Chef Lee Anne Wong is the quintessential Top Chef

TOP CHEF -- Season:17 -- Pictured: Lee Anne Wong -- (Photo by: Smallz & Raskind/Bravo)
TOP CHEF -- Season:17 -- Pictured: Lee Anne Wong -- (Photo by: Smallz & Raskind/Bravo) /

From Top Chef Season 1 to Top Chef All Stars LA, Chef Lee Anne Wong has had a huge influence on the chef driven competition.

For Chef Lee Anne Wong, Top Chef has been a large part of her culinary career. As one of the original Season 1 Top Chef cheftestants, she has seen the evolution of food television. From her times in front of the camera to her experience behind the camera, she understands better than most that Top Chef has and will continue to influence how, what and why foodies crave certain food.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Chef Lee Anne while she is working on her future restaurant at the Pioneer Inn in Maui. Currently, her restaurant Koko Head Café is located in Honolulu, Hawaii. That restaurant serves brunch style dishes. And, if you have been watching this season of Top Chef All Stars LA, dumplings are on the menu. While Mama Wong may not be helping in the kitchen, the daily dumpling special is a must try.

As a longtime fan of Top Chef, speaking with Chef Lee Anne is more than asking questions about the current season. While Top Chef All Stars LA gave her a first ever Quickfire win, for Chef Lee Anne, Top Chef is more than just winning the title. In some ways, she molded that show into what it is today.

While being in charge of the chef demonstration program at the French Culinary Institute, Chef Lee Anne stepped into the role as culinary producer for Top Chef. Although she finished fourth in Top Chef Season 1, Chef Lee Anne saw what Top Chef could become. It was more than highlighting a person with a passion for cooking, she found a way to make it the ultimate kitchen playground for the culinary elite.

For her, there was a turning point where Top Chef became “the” cooking competition. She said at the start of Season 6, she was able to create the ultimate pantry. With all her experience producing cooking demos at the French Culinary Institute, she knew that the Top Chef kitchen needed all the culinary toys.

From Vitamix to an anti-griddle, having the right tools at the chefs’ fingertips unleashed a sea of creativity. In some ways, Chef Lee Anne helped to steer the possibilities of what a cooking show could be.

Now as she steps back into the Top Chef Kitchen to compete, she has a different view. Although she appeared in a previous season of Last Chance Kitchen (she left for health reasons), this All Star Season is a little different for her. While she feels that this season is “pretty stacked” with big personalities, Chef Lee Anne admitted that she feels that she felt that she “did not belong in this group this season.”

Although I do not agree with her sentiments, she had her reasons. She said that sometimes she felt “overwhelmed” by the talented chefs competing. Even sometimes, she thought that it could be “intimidating” because she knew the level of these chefs and how they operate.

While the culinary talents of the chefs are known, there is more than just cooking in a Top Chef kitchen. Just like a real world, restaurant kitchen, all the chefs have to juggle each other’s personalities. As Chef Lee Anne mentioned, in her real chef job, managing people and personalities is as important as the food that the kitchen produces.

Chef Lee Anne calls the Top Chef experience a “hot box of emotions.” Anyone who has watched this season can see how the personalities can impact the food that comes out of the kitchen. Whether it is collaborating on a dish (remember how she helped to edit her and Malarkey’s dish) to just handling the pressures of the living with strangers, not every moment is fun like summer camp.

Still, the combination of cooking and personalities is part of the Top Chef panache. Since no one can really taste the dishes at Judges Table, foodies often root for their fan favorite. In many ways, Chef Lee Anne is one of those favorites.

As seen in Top Chef All Stars LA family-centric episode, Chef Lee Anne (and her mom) have endeared herself to foodies. While everyone wants to take a bite of her food, people want to be part of her culinary world. It can be part of the reason why celebrity chef driven restaurants are sought out by foodies.

Chef Lee Anne understands that being recognized as a chef comes with balance. Now, as she looks to open another restaurant in Hawaii, she understands that she is busier than ever. While she is chef, business woman and mom, her life is full. One moment she is handling a bustling kitchen scenario and the next she’s running after a toddler.

That scenario is part of being a woman chef. In some ways, women chefs need to appreciate the concept of juggling it all. While Top Chef might give women an equal playing field, the real world is different. Chef Lee Anne said “it is twice as hard for a woman.” While she believes in equal opportunity, it is a numbers game.

In Chef Lee Anne’s kitchen, she quashes the “bro culture.” While she cautions aspiring female chefs that they will have to work hard and preserve, she said that everyone has to “find your personal passion and joy within those confines of working really, really hard.”

For Chef Lee Anne, her path was her own choice and she has grown from those choices. Most importantly she focuses on her personal happiness. It is one of the reasons why Hawaii is now her home and where she continues to grow her businesses.

As the restaurant world continues to pivot as it faces uncertain times, Chef Lee Anne continues to strive forward. She may have to adapt Koko Head Café or her new restaurant to accommodate guests’ comfort levels, still she pushes forward. Even though the new normal might be ever changing, from her Hawaiian locale, the vista can be inspiring.

Whether or not Chef Lee Anne Wong is a Top Chef Champion, her Top Chef legacy and her impact on the culinary world is extensive. From curating a culinary competition into the television standard to being an example to future female chefs, Chef Lee Anne has earned her spot in the culinary elite. More importantly she earns that place with a gracious demeanor that makes you want to sit at her table.

Although many people are cooking Hawaiian recipes at home as wish to quench their wanderlust, many foodies, including myself, look forward to the day when we can sit and enjoy some of Chef Lee Anne Wong’s delicious dishes in person. Until then, her Instagram account and Top Chef episodes will have to satisfy those cravings.

Top Chef All Stars LA airs on Bravo, Thursdays at 10 p.m.

Chef Lee Anne Wong is owner of Koko Head Café in Honolulu, Hawaii. She is slated to open another restaurant at the historic Pioneer Inn in Maui.

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What was one of your favorite Lee Anne Wong Top Chef moments? Do you think that she is the quintessential Top Chef fan favorite?