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‘Top Chef’ Runner-up: “When I'm Cooking, I'm Happy”

We interview a chef who made it to the finals, but not to the top.

Lisa Fernandes

Lisa Fernandes was vindicated
by her appearance in the finals.Photo courtesy of Bravo.

What did you think of last night’s episode? I thought it was one of the best episodes yet. It was all about the food, and that’s what it should be about: food and cooking.

Did you like working with April Bloomfield?
April is amazing. I love the Spotted Pig. She’s very similar to me — she’s a bit goofy, and she’s a strong female in the kitchen. I had a blast working with her.

Why were you so much calmer than Richard and Stephanie?
I cook best when I’m happy and calm. When you’re flustered or frustrated, it really comes out in your food — people can taste that. I’m all about having a good time in the kitchen: smiling, goofing off a little bit, and just enjoying what I’m doing. If I’m cooking the ‘meal of a lifetime,’ I want to be relaxed and in a good mood and have fun doing it.

What was your biggest mistake?
My $100,000 mistake? I would have cooked the beef more.

Did you taste it?
I tasted it several times and I thought it was delicious, but everybody’s palates are different. If Tom and Padma are both saying, “I wish you would have cooked that beef more,” then the bottom line is I should have cooked it more.

Were you surprised to see Richard stumble?
Most definitely. Richard is a brilliant chef. I’m not really sure why it happened, but he had too much going on in his head. It affected his cooking.

Do you think you should have won?
Of course I would have loved to be the winner. If there was anyone in this competition I was willing to lose to, it was Stephanie, and only Stephanie. I admire her as a person, she’s a brilliant chef, she’s fun to be around, and we talk all the time. I’m very happy for her. Second place next to Stephanie is not as good as winning, but it’s okay with me.

Did making it to the finals vindicate you?
Absolutely. I can even quote Stephanie directly: “Before the finale I thought you were a really good chef and I totally love your personality, but after that meal you cooked on the finale I’m so proud of you, I think you’re a brilliant chef, and I think you redeemed yourself.” The food showcased my flavors, my cooking, my personality, and you got to see how I am in the kitchen. That’s really me, and I’m glad that finally got to come out on the show.

How did you manage to stay motivated when you were facing elimination so much?
You have to think to yourself, I’m going to come back stronger and better and I’m going to take the criticisms that they give me and I’m going to implement them. For example, that mango sticky rice in Restaurant Wars. Padma wanted to throw that plate at my face she hated it so much. Then I come back in the finale — having listened to her critiques and Anthony Bourdain’s — with the best dessert, which was a variation of mango sticky rice.

How do you like working at Mai House?
I’ve been having a blast. I love cooking Vietnamese food. The staff there is fantastic. Drew [Nieporent] is awesome. I get to work with Vietnamese food and ingredients that I like to play around with. When I’m cooking, I’m happy.

Are you happy the show’s over?
It’s nice to no longer say, “Watch what happens!” I was doing it until 9:45 last night. As I was running out of work to go watch it, people were asking me who won. It does feel good to no longer have to keep a secret and lie to friends. It’s a big weight off my shoulders. —Michael Alan Connelly

Read more interviews, recaps, comments, and lists in Grub Street's complete coverage of Top Chef.

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