From Fashion Student to Food Icon: An Interview with Chef Lee Anne Wong

By: Michele Wolfson

I knew I liked Chef Lee Anne Wong when I read that she says she's the kind of gal who wakes up in the morning thinking about what she is going to have for dinner because I can relate! She started out studying fashion at FIT but changed paths to study food at FCI. One reason she's inspirational is because when she realized she didn't like working in the field of fashion, instead of becoming discouraged, she never gave up on herself and it ended up paying off.

Lee Anne Wong knows a thing or two about the food industry and as a result she has been able to maintain a successful career combining food and show business. Many of us became fans of her during the first season of Top Chef, where she landed a spot in the sought-after final four grouping. In a predominantly male dominated industry, female chefs are unfortunately still an exception, but women like Chef Lee Anne Wong are moving to stake their claim as some of the best out there. We want to congratulate Chef Wong for being a female chef who has paved the way for other female chefs and has created delicious food.

Check out our interview with the chef where you'll get her advice to chef novices, find out that Marcus knew her way back when, and more!

When did you decide that you wanted to become a chef?

I originally came to NYC right after high school to pursue a career in fashion design. By the time I figured out that I no longer enjoyed that industry, I had begun cooking for my friends, as a hobby. I was maybe 21. I had worked in restaurants as a waitress/bartender since I was 15, so it was a natural progression to go into another creative field in an environment I was already fairly comfortable in. My friends were the ones who suggested I go to culinary school.

Your first job in the culinary world was at Aquavit with Marcus Samuelsson. Can you tell us a little bit about what that was like?

About 2 months into my schooling at FCI (I took the Culinary Career program Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights) I quit my job as a bartender to work full time in a kitchen. I went to the Career Services Department at FCI to find out about internships and they gave me a list of places and chefs to call. I had heard of Aquavit, and called and left a message asking if they were hiring and if I could come trail for a day. Surprisingly, Marcus called me back himself. We had a brief conversation and then the next day I came in to work my first day at Aquavit.

I spent almost 2 1/2 years with Marcus and Nils Noren. In that time I learned a wealth of culinary knowledge from the both of them. I worked all of the stations and eventually they put me in the cafe upstairs, and allowed me to create the weekly menu specials, which is a big deal for a young cook. One of the more important lessons I learned while at Aquavit was camaraderie. I'll never forget my time there, so many great memories.

How would you describe your style of cuisine? What inspired that?

My style is globally-inspired. I was trained in classical French technique, worked with chefs like Marcus, Jean George, and Jacques Pepin, and have had the opportunity to cook all over the world. Right now my focus is on Japanese cuisine, paired with French technique.

Who has been a mentor to you over the years?

Marcus and Nils are a constant source of inspiration, Nils especially since I had the pleasure of working with him for several years at The French Culinary Institute. Andre Soltner is a long-standing hero of mine; the time I spent with him over 6 years at FCI is priceless.

What are some of your favorite culinary appliances in the kitchen that you can't live without?

My Vitamix blender, the food processor, and the immersion recirculator. Of course I can survive without all three. They just make my life easier.

What are your top three favorite ingredients to use?

That's a crazy question. Favorite as in what I use everyday: good sea salt, good olive oil, and lemons.

Favorite as in over indulgent menu: Mangalitsa pork, caviar, and real Kobe beef.

How has being on Top Chef changed your life?

I was at the very beginning of what became a pop culture icon as a contestant, and then helped to build it to an Emmy Award winning show as its Culinary Producer for 4 years. I got to live all over the country, work with hundreds of chefs, contestants and judges alike, and help create a top rated culinary competition show. I learned a whole new side of the business where now I am in demand as a producer and food stylist.

You are on the Cooking Channel's "Unique Eats", what are your criteria for choosing a favorite restaurant?

We are always looking for Unique/special dishes, restaurant concepts, or cooking techniques. It really could be anything, depending on what the episode is about. What's so cool about contributing to this show has been the traveling and actually meeting the people behind the food. For me personally, a successful eat just has be delicious. Let's start with that and go from there.

What is some advice that you would give to a beginner in the kitchen?

Let's see... Lee Anne's proverbs for the beginning cooks:

  1. Cooking is a craft, a lifetime of learning, you're not going learn it overnight. It's all about repetition, practice. The more you do it, the better you'll get.
  2. Use all your senses. If something smells like it's burning, there's probably something burning. Taste what you're cooking. Don't be afraid of salt!
  3. Don't give up. I have had some monumentally bad days in the kitchen. The beauty of cooking is you always get to try again.

Photo: World to Table 

Michele Wolfson is a graduate of The Natural Gourmet Institute and is passionate about all areas of food, from writing about it, to photographing, growing, cooking, and consuming it. A vegetarian since she was seven years old, Michele knows the ins and outs of enjoying a healthy vegetarian lifestyle in Manhattan, which she writes about for Examiner.com as its Manhattan Vegetarian Examiner.

For more exciting interviews, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)