FOOD NETWORK CONFESSIONS EPISODE #8
TRUE LIFE RECOLLECTIONS: Episode #8
And the “behind the scenes” scoop continues…
Yeah. OK. Yeah. Ummm….wow.
It’s hard to say how wild it was to completely re-experience the result again. In the immortal words of Maxwell Smart… “Missed it by THAT much.”
And as best as I can guess… “THAT” factor, was oil that wasn’t hot enough when I went to fry my Beet Chips. I remember thinking as I dropped them in, “Oooh…that didn’t bubble the way it is supposed to.” And when the clock was running out, and I pulled them from the oil…they were chewy. Fuck. Not that CRISP we were going for.
Now the rest of that dish, Seared Scallops, Leeks, Ginger Juice Vinaigrette… was one of the best dishes I’ve ever plated. I mean it. That was so refined, elegant, sophisticated, difficult…beautiful. The wonderful flavor of the fried beets was condensed and sweet…but chewy damnit. Fuck. But time is up – no chance to re-fry. My heart was in my stomach, and after competing for 8 episodes…I got hit with a wave of dizzy exhaustion.
Also just the day before, I had flown back to California to arrive at 3am, only to be awakened at 6am by the Food Network Executive Producer Liz asking if I could please come back to pinch hit for an ailing Lisa? What?….HELL YEAH!!! Drove like a bat out of hell to LA to catch a flight back to NY to arrive at 3am, and head to set a few hours later at 8am for my Pinch-Hit against top seed Anna. Hey I was STOKED to be back! And as I shared last week, and if you watched the show – I won that pinch-hitter elimination challenge with freakin’ Pheasant! Yes!
But then we moved immediately RIGHT into the final episode. No break. Gimmie another RED BULL MARINA! (*more on that)
Immediately the Mentor’s had a challenge, then we had the 3-way battle with Zoe and Natasha and I, then boom right into the finals against MY personal pick as Top Seed since day one – Natasha. I knew how much of a bad-ass Natasha was. I mean…talented and fierce. We had a conversation one night after a great deal of wine, where we each confessed we thought the other would be in the final ;) and there we were…
At the get go…I out was out of sync. Right at the start when we ran to the pantry and fridge – the lid of my Panko crumbs popped-off – all over my scallops. Boom – stop down and wash scallops. I just never…felt in the groove on that round. Didn’t help to have Alex pointing it out again and again, “Lee where are you – gotta get in your groove – what are you doing?” But…come on…I play sports. Shut up brain – listen to your coach. Breathe. Just keep going. And Alex talked me through something so fucking ambitious… OH SHIT I HAVEN’T FIRED THE SCALLOPS AND THERE IS ONLY 5 MINUTES!…
So in the final moments, of the final battle, Alex takes her 60 second help buzzer to help me plate as I sear the scallops. She whips through the kitchen tasting elements and starting the plating. My hands are shaking as I bring the searing hot scallops in my bare hands. Curtis is saying to me, “Are you gonna make it Lee?” Alex’s 60 seconds are up and she’s still trying to milk a few extra seconds out of her time as the set A.D. is saying, “You gotta clear out Alex.” And as the clock is counting down 10, 9, 8… I literally was throwing elements AT the plate not placing them delicately… and when the buzzer went off… I literally “discovered” that I had 3 complete plates there. Whoa. That “out of body” experience did not happen the entire competition – until that moment. And then within seconds…I got a sinking feeling…
This is a totally strange cooking environment. Because during a 45 minute competition, you do of course taste every layer and element, but not the complete dish in one combined bite. You simply don’t know what the “whole” bite tastes like. I was feeling pretty darn shaken. And when I looked over to Natasha – aw fuck – she and Robert are dancing and throwing high fives.
Curtis likes…and makes…the kinda food I just made. And so…as I collect myself…I tasted a spare scallop… dipped it in the vinaigrette… sprinkled some leeks on it… hmmm…. I’ll be damned… its reallly goooood.
I looked at my plate – it DID belong on a cookbook cover. Holy crap how did that happen? (Alex) I looked over at Natasha’s plate – beautiful in it’s own right but a bigger bolder N’awlins plate. Hmmm….Curtis is one of those guys who cooks with tweezers…I may have a chance here…
And here is the thing… I KNOW I have a damn good palette. I know my wines and my flavor combinations. I’ve been around a few blocks in my years. And damnit if my plate doesn’t TASTE amazing. I go back stage…get some water and something to eat for blood sugar…breathe. Look at our plates of food on the monitors as they are getting photographed…hmm… Pull your head out of your ass Lee – you’ve got a chance here.
Moment of Truth – tasting. Curtis steps up, and I go right ahead and sell it with all the confidence I can. Curtis…here is my heart and best on a plate…hope you enjoy. And he puts a perfect bite on his fork and…
Slow motion time again….Curtis makes the “Yummy” face. Holy shit I’ve got a REALLY good chance.
He is so complimentary about it. He describes all the notes I’m tasting in it. The heat of the Ginger is just right. He’s loving it. The scallop is cooked to perfection he says…
“But… the beets are not as crispy as I would like them to be.” Shit. There it is. Curtis goes over to Natasha’s side of the kitchen…
Here’s the thing… we’re just out of earshot enough to not really know what is being said. All I know is, Natasha and Robert are clearly happy with their dish.
This is gonna be close.
Now… I’m a competitor. I want to win at everything I do. I also am honestly someone who does NOT root AGAINST people. If Natasha beats this awesome dish? …which is one of the best things I have ever made? …she deserves it. Period. Won’t mean I’ll “like” it! But I tell you something else – skill set wise – Natasha IS better than I am. Period.
You know how when you see a great athlete or dancer just out playing a pick-up game or fooling around on a dance floor at a wedding – like not even in their “pro” environment – and all it takes is about 2 steps and you go, “OH…there’s the real thing right there.” They oooze their gift. In college I was literally at the Olympic Training Facility for my sport, but my roommate was one of those amazing African-American UCLA Track Gods…like…OLYMPIAN. It is a truly humbling experience to be awesome at something…and then “FREAKISHLY GIFTED” walks in the room.
That was Natasha on day one.
I saw her MOVE across the kitchen and said to myself – there’s the competition right there. To the rest of the Magnificent 9 – I love the hell out of y’all and Anna you were top seed very early. But there was a power coming from Natasha that told me, “The only way this one isn’t winning it all – is if she falls down.” And Natasha my dear…Lord knows you did have your share of it during the competition! Ha! Wooo! But in the end, all your battling, all your bouncing into elimination round after elimination round…what happened was you just got soaked in Marinade. The audience fell in love with your passion and heart. Robert fell in love with ya too. And my dear Natasha – when it mattered most – in the very final round – you plated your very best dish of the competition. I literally stand, bow, and tip my hat to you.
So…the final verdict…
I’m standing there saying to myself, “Be graceful either way Lee. Don’t jump up OR fall down.” I looked to Alex who was so worried about me. I gave her a wink and a shoulder squeeze to let her know that, I was OK. Curtis draws out the result…….building the drama…… “And the winner is……”
Slow motion. Clarity. 3 seconds before he says it – I know it. Clear as day.
“Good for you – you deserve it.” ran through my mind. Honestly. First clear cold thought.
I’m glad to see on TV that I handled it with grace and heart. I choked up – but I didn’t lose myself. And wow…what a beautiful outpouring of support I received on Facebook and Twitter and personal Texts and emails. Thank you so very very sincerely for all of your kind words. Thank you to all of those of you from my High School days who said, “That’s the Lee we know and love. A gentleman.” Thank you for new friends I’ve never met in person who had such inspirational things to share with me. Thank you to the ASA Kitchen Culinary staff who gave me applause backstage and told me they had tasted and loved every dish I made. Thank you – EVERYBODY.
Natasha I am so damn proud of you. Your exact strength is your Achilles heel. I know – because it is mine too. It is our children. Everyone could see how much this meant to us – because of them. It is also the mechanism that could make either of us try “too” hard and blow it. (You know you went there during a few rounds sister and so did I!) But in the final round – you absolutely found your stride. You have a beautiful food future Natasha. Hell you MAKE beautiful food. And I’m gonna do whatever I personally can to insure that ASA was not the last time America sees you on Food Television. Hell I can hardly wait to cook WITH you someday.
Me… Lets just say that Monday was a tough day. The kids were with their Mom that weekend so…I finished off the night very alone. $50,000 would have solved a WORLD of worry that’s for sure. The week was back to “regular work”. Nobody came knocking on my door with any follow-up opportunities. It was just…over. Quietly inside…the day after the final show aired was a tough one. I totally relived…”handling it”…all over again.
*And now a side-bar. It would be incredibly remiss of me not to pay tribute to our wonderful Set PA Marina Skylar. The first person I met was my fellow competitor, and now dear friend Anna in the lobby of our hotel on day 1. The second person I met – or should I say beaming smile I met – was Marina. She is who walked us the few blocks to set every morning. She is who got us packets of Emergen-C, or Red Bulls for me because I knew I needed the caffeine but didn’t want to plaster my taste buds with coffee. She was the first person to meet us as we walked off set. For all of us she probably was the first hug we got when we were eliminated. She was the first hug I got when I came back. She was the one to tell me, “Everyone is so good Lee but I always want to taste your dishes.” We shared MANY a laugh – and even a few tears. Marina is one of my best memories of the entire experience. My fellow competitors and I refer to our group as “The Magnificent 9” Well…we just may be 10.
Because Heaven got another Angel – and we lost one. Marina we love you. And yeah…I didn’t “Win”. But I’m still here on planet Earth heading back into the ring while you are flying in Spirit. And your loved ones are here…missing you. What do I have to complain about. Thank you for touching my life. Maybe your wings helped keep my head up a bit.
And Tuesday… I was a little better. And Wednesday…aw fuck the pitty party…I started banging on doors myself! I ain’t done! I got plans of my own! Lets go people! Who wants to see more of this Santa Barbara Style cookin’ from this California Soul!
Magnificent 10 I love you! Alex Guarnaschelli you are in-fucking-credible. Lisa Washington my Team Sister you are forever in my heart. Natasha Clement you bad ass you deserve it and I’m proud to have stood in the ring with you.
Everyone else… THANK YOU.
Now…is there one more glass in the bottom of this bottle of Pinot?…..