20 July - Alongside "Top Chef"s

Top Chef is the number one show in our household. I commented so on my Facebook status months ago and rhetorically asked who might be eliminated next. As the responses started pouring in, my friend Brian in Chicago asked, "So you really like this show? I'm friends with Stephanie Izard's sister." Stephanie, as you will recall, is the winner from Season 4. America's “Girl Next Door,” also the show's first female winner who won against Lisa and Richard in Puerto Rico. With my culinary benefit for Hunger Task Force this week, Brian asked if he might introduce us; perhaps she might be available to help. We started emailing, and though Stephanie was unfortunately booked, she asked if I might be interested in working on one of her charities, Chicago's premiere "Chefs and the City." Um, let me think. Why, yes.

I walked in to the beautiful Peninsula Hotel on State Street. Thought of all the questions I would ask and was hoping to have a sitdown discussion. Nope. Was not the type of venue or vibe. So I decided to soak it all in and talk as we go. I walked in with a black sleeveless tee, fitted black corset skirt, peep toe tangerine and cream platforms. Stephanie and her sous chefs looked at me a bit funny and said hello. They were dressed in tee shirts and jeans. Nice. Forgot to ask the dress code. But with a $250 ticket, raised center stage fashion reveals and an Oprah/Nate Berkus auction package starting at $10,000, I felt confident knowing I fell somewhere in between, wardrobe-wise.

Stephanie was as cool and relaxed as she was on the tele. We chatted some and I asked how she handles the fame. She said, "I don't even think of [the title of] Top Chef much anymore. I just want to focus on opening my own restaurant." Stephanie has been keeping busy with eight different charities, traveling and preparing for her new place, "The Drunken Goat." Lately, she has been cooking two to three private dinners per week. I asked how she decided on the dish for today. "I'm not much of a planner. See this printed menu? This isn't what I'm making because I forgot this is what I told them. I've never made this dish before, but hopefully the flavors will come together." She doesn't plan too far ahead because she is inspired by what she might find that day, like the ingredients found today at Green City Market which will serve as one of her favorites, salsa verde. The final dish? A miso-marinated lamb, with fingerling potatoes and scallions, served over a salsa verde and topped with fried crisp onions, preserved lemon and goat milk feta.

As I quietly hovered in my shyness, one of her sous chefs was chopping parsley. She turned to me and introduce herself. "I'm Lee Ann." We exchanged pleasantries and I asked how long she had been cooking. "Well, I have been a chef for 11 years and was the Executive Chef at the French Culinary Institute in New York City." Oh. A neophyte. I was a bit embarrassed. I kept looking at her face, wondering how I knew her. Was she a friend's cousin? Were we related...I couldn't place it. I asked, "How do you know Stephanie?" She replied, "Through the show. I was on Season One then consulted on the show for four years." I flipped out and asked, "LEE ANN WONG?!" We loved her! She was polished, professional, every dish was well thought out. She smiled this beautiful smile and said, "Yep. No one recognizes me. I lost a ton of weight. Something I'm really proud of, actually." She looked gorgeous.

We talked about her diet regimen, her family background and being an executive on the show. Lee Ann initially began in fashion at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology.) She was a successful sample maker but found the classes no longer matched what she had envisioned. So one day she was watching the one cable channel she and her roommate received in their tiny New York apartment -- Food Network. "This was the old Food Network, we're talking when Emeril Lagasse first came on." Her friends always encouraged her to cook, so she enrolled in the French Culinary Institute. She later became the Executive Chef and represented her school on the very first season of Top Chef. "I knew I'd be on national television representing my school, so I had to put my best face forward. They were ironing out the kinks, having us sit in the car for hours while they filmed...." She JUST recently watched the episode where she was bumped. "It was painful to watch." I asked what she learned. "To simplify my food. I never had my work critiqued like that before. Being an Executive Chef at a culinary school, everyone is telling you what you want to hear." Lee Ann then joined the executive team to help shape the successful show it has become. After four years of offering her perspective as a contestant, coupled with her knowledge of from The Culinary Institute, she left Bravo after filming Season 6. "It's amazing what I've done in 12 years, working with greats like Jacque Pepin. I'm just taking it easy now. I'll probably open up my own restaurant in a year or two."

I scanned the room and walked around to ask questions about this charity. Vital Bridges is a non-profit organization that serves those impacted by HIV and AIDS. They provide meals, housing, case management and prevention services to over 10,000 clients since its inception in 1988. This event, "Chefs and the City" showcases Executive Chefs from 20 of Chicago's finest -- Spiaggia, Naha, Blackbird, RL Restaurant, The Publican. Radhika Desai from Top Chef's Season 5 was stationed next to us, as she and Stephanie were representing Allen Brothers, a top supplier of beef. In preparing for an event like this, with 300 projected attendees, the three explained they prepared everything yesterday, with finishing touches today.

With an hour before service time and confidently prepared, we headed to the bar. I was able to catch up with Stephanie's sous chef David, who came from the well-known Spiaggia. After his 16-month-old daughter was born, he and his wife decided to switch careers. David became the stay-at-home dad, while his wife went back to work in the medical supply industry. After five months of bonding with his daughter Ramona, David said he gained such an appreciation for what stay-at-home parents do. It is true work. And after understanding he needed something for himself, he re-entered the culinary world with Stephanie's new restaurant, "The Drunken Goat," scheduled to open in 2010.

After a group shot, the chefs began cooking and preparing their dishes. The distinct aromatic smells started filling the room as marinated proteins hit the hot grills. I took a moment to soak this in...our nonchalant conversations, the ambient sounds of chatter and silverware clanging, professional chefs paying respects to one another. It was funny standing next to Lee Ann and Stephanie. On the tele, they look larger than life. Standing next to them, they were shorter, if not as tall as I was -- a mere 5'2". To think... these accomplished individuals lead relatively normal lives, or at least have taken extraordinary experiences and let them simmer inside and have stayed true to who they are. Just seemingly unpretentious personalities. What a privilege to be invited to spend a day getting to know each of them.

As the guests began to arrive, I started plating. It was pretty much head down and working for the next two hours. It was neat to work as a team. Where one was slowing, the other picked up. I started with a dollup of the homemade salsa verde; to follow is Lee Ann's diced fingerling potatoes. The next was David's seared miso-marinated lamb. Last was Stephanie's fried onion crisp with preserved lemon and goat milk feta. One would think plating the salsa verde was easy enough... Uh.. no... As I intensely tried following instructions, Steph joked, touching the plate, "uh...could you please make them more similar?" Halfway through service, I was starting to get sloppy and Lee Ann kindly reminded me, "Maybe half that size would be enough." We helped each other out, quietly and diligently, while Stephanie tended to her guests. It is funny to hear the banter of people telling Steph she was their favorite contender. She treated everyone as though they were old friends. I asked Lee Ann if was strange that no one recognizes her. She says, "Not at all. I am so over it," while she enjoyed dancing and laughing with David, grilling and slicing the lamb.

As some guests waited and were sneaking in taking a plate, I jumped in and greeted them to represent Stephanie. Told them of the dish she prepared and felt a part of their team. She looked at me and laughed, "Look at you!" The whole point is to make sure the head chef can do her job with ease. Guests did not slow...everyone said this was their favorite dish by far, coming back for thirds and fourths... I don't blame them, as I tried it myself. I never considered myself a lamb person, unless it was 3am at Oakland Gyros or Madison's Parthenon’s. But this was incredible. She wasn't sure if all the flavors would come together??? They most certainly did.

As the night came to a close and we stepped outside to unwind with a cocktail, we were a bit exhausted. Lee Ann and I talked about some of the interesting characters from the show, like Dale who punched a wall and hyper Andrew. She was just with Harold the other night and explained she flew in to help Steph for the weekend. Sunday would be the kickoff of Stephanie's concept "Wandering Goat Dinner Series," where she prepares meals for 40 people at different venues across Chicago until the opening of her new restaurant.

Decompressed, we all hugged and said our goodbyes. Steph asked, "Please keep in touch." Will do, Steph.