'Top Chef's' Lee Anne Wong on Working Behind the Scenes and Getting Back into the Competition
It was a shock to the cheftestants, to the judges, and to viewers when Lee Anne Wong re-entered the Top Chef competition alongside Claudette Zepeda Wilkins after a series of successful rounds in Last Chance Kitchen. Her time on the show was short, however, after an outdoor challenge during which she came down with altitude sickness despite turning out a dish that earned her a spot in the winners' circle. Wong, the first pregnant chef to compete on Top Chef, chose to leave the competition on the advice of her doctor to protect the health of both her and her baby. Although her second Top Chef tenure only lasted one episode, she brought a fierce intensity to the Last Chance Kitchen battles and came into the competition with a fire that intimidated the other chefs, with good reason. Her first time around on Top Chef season one, she placed fourth. After that, she became the supervising culinary producer for the next six seasons of the show, contributing to the canon we know today. In 2014 she opened Koko Head Café in Kaimuki, Honolulu. She also released her first cookbook in 2014, called "Dumplings All Day Wong." Prior to her second chance at Top Chef, she opened Sweetcatch Poke in NYC in 2016.
Food & Wine: What inspired you to compete on Top Chef?
Lee Anne Wong: I came back for Last Chance Kitchen on a whim, to see if I still have what it takes to be the Top Chef.
F&W: How did you adjust your cooking style to compete in the Top Chef kitchen?
LAW: I didn’t. I think time and intimate knowledge of the show gave me the confidence to just cook my own food. When you have 20 minutes on the clock it’s hard to play the “coulda-shoulda-woulda” game. You just have to know you did the best you could with the hand you were dealt.
F&W: What did you think when you first met your competitors and saw them in action?
LAW: I was a culinary producer on Jenn Carroll’s and Marcel’s Seasons, so I already knew they were both fierce competition. Kwame was an unknown for me since I haven’t owned a television for the past four years since moving to Hawaii. When it came to the Season 15 cast, I watched and listened, while doing my own thing up on Mount Estes. They are a great bunch of talented and charismatic chefs who were experiencing the pressures and joys of being cast on Top Chef!
F&W: How did you feel about going home so early?
LAW: I chose to remove myself from the competition after being diagnosed with severe altitude sickness. When the doctors told me the best thing for me and my unborn baby boy would be to get down to a lower elevation, I didn’t give it a second thought.
F&W: Who do you think is going to be Top Chef? And who are you rooting for?
LAW: I really loved getting to know all of the Season 15 cast! Super talented bunch, and really kind and friendly at the same time. If I had to choose three I’d say Claudette, Bruce, and Carrie.
F&W: What do you wish you had done differently during your time in the competition?
LAW: I was pretty happy I ended up in winners circle under those circumstances. I think because I was a culinary producer on the show in the earlier years and because I didn’t actually think I’d make it through Last Chance Kitchen, my perspective was easy come, easy go. While I would’ve liked to go all the way, in my heart I know I didn’t need to win anything to validate who I am as a chef and business owner. It was an incredibly joyful time in my life, having just turned 40, newly engaged, and 16 weeks pregnant. While my culinary career is a huge part of what makes me who I am, the personal milestones of love, motherhood, and acquired wisdom helped me keep my priorities straight, and hopefully they’ll ask me to come back on the show in the future.
F&W: Do you have any tricks up your sleeve that you wish you had gotten the opportunity to show the judges?
LAW: Tricks galore. I was just getting started. My cooking has evolved and continues to 12 years after shooting the first season of Top Chef.
F&W: What was your favorite dish you prepared on the show?
LAW: I’m pretty proud of my 20-degree goose dish. I don’t have a television so one of my chef buddies was texting me from New York when the episode aired. I asked “what am I doing now?” He responds, “you’re making cracklings knee deep in snow.” And then texted “goose liver sauce—[Shaka emoji].”
F&W: What was your strategy going into Last Chance Kitchen?
LAW: Don’t lose, ha-ha. We filmed six rounds and up until that last round, in reality, you don’t have to win every challenge (until it’s the one that counts), you just can’t lose. Honestly, every challenge was different and you just have to do the best with the time limit that you have. And the TC kitchen was enormous, so running from corner to corner to gather equipment and ingredients I was pretty much thinking, “Don’t fall down.”
F&W: Would you ever consider coming back on a future and what would you do differently?
LAW: 100%. Next time I’ll bring weather appropriate clothing.