondly, (here it is again) this is Top Chef. I explained that part of being a Top Chef is managing your staff and training your cooks. In real life, not all of the cooks on your staff are all-stars so you have to work with you got. Misogynist Mike was REALLY pissed at this year’s twist, as I think he automatically assumed that he would be assisting someone, since he was one of the longer-lasting contestants. The challenge for Kevin, Michael, and Bryan would be figuring out who to utilize for Day One and who to use on Day Two.
The table full of restaurateurs was interesting. During dinner some of them got full on drunk and a little loose-lipped at the table (well, maybe one person specifically). I’ll give you my opinion on food porn, as I am not sure how the final edit turns out. We began with the childhood course. I have no idea what the story is but here’s my taste verdict: Kevin’s take on fried chicken was whimsical and fun, but overall I had wished for more substance in the dish (or more chicken skin). Mike V.’s shrimp and broccoli dish was interesting, if only for the fact that he had brought dehydrated broccoli florets with him, which I think he baked off to a crisp brown. Now, while I understand the flavor/texture he was going for, and the brown broccoli to some may be appealing, his preparation was very risky because the first thing I thought of when I tasted it was there is no way the judges wouldn’t reference CJ’s burnt broccoli surprise during the airplane challenge. Other than that, it was a tribute to an ingredient that you will rarely find on any fine dining menu (chefs are pretty particular about distinct flavors such as broccoli and green pepper....), and the spot prawn was perfectly cooked. I applaud Bryan for using the sardines. I love fresh sardines and I ordered some, alongside more glamorous seafood such as uni, abalone, lobster, scallops, and turbot, secretly praying that someone would use them. His dish was beautifully composed, but clearly lacked salt and the acidity needed to balance the rich flavors of the sardine. To me, it was a draw between the three dishes, none having swept me off my feet.
Next came the mystery box course. Kevin’s preparation was certainly eye-appealing, until you tried to eat the matsutake. In Japan, fresh matsutakes are traditionally shaved thin or cut small due to their texture. Kevin took whole matsutakes and cut them in half and pan seared them. The end result tells me that Kevin did not try the mushroom before he sent it out. It went far beyond "toothsome." His crab broth however, was delicious and I nearly licked the bowl dry. Bryan’s fish was perfectly cooked, but I had a very hard time making out any other flavors in his dish because it was muddied by the uni and coconut flavor. I also wish there had been more of a textural contrast, as the soft poached fish was served over a puree with soft uni on top. I agree that Mike’s was the winner overall. He cured the fish with konbu seaweed and shaved the mushrooms thin and fried them until crispy. The Meyer lemon confit/puree on the plate added the right amount of sweetness and acidity to balance the dish, and the tomato rounded out the palate exercise with its umami. Me? I would’ve made a clarified mushroom-crab broth, pan seared the rock fish, made a warm crab salad scented with the anise hyssop and Meyer lemon zest to serve on top, with shaved matsutake mushrooms and finely diced kabocha squash in the broth, with some form of crispy kabocha squash on top.
The meat course would be telling. This was the one course where the chefs really had free reign to do what they wanted. Bryan’s venison was near perfect. Contrary to what I know a certain diner had complained about, I thought his dish was beautifully composed and the flavors were well balanced. Mike’s dish was innovative and well-executed; it is a dish he has on his menu at the Langham. He had brought these little mushroom-shaped molds with him (for making chocolates and candies) and cooked Sicilian pistachios in a rich stock to make them tender. The squab was a wonderful medium rare and the mushroom chicharron he made added texture and shape to the dish. And this is when I knew Kevin would not make the final two; he had brought his own home-cured pork belly/bacon but failed to cook it long enough. It’s fine that pork belly is fatty, and when cooked properly, it’ll melt in your mouth, as animal fat should. But undercooked pork fat, as it was presented by Kevin, not so much. I liked that he went for broccoli also (what are the chances?) but his dish was unsuccessful, falling victim to a second time to under-braised meat.
Dessert is always the crux for our chefs. I relatively hate making desserts (unless it involves bacon and Maker’s Mark), but well-rounded chefs — and I learned this the hard way on my season — should have pastry skills. Bryan’s white chocolate dulce de leche cheesecake with fig sorbet gave me a cavity. I found it to be cloyingly sweet, and though the fig sorbet was very tasty, it had too much stabilizer in it, which I could feel on my palate. It was received well by the judges though and artfully presented in classic BV style. Mike’s spiced chocolate sponge with caramel filling was definitely borderline too salty, and trust me, I like salt in my desserts, a lot of it. I thought the use of savory ingredients like butternut squash and pepitas made for a nice texture and flavor combination. Mike’s cake came out a little over-baked and dry, but you can see what he was aiming for: a combination of hot/cold, cake vs. caramel filling, spice vs. chocolate, and salt (too much of it) vs. sweet. Had he been successful, it’s a brilliant dessert that just needed some slight tweaking. The final nail in the coffin for Kevin was the dessert. I’ve been doing bacon chocolate for years, before it became trendy, ask my friends (I fed Padma, Andy and the crew their first bacon chocolate cakes during the Season 2 finale in Hawaii). It’s a very careful balance between the two flavors and you need to hit the smoke vs. sweet vs. bitter vs. salt factor just right. Every time I eat some bacon chocolate nonsense I feel the need to give my two cents because so many places are not getting it right in my opinion. It’s about what percent chocolate (semi-sweet vs. bittersweet) you use, combined with where you are getting your bacon from (some bacon is smokier than others). Kevin, made the fatal error of using hickory smoke powder in his dessert, which is acrid and too much of it in anything is like eating a mouth full of wood chips and ash. Hickory smoke powder is one of those fun food powders I keep with the tech ingredients, and judiciously applied, you can do some pretty cool stuff with it (on the simplest level: make smoked mash potatoes without altering the color as you would if you traditionally smoked the potato flesh). Such is the point of molecular gastronomy: to improve the upon the end result through non-traditional technique. The bacon was enough and beyond not needing to add it all, Kevin had a really heavy hand with the smoke powder. The tiny caramelized banana was not enough to draw away from the chocolate skid mark on the plate and the candied bacon was not evenly chopped. No one’s a fan of chocolate and bacon more than I am, but I got real sad when I tasted this one because I knew it would seal Kevin’s fate.
Yukon Cornelius, as I affectionately referred to him all season, is a great young talent. Kevin has everything to be proud of; this season having far and away the most talented chefs to date, he stayed true to his cuisine and style of cooking up against formidable opponents such as the Voltaggio Machine and fine dining chefs like Jen and Mike Isabella. Beyond being sweet natured and confident, I truly enjoyed eating his food all season. Angie, Weezy, and I were eternally grateful for better-tasting food porn.
Bryan Voltaggio, what else can I say? All the ladies on production loved Bryan (thump thump thump thump ... the sound of beating hearts) for many reasons, but primarily because he was always courteous, a gentleman, and really the easiest to work with of the entire cast. While I hope this experience brought Mike and Bryan closer together, I know it must’ve been heartbreakingly bitter to lose to his brother in the end. However, Bryan’s already got his own restaurant, which is a huge measure of success out in the real world. I think Bryan’s food is incredibly artistic and forward-thinking. Generally speaking, Frederick, MD doesn’t make you think "Culinary Metropolis," but Bryan is truly a gem and I view him as a frontlines man in my generation of modern American chefs, in addition to his already accumulated accolades. And that’s why this show rocks. What incredible talent, Frederick; you are lucky indeed.
Probably the biggest rockstar we have ever had compete on the show, Michael Voltaggio. I first met Mike when I scouted the SLS/Bazaar for our episode on Masters. Slim Shady was a hospitable host and I made him bacon chocolate cookies the day we filmed there. He was in service until 2 a.m. the night before and was there at 5 a.m. to help me and the girls load in.
Let me be clear: Michael was the reason Bazaar had just won four stars in the Los Angeles Times, and the restaurant was jam-packed every night. He had already cooked for me on the several occasions I dined there before that challenge, and I knew he was a badass in the kitchen. Bazaar has an open kitchen and I am constantly observing chefs in their natural environment, scrutinizing how he/she interacts with their crew, watching how they run service, interact with the front of the house, etc. Michael had a full grip on his kitchen then, and I dined at the Langham only a week after he had taken over as Chef de Cuisine. I was setting up an event there for Bravo and it was pure coincidence that he was working there. He gave me a walk-through of his kitchen and I could see that his cooks were excited to be learning new techniques from him and working with new ingredients, as Michael had completely overhauled the menu and integrated his signature style in only seven days. All season we saw his best, without compromise, and while early on Tom had genuinely wanted to dislike Mike’s inclination towards "molecular gastronomy," he simply could not deny Mike’s innovation and talent. Mike takes risks, constantly, which makes him a groundbreaker in our generation. Yes, most of these modern techniques have crossed the Atlantic, having been brought to life in Europe, predominantly Spain and France. But in the hands of American chefs, there are only a numbered few who have got it right and apply the techniques sensibly, and even then, some argue it doesn’t work. The difference between Michael and every cook that’s currently coming out of culinary school and working at these four-star tech restaurants is that he is rooted in classical technique and knows how to make a roast without a recirculator; Most of these young, impressionable cooks I refer to as "trying to dunk before you can do a lay-up." Now would I want to eat his style of cuisine every night? Hell no. But like the meal Jeremy Fox cooked for me and my crew at Ubuntu, Michael’s food is undeniably exciting and thought-provoking. Having already won a Michelin star at such a young age is rares and I once told him that he was the future of food because of his willingness to take risks. I look forward to the next time I see Mike, probably on the West Coast. Harold will always be the No. 1 Top Chef in my heart, but damn. I can’t wait to see what Mike Voltaggio is doing one year, five years, 20 years from now. Congratulations, Michael.
And I leave you guys here. Words cannot express the wide range of emotions I dealt with when coming to the decision to leave the show and go back to being a chef. I had been working at The French Culinary Institute the entire time I was producing the show, but it got to be too much time on the road so I left the school in January to go on the road for the next five months to film finale, Masters, and then Season 6. It has been such an incredible part of my life the past four years, if not all-consuming. I have gotten to travel and live all over the country, work with a crew that became like my family, meet so many talented chefs and marquee industry players, and help build an Emmy Award-winning pop culture phenomenon that has no signs of going away any time soon as the food industry continues its renaissance around the world. But this year I missed the stove. I missed having a kitchen of my own, and thus the decision to get back to it. I signed on for the show four years ago, not knowing at all what to expect, only hoping for the outcome and bizarre dream of winning that first season. While I didn’t win, and like every other contestant kicked off the show, it took me a while to process and get past this, I am not blind to the fact that I think in many ways I did win. I've got a killer resume now. I never wanted to have my own place until I knew I was ready. Most chefs who try it prematurely end in failure. It’s like getting married. And one day it just dawned on me that it’s the only thing that’s gonna make me happy at this point. I’m ready. I want to feed you. I also want to thank all the readers and fans for your input and support the past four years. Hopefully someday they’ll let me back on the show as talent and not as a producer, though contractually I’ll never be allowed to compete on the show ever again. I have some very exciting projects coming up and currently focusing on developing a business plan for my own restaurant(s). Watch what happens. Love you guys. Xo- Lee Anne
You can follow me on Twitter @leeannewong and keep checking out www.zenosupperclub.com for recipes, videos, and good times.