Bravo TV keeps churning out hit reality show after hit reality show. As addictive as these shows are, we’ve recently become hooked on its latest show, Top Chef. Talented chefs from all over the United States compete in the fast paced, high pressured restaurant business for a chance to earn the title of “Top Chef”. The final episode will be shot in Las Vegas where 1 “Top Chef” will receive $100,000 in seed money to help encourage their culinary career, be featured in “Food & Wine Magazine” and appear at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen in June 2006.Bravo TV keeps churning out hit reality show after hit reality show. As addictive as these shows are, we’ve recently become hooked on its latest show, Top Chef. Talented chefs from all over the United States compete in the fast paced, high pressured restaurant business for a chance to earn the title of “Top Chef”. The final episode will be shot in Las Vegas where 1 “Top Chef” will receive $100,000 in seed money to help encourage their culinary career, be featured in “Food & Wine Magazine” and appear at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen in June 2006. One of the last men standing is Lee Anne Wong, Executive Chef at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. Her talent, professionalism and eagerness to learn from the best, has kept her in the game. ASIANCE Magazine sat down with Lee Anne Wong as she dishes on her favorite dish, her most respected chef and her most admired cast member!
They thought I was crazy. “Wasted brains” was what they called me!
ASIANCE: Tell us about your ethnic background.
Lee Anne Wong: I am Chinese American. My mother was born in China and she moved with her family to the Philippines when she was a child. My dad is second generation Chinese. So I guess I’m about 100% (laughs). I was born and raised in upstate New York.
ASIANCE: What is your education as a chef?
Lee Anne Wong: I went to FIT for Fashion Design. Then I decided to switch careers and go to the French Culinary Institute. I took their Professional Culinary Program. It’s a 600 hour total emergence program. It’s hands on. I graduated in 9 months. I took the evening program, 3 nights a week.
ASIANCE: Who did you get along with on the show?
Lee Anne Wong: Ha ha. Actually Harold is here today working with me! Harold, definitely! We just went to Mexico together and he cooked out with me down there. Dave is coming here this weekend. He’s going to stay with me. Lots of people! There were a couple people I didn’t get along with..(laughs). For the most part, I got to meet some interesting people and make a few friends.
ASIANCE: Did you admire anyone?
Lee Anne Wong: Harold of course! Harold is definitely a great chef. He’s calm, cool and collected. Everybody had a little something to bring to the show. I learned some things from, believe it or not, Cynthia. The whole point was that we were all very passionate about food. So we all had something to offer in terms of skill level. The people I liked to watch were Stephen, Tiffani and Harold. They are all very talented. And of course I look up to Tom Colicchio (laughs).
ASIANCE: Were you familiar with Tom Colicchio?
Lee Anne Wong: It’s funny. I’m from New York. I’ve worked with some of Tom’s chefs who run his restaurants. I know him on reputation. I know a lot of people who have known him closely. It was a very cool experience and a great opportunity to work with someone who is as successful in the business as he is.
ASIANCE: What is your favorite dish to make?
Lee Anne Wong: Rare bleeding rib eye with a bottle of red wine. Very simple. A grilled piece of steak is my favorite. I love all foods. We were just in Mexico cooking. We did a lot of cooking and had a lot of fun down there. When you get around amazing produce or amazing protein you just get a desire to cook anything.
ASIANCE: Are you a fan of the show “Iron Chef”?
Lee Anne Wong: I love Iron Chef. I love the old school Iron Chef, the Japanese Iron Chef. It’s one of my favorite shows to watch. I don’t have too much time for television. I also like Seinfeld and Entourage.
ASIANCE: Who are your favorite chefs?
Lee Anne Wong: Greg Achatz in Chicago, currently at Alinea. I had the privilege of working with him when he was at Trio. He is doing some phenomenal, ground breaking food out in Chicago. AndrÃ© Soltner, Dean here at The French Culinary Institute. He’s amazing. He brought French Cuisine to the forefront. He does old school French food like nobody else. Obviously, Feran Andria, Juan Mari Arzak and Elena Arzak. I’m really big into the Spanish movement right now. Heston Blumenthal out at the Fat Duck in England. A huge variety of chefs. People doing cutting edge food. At the same time, I like food that has its roots in classic technique.
ASIANCE: What about Patricia Yeo (Asian American woman chef out of New York) of Sapa?
Lee Anne Wong: I worked with Patricia Yeo on many occasions. She’s funny. She never had any formal training. She studied under Bobby Flay. Yeah Bobby was actually a graduate of the first class here at The French Culinary Institute. He graduated in 1984, 22 years ago. We have a picture of him down in the hallway when he was just a teenager with a big red afro. He’s great. You have to respect somebody who has built himself quite an empire. A lot of people are very opinionated about people in this industry; chefs, restaurateurs. It is in my opinion that anyone who is crazy enough to get in this business and stick with it and be successful at it; Kudos to you! May not be my kind of food but, “Hey?!” I’ve had the privilege of being in the same room with him and helping him out too.
ASIANCE: Does he come back and teach?
Lee Anne Wong: He hasn’t been back in awhile. His schedule is really, really busy. He’ll come back and practice for an Iron Chef episode. We’ve seen him on several different occasions.
ASIANCE: You admire your mom!
Lee Anne Wong: My mom is a phenomenal woman. It’s sort of interesting because growing up, my parents gave me everything I needed but didn’t spoil me. They wouldn’t let me have a Cabbage Patch Kid; they made me one (laughs). The fact that my mom came to America in her early 20s and created a life for herself and created a family is just amazing and a very brave thing to do. She’s a nurse. She’s worked in the emergency room for 30 years. My mother has guts. She’s a great lady and a great cook. She’s really supported me in all my creative endeavors. I did well in school. I could’ve gone into a career in Mathematics or Law. My parents totally supported me when I said, “Hey, I want to go to Art school” and “Hey, I want to go to cooking school”. They thought I was crazy. “Wasted brains” was what they called me! They are doing ok with it now. I just cooked New Years Eve dinner at the James Beard House in New York City, which was my debut. It was a big deal. My family came down and they are proud to see that I’m doing ok.
ASIANCE: What about that guy in the beginning?
Lee Anne Wong: Someone threw a whole damper on that one. Ken is a psycho. I was so embarrassed. He was rude to Hubert Keller. I was like, “What are you nuts?” Do you expect to have a job when you get back to LA? I don’t know why anyone would go on TV and misrepresent themselves like that, unless they really are like that?
ASIANCE: What are you up to now?
Lee Anne Wong: I’m consulting on a movie. They are doing a remake on a movie sort of geared around a restaurant. We’re creating all the menus and dishes. We did a tasting for the Director this morning.
ASIANCE: Any advice to girls who want to be a chef?
Lee Anne Wong: Thick skin! It’s tough. I work at a culinary school so I see the influx of people that want to be chefs. It’s a double edge sword because people see the network and they imagine that this is what it’s all about, which is so far from the truth. It’s a lot of blood sweat and tears. I got yelled at alot. It’s sort of the understanding that it’s not personal and yes you are going to be surrounded by a bunch of males; put your head down and work. It’s such a rewarding experience if you are passionate about it. Well that’s with anything. If you are passionate about what you do, you’ll get there eventually. I’m just starting to see the doors that are open to me. I’m going to have so many opportunities coming up in the future. I’m starting to get a sense of myself and my cooking and my food. It’s a great feeling to get up everyday and Love your job. Stick with it!!