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Dry and Dusty Days

Lee Anne Wong talks about the roadbumps her team faced while preparing for the camping challenge.

By Lee Anne Wong

Another doozy of an episode— “camping” I knew, would not be enjoyed by the contestants. Let’s start with the Quickfire. Cactus is not really a common ingredient, and not many contestants had worked with it previously. Having spent many years cooking in Mexico, cactus (nopales) is part of my culinary vocabulary. We sourced paddles with the needles still on, and white and red cactus fruit. I wasn’t actually there for the Quickfire as I was busy setting up “camp” all day. Mike Isabella’s simple presentation was well thought out and executed for one of my favorite chefs around, Mr. Tim Love. Tim and I share a love of roasting whole animals.

How to Watch

Watch Top Chef Season 21 Wednesdays at 9/8c on Bravo and next day on Peacock.

Let me tell you something about camping, at least camping Top Chef-style. My recommendation? Get a Petzl headlamp. While the Quickfire was going on, I was out at Shady Valley Ranch getting the chuck wagon and all else set up for the reveal later that day. We pimped out the chuck wagon with a limited pantry and the usual equipment, sans electrical appliances. Again, for every challenge not in the TC kitchen, my team and I lug around pots, pans, appliances, hand tools, towels, aprons, gladware, the list goes on and on. While I was doing this, I also worked with the guy who was setting up the gas-lined fire pits (same gentleman who helped us in Season 2 with our beach breakfast challenge in Malibu). When the chefs arrived, I took their coolers to a front building, which had a kitchen and refrigeration and organized and stored all of their ingredients. The art department sourced all of the cast iron for the challenge. It unfortunately did not arrive until the day of the Quickfire. I had to wait for the fire pits to finish getting set up, which was around 7 p.m. and for camera to get the shots of the chefs checking out the cooking stations. The cast iron came with a layer of chemical wax coating it to protect the surface. According to instructions, I had to burn the wax off over the grills, about thirty minutes per side. Then wash them, season them, and cook them over the grills again. With only three fire pits, I was still burning off the pans by the time the chefs went to bed, in the pitch dark, in a sandstorm. Thankfully, my friend Korey on the lighting team, saw fit to buy me a Petzl headlamp the next day. Now I carry it with me wherever I go.

I went home to nap for three hours and then drove an hour back to location at the crack of dawn. The weather was slated to reach the triple digits by late morning. We offered the chefs the choice of cooking in their TC jackets, or just t-shirts. Surprisingly, they chose to wear their jackets. The results of cooking in the very dusty desert were varied, and while some contestants created inventive and relatively palatable dishes, there were some that I wouldn’t go near with a ten-foot pole, especially on a hundred degree day. I’ll write what I can recall:

The Chicken Paillard was dry, and pretty pedestrian. Mike I.’s pork gyro was totally phoned in, and I could get a better gyro off the street in my hood in Astoria. Eli’s tuna sandwich with radish salad was also relatively boring, like something I’d find in a department store café. The char with the baked potato was gutsy, if not gigantic, and actually didn’t taste all that bad. Robin’s grilled romaine salad was unwieldy and underseasoned, though I love grilled lettuce. Ashley’s halibut, as big as it was, was well executed. Dishes I found interesting? The usual suspects … Mike Voltaggio’s dish was not well suited for the challenge; though it was completely delicious, unique, and virtually perfect, it was not exactly what the ranchers and cowboys expected. You see, there’s “gourmet cowboy” and then there’s white tablecloth out of context, which is where Michael sorta landed with this one. Kevin’s duck with watermelon and mole was VERY tasty, though I wish he could’ve cooked the skin out a little more so it was really crispy, but those are the hazards off cooking over a fire pit. Jen’s snapper and duck confit was also rich and filling, but with lighter flavors, like the Asian style julienned vegetables on top. Bryan’s dish was really the one that hit the mark with its simplicity and execution. All flavors and textures were appropriate for this type of challenge, and the roast pork with the polenta came off as gourmet without being over-the-top.

The not-so-tasty ten-foot pole ones? Just two for me: Ron’s ceviche and Mattin’s salad plate. Ron felt compelled to put some shit in a coconut shell (never a good idea unless you’re in Tahiti on vacation; didn’t you see Doug Rodriguez’s “spectacle?”) It was WAY too hot out to be serving raw fish for one; secondly, pairing a really nasty boozy shot with it (I think it had rum and Coco Lopez in it) doesn’t do much for the flavor profile, unless it’s a straight shot of tequila or mezcal. I have to pause as I think about Mattin’s dish…. no wait …. yes, truly one of the worst dishes all season. (Sorry, Mattin). I suppose those of you who live in Nevada and Arizona know what I’m talking about when I say “hot” day. It’s oppressive, like walking into a giant convection oven. It’s one of those oppressively hot days in the desert. First of all, Mattin didn’t cook anything. Though I kept everyone’s fish stored on ice the night before, the quality of his seafood was not so great come morning. What happens normally in a restaurant situation like this is you call an audible. If it’s not good, don’t use it, or figure out a way to use it so it doesn’t suck. Mattin’s plate was akin to a terrible diner salad platter, you know with the shrimp salad, egg salad, and coleslaw, or something you’d get from behind the deli counter. It’s just didn’t LOOK good, beyond smelling and tasting funky. And the outdoor heat…. It was no wonder the French prince ended up at the bottom of the pile. We had almost cast Mattin for Season 5, but too many Euros would have made for an even messier season. I’m glad we got see what he could do on Season 6, and while I adore his Basque style, campfire cooking is clearly not for him.

Funny enough, Tim and I recently competed against each other in a “camping Quickfire” for Victorinox Swiss Army in Central Park, where we could only use our Swiss Army knives and 3 jetboils on the ground to make two dishes in 30 minutes. I think I accidentally melted a plastic base that was still attached to one of the pots. Tim dropped his trout on the ground. Total mayhem. Thank goodness I’m not allowed to compete on TC anymore. Melissa Perello whupped both our asses, but it was fun. Headed out West to film a few more episodes of “Zeno Supper Club”, which are slated to air soon on YouTube! Stay tuned and check out our Web site in the meantime. See you soon!

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