Chef Lee Anne Wong’s Got One Last Chance
The Koko Head Café chef-owner returns to Bravo to compete on the network’s “Last Chance Kitchen” this season.
Photo: Courtesy of Bravo TV
I first met chef Lee Anne Wong in 2012, when she was in Honolulu filming an episode of Unique Eats on the Cooking Channel. We were instant friends, bonding over a loco moco at Rainbow Drive-In. The following day, I took her surfing in Waikīkī, where she got hit in the face by an errant surfboard. I was horrified—she was filming the next day and that bruise wasn’t going to disappear that soon—but she just shrugged it off.
That confirmed what I had always thought about her from the first time I saw her compete on Bravo’s Top Chef in 2006: This chick is tough.
Fourteen seasons of Top Chef later, Wong, who eventually moved to O‘ahu to open Koko Head Café in 2014, is back on Bravo, competing on the Emmy Award-winning digital companion video series Last Chance Kitchen for a chance to return to the show that launched her career. She battles Jennifer Carroll (Season 6 and Season 8: All Stars), Kwame Onwuachi (Season 13), Marcel Vigneron (Season 2 and Season 8: All Stars) on the series, which started on Dec. 7.
A lot has changed since her debut in 2006. Wong now lives in Honolulu, heads the award-winning brunch spot in Kaimukī and just gave birth to her first son, Rye, last month.
We caught up with the new mom—between nursing and napping—to find out more about her return to Bravo, what she’s learned this time around and how motherhood has changed her.
HONOLULU MAGAZINE: You’re back! The first two episodes of Last Chance Kitchen are already online. What brought you back to Bravo and what was the experience like?
LEE ANNE WONG: We shot the first season of Top Chef back in 2005, and then I worked the next four years as the supervising culinary producer for the series. I wasn’t actually allowed to participate on camera after that as I was considered an employee of Bravo/NBC, so it took the production company going through NBC legal to make sure enough time had passed that I could come back on and compete as a contestant. When I was first approached to do Last Chance Kitchen, I figured, “Well, I’m turning 40, I’m newly engaged and about to become a mother for the first time ... What the hell, why not?” It was more of a challenge to myself to see if I still had the Top Chef chops. One of the only reasons I agreed was because I would be competing against other [Top Chef] veterans, and I actually produced both Marcel’s and Jen’s seasons of Top Chef.
HM: What was your favorite part about filming this time around? How was it different?
LAW: Favorite part about filming—that old nostalgia. Creating and cooking a dish from scratch in 20 minutes competitively is always a great way to get the blood pumping and the anxiety flowing freely. Plus, I was thrilled to see some familiar faces and co-workers who were still on production for this season, as I had spent four years working all over the country with a great team who makes the magic happen behind the cameras.
HM: Reflecting on your experience both on the show and working behind the scenes, what have you learned and how has it been instrumental in your career?
LAW: I was 27 when we filmed the first season. I learned a tremendous amount about myself as a result. Direct criticism from experts like Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons really sticks with you and is fantastic insight on things to consider when creating a dish or culinary concept. Production taught me how to work under a tremendous amount of pressure with a giant group of people. So many moving parts go into a show like Top Chef and the culinary department was integral to all the aspects of the show, from the inventory to building the actual kitchen set and pantry to creating the challenges and daily logistics of moving two tons of cooking equipment and food from location to location and back to set. If anything, the years as a producer opened up my career on another path and I am still sought after as a culinary producer and food stylist. Subsequently, it has also made my on-camera work in the following years easy and me easier to work with. I have innate patience for the production process, so I understand all that goes in to producing five minutes of edited reel.
HM: What’s your favorite memory about being on Top Chef, either now or back then? How are you a different chef from the first season?
LAW: Favorite memory [from Season 1] is still the blindfolded Snackmaster Smackdown, a blindfolded junk food taste test made with highly unhealthy snacks we stole from the craft services table mocking a super hard blindfolded taste test we had as a Quickfire [challenge] earlier that day. It was a bit of levity we had after a long day of filming. Mind you, when we were shooting the first season, the production company was still hammering out the kinks of shooting a show like that, which hadn’t been done before. So it was a ton of hurry up and wait, beyond having to ask permission for everything, like going to the bathroom or having a soda. Being sequestered without a phone, TV and internet is not easy for anyone who’s old enough to vote. These days production is a well-oiled machine and the contestants have a ton of small luxuries we did not have on Season 1, which I fondly refer to as “walking uphill barefoot in the snow to set.” In 12 years, I’ve come a long way as a chef and industry professional. Let’s just say I’ve matured and aged like a nice whiskey.
HM: You filmed this back in May when you were four-months pregnant. How has your life changed now that you’re a mom?
LAW: I celebrated my 40th birthday with friends and family and then flew out the next day to film in Denver. Baby Rye is officially four weeks old. I had a crazy four days of labor, which ended up in a cesarean section, so I’m on doctor’s orders for six weeks of bed rest, which is impossible for someone like me. My recovery has been good, and I’m moving around a little bit these days. I’m still working remotely from home, checking emails, planning events, ordering, scheduling. So other than the fact that I’m not standing in the kitchen, I’m still involved with Koko Head Café as much as I can be in between breastfeeding and diaper changes. As Rye gets bigger and more mobile and stays awake longer, I’ll need to figure out how to balance work and tending to my little one.
HM: What’s the best part about being a mom?
LAW: I didn’t think I could feel so much love for another living creature. It really is what everyone talks about and more, that moment when you first lay eyes on your baby. The way he has that fresh baby smell, the first time he smiles, even when he cries. I love this little human so much, which is a testament to the love between my fiancé and myself. We are looking forward to every little moment of watching him grow and evolve!
HM: What are you most excited to feed your baby?
LAW: Poi. Kalo. Everything organic and farm-fresh blended in my Vitamix. I ate pretty much everything while he was in womb. So it’ll be fun to see what he likes and dislikes as he starts to eat solid food.
Watch Last Chance Kitchen here.