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Chefs of the Future

Lee Anne Wong reveals what really went on behind-the-scenes in the challenge.

By Lee Anne Wong

First of all, stop right there. I know what you are going to say. Money to make TV shows doesn't grow on trees.

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The 15-minute Quickfire always sucks. I remember we had one, I think when Ted Allen was the judge. I remember my hair falling out of its ponytail and my pans not getting hot enough and some of my mise en place hitting the ground, basically becoming totally disheveled and still frantically trying to finish my dish. Considering the incredibly short time limit, I think some of the contestants did an OK job. Two thumbs down for the Spike's stuffed vegetables, which looked like something out of a Good Housekeeping mag from 1953. Stephanie's pancake, while creative, was dry. The turkey's texture was very tough, having cooked a few minutes too long. I did enjoy Richard's tuna, and Antonia's rice salad had a really nice everyday appeal and was actually a complete meal on a plate.

Art Smith, as chef/owner of Table 52 and Oprah's personal chef, was perfect for judging this episode. Having worked with children through his wonderful organization, Common Threads, the objectives for this episode are very much in line with the goals of Common Threads; creating simple and healthy family friendly menus that a child could make on a limited budget. Every season there has been some sort of interaction with children as our audience/customers. It was great to be able to have our chefs interact with the little chefs of the future this time around. Not only were our sous-chefs capable cooks, they also each had a genuine interest and love of food. For me, it's always an immense pleasure to see kids who know how to eat right instead of being fed fast food and junk food by parents who have too little time to nourish their child properly. Easy is not always right, which is why Common Threads is such a fun and successful program for kids and adults alike. Not everyone was as at ease with the kids as Antonia and Richard. You can sense an awkwardness with some of the contestants, especially with Tom keeping a watchful eye over their interactions with the kids in the kitchen. $10 is a very low amount of money to feed a family of four, but there are people who do it every day. Successful or not, I think it was great that certain contestants were able to utilize their time and the pantry to create extra dishes, like Spike and Stephanie.

Speaking of Spike, I'm curious what everyone's perception of him up to this point has been. I will reveal one thing, and it's totally corny and a bit stereotypical, but what you all missed is that when his sous-chef cut his finger with the peeler, Spike dropped everything that he was doing to clean out the cut. Mind you, this took several minutes (we all know how much our contestants love the clock), and as he was putting the bandage on his kid, I think I gave an audible, "Awwwww ...", in that girly sort of way, when a guy does something totally unexpected. He's all cotton candy under that wise ass exterior.

In my opinion some of the chefs' ideas were not so great from the start, but what I found interesting was which of the chefs actually asked their kid what he or she thought. While her dish was bland (all it needed was a little salt and lemon juice to wake it up), I thought Lisa worked well with her partner. I get a big chuckle when I think about what Andrew's partner must've first thought after the 10 minutes of working with him (do 9-year-olds know about Ritalin?). Andrew's dish was delicious, and the refreshing combination of the citrus and the fennel was the perfect complement to the chicken paillard. It was one of the kids' favorites dishes, though Art Smith had said one of the reasons why he didn't win was because it was similar to the chicken finger syndrome: People think kids will eat anything breaded and fried. Spike's dishes were also well received. The carrot soup was colorful and tasty and the pasta was a smart choice, as he loaded his sauce up with lots of vegetables. Richard also found a creative way to get his kids to eat beets, and I love that he put his extra apron on his sous so they matched. Dale's dish was very good, so good I'd love to eat two plates of it probably with a big stein of German beer. Not a kid-friendly dish though -- the cabbage was something I think an adult may be able to handle but was just too vinegary for the young palate. While Nikki's dish embodied the challenge, I wasn't a huge fan of it, as it was a jumble of stuff on the plate. It certainly tasted OK, and she definitely gets props for putting the brussel sprouts in the mix. I suppose it was just hard for me to look at the plate because there was so much going on. Cheap does not have to mean unrefined. It was very touching for production to see Antonia get emotional at the sight of the kids. Antonia's a pretty cool lady from what I can tell and I marvel at the fact that she can run a kitchen and still have a young child. (It's something that strikes fear deep into the heart of me). She knew right off the bat how to interact with her kid, and like in the Quickfire, she went with what she knew, cooking a dish that she had prepared so many times before with her daughter. It's a simple, colorful, and tasty dish, and it has a lot of versatility, especially if you don't want to use a heavy-sweet teriyaki sauce. Having recreated the stir fry for "Wong Way," it's a dish I would make for myself any night of the week, as I'm a huge fan of whole wheat pasta and edamame.

I think Stephanie struggled with this challenge a bit. Watching behind a window, she was one of the ones who looked a little uncomfortable working side by side with someone who was a whole foot shorter than her. It's hard to remember to have a good time when at the end of the day someone is still going to go home. Her choice of chicken and tomatoes in peanut sauce over couscous was bizarre and very unlike any of the food I had seen from her in previous challenges. The apple thing was pretty good, but you can't feed a family of four with dessert.

Mark was dead set on making his curry from the start. This reminds me of Micah, from last season. I love curry. However, most kids in this country are not raised eating curry. I understand the risk in trying to give them something new to eat, but when elimination is at stake, curry in a hurry is not so good. There is a similar curry on the menu at Public that I do back flips for, but Mark's curry was a tad rich and complex for this particular situation. Kids can be your toughest critics and one of the most important things for a chef is to recognize is who their audience is. I tasted the curry. It wasn't bad. It wasn't great either though. In the end, it was the least favorite of all of the dishes for the kids, and the judges agreed the same. I happen to know Mark from here in NYC. He is doing very well at Public, which by the way, if you haven't eaten there yet, go. Run, actually. It's sexy space with equally sexy food to match. On most nights you can find Mark in the kitchen, and he is such a talented chef with a sweet disposition. I'd wish him the best, but I'll probably see him in a few weeks anyways.

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