Photo: Kelsey McNeal / Bravo
Despite being edged out by a measly half star, Toronto's Susur Lee and Las Vegas based chef Rick Moonen clearly brought their "A game" throughout the entire second season of Top Chef Masters. Lee served up gorgeous plates of Asian fusion with a classical twist, and Moonen utilized his knowledge of seafood as the foundation for whatever challenges the show presented.
On the season finale, the chefs were asked to cook their life stories -- Lee, following his origins with his father in Hong Kong and Moonen returning to his Queens, New York, roots. Lee's final plate was an artistic display of lamb thailandaise with chang mai sausage; Moonen went with venison, an attempt to persuade the judges to rethink him as just a chef who sleeps with the fishes.
Any of the final three could have won -- and while Lee and Moonen fell short of the prize, they provided season two with more humor than any of the other contestants -- something they'll surely be remembered for, going forward.
Slashfood caught up with Lee and Moonen about the final challenge, how Top Chef Masters helps their career and whether the judges got things right.
Describe how you were feeling when the final vote came out?
SL: Right away, when I knew I lost, I thought about what I could do better. What things that I could do differently. I was reviewing my dishes. That was the only thing that was in my mind: okay, if I was in my restaurant, how would I do it that would be better. Be perfect. Having a challenge, you have to accept a loss or accept winning. At that point, I tried not to be completely bummed out or anything else. It was such a great show, I did so many great things. I was extremely happy.
RM: I was disappointed and proud to only be a half star off, to be honest with you. It was a tough decision. To get that far and lose by a half point. But look at the year before. I got booted off so I got the chance to be in every episode of the second season and I kicked butt. I had a great time. I wanted to hit that $100,000. My ego...eh, slightly bruised. But I don't take myself that seriously. But I am competitive.
What would you have changed in the end about your final dishes?
SL: Some critics say that the tuna could have been thinner, yes. More acidity, or more wasabi. Or make things crispier. Those are my only answers. The bottom line, I still lost at that point.
RM: They were solid! No, I wouldn't change a thing. Those gnocchi's weren't tough. Everyone judges a gnocchi against a potato gnocchi which is soft and gushy and light and airy and all this stuff. No. This was supposed to have a contrast in texture. To be told it was tough or something. That was slightly maddening.
The last challenge was to cook your life story. Was that an emotional challenge?
SL: It wasn't like the last minute, we share our emotion. For me, it was from the beginning, I'm showing my emotion through food. It's just gearing up to the end. That was like the last straw.
RM: Yeah. I was emotional last night. But I didn't get to see the show. There was a big party going on my restaurant and I was on Skype. I missed a lot of it. But the end of it all, the emotional part was all the support people were giving me.
Did you think the judges got things right throughout the series?
SL: They were very knowledgeable. I have very high respect for all of them. Sometimes, it's no different than being a chef. A lot of great comments and very worth to use. Sometimes we just know our food so it's interesting to hear them talk about our food in different languages. I learned a lot actually.
RM: Yes. I think they did. Now, they're judges. That's the greatest part of these things. On Top Chef Masters, the chefs talk back to the judges. With your whole life, you read with baited breath, your reviews. They used to mean so much. They could make or break you, New York Times three star reviews. It's like winning the lottery, truly. Your business explodes. Or that once sentence that says your broccoli is tired, it's with you forever. We're chefs. We're uber-critical of ourselves.
Throughout the series, what was the hardest aspect for you?
SL: It was almost 1:30 or 2 in the morning. We'd been cooking all day. We were a little bit tired, mentally and physically. Then they said, "tomorrow we're going to meet you in the lobby at 7." I thought it was a joke but they meant it. Now they really want to break us down, physically. You need sleep, you need focus. I think that was one time that I remember so well. Just give us some sleep, you know?
RM: Physical. Unbelievable. Listen dude, you'd get home late. I'm in good shape. But that "wedding wars" thing. Holy smokes, I thought I was going to die. I burned the heck out of my hand. They didn't really show that, but I get back to my room, I'm bandaging my knuckles and I have to get back up in a couple hours. My biggest fear was that I was going to go blind. Asked a question and just be in la-la land. Luckily, that didn't happen.
How does Top Chef Masters help your career going forward?
SL: It's just a beginning. It's brought me a lot of business and a lot more opportunities. I'm looking forward to seeing what's going on. I have customers that walk in with just their suitcases. They'd just landed. I got a lot of attention and it massaged my ego a lot [laughs].
RM: It opens the doors like you wouldn't believe. Television equals business. Bravo has a cult following. For me, being so close to L.A. in Vegas, I've really appreciated an incredible increase in business. I think May was the biggest growth month than any of the previous year, since I've opened my restaurant.
Can you tell me how you chose your particular charity?
SL: My whole family are tennis players. My son has a scholarship in the states for tennis. Those things are close to my mind. Right away, we wanted to do the Andre Agassi Foundation.
RM: I've always been supportive of hunger related charities. I came out to Vegas, and there's this food bank, Three Square. I love children and the next generation have all the opportunities to save the world. That's my ulterior motive. To save the world.