Part one of this season’s Top Chef finale saw the four remaining cheftestants packing their bags for Puerto Rico, where they faced the challenge of butchering an entire pig and making hors d’oeuvre out of it. The task took its toll on Lisa and Antonia, who faced the judges’ table for elimination. The latter was sent home for her plating decision and undercooked peas. New York’s Michael Alan Connelly spoke to her today about what held her back in this final competition and why she wept at the dinner table the next night.
Nikki commented in the episode that something wasn’t quite right with you. Did you feel off-kilter?
My restaurant, Foxtail, opened February 27, and we left for finals in April. So I was only eight weeks into my restaurant opening, and, you know, I was there. My mind was there, and my heart was there. Tom Colicchio, during one of my interviews in the kitchen, actually asked me, “Didn’t your restaurant just open?” And I was like, “Yeah, thanks for bringing that one up.” You don’t leave your baby home alone. I was still back in L.A. a little bit.
You had the concept, so what fell short for you in the end?
Well, conceptually, they disagreed with me plating everything on the same plate. When you eat at a party, the food can be shared on the same plate. Especially with the flavor profiles that I used — wheat and fiber grains, the papaya-and-mango salad with pork belly. And chef Wilo understood that. He said, “I see where you are going. I understand what you’re trying to do. But unfortunately for us, it just missed the mark,” which I respect 100 percent. And, you know, my peas fell short.
You were criticized for your plating choice and the peas, but Lisa had faulty elements in all of her dishes. Did the judges make the wrong choice?
I don’t question the judges’ choice. If I felt I was operating at 100 percent, and I felt like I was robbed, then I might be having a different conversation right now. I never have been called out for food being overcooked or on my technical skill. It was always, “Your eggs are cooked perfectly. Your steak is cooked perfectly. Your fish is cooked perfectly.” So to be called out on my technical skill was disheartening, because I pride myself on my technique. Never again in my life will I have another pigeon pea.
Was the biggest challenge for you being away from your daughter?
I’m not going to say it wasn’t hard, but I also want to instill something in my daughter: Fight for what you believe, go after your dream, and work as hard as you can to attain it. By her seeing me do something like this, it will inspire her to follow her dreams and do what she wants to do and know that she can really do it all. She can have a family at home and still work and succeed.
Do you keep in touch with anyone from the show?
I’m meeting Stephanie for lunch right now. I keep in touch with Stephanie and Nikki, and I talk to Lisa, and Richard just had a baby. I just had photos e-mailed to me of his beautiful baby, Riley. We had dinner last week, in New York at Buddakan, and I saw Gail, and we see all of them in that capacity. And definitely there are weekly phone calls with Stephanie, Nikki, and Lisa.
What did you do in Puerto Rico after you left the show?
We had this amazing dinner at Migas in Puerto Rico, and they did a six-course tasting. The chefs were so excited to have all of us there; they were just so sweet. The fifth course was pigeon peas with rice and pork sausage, and I almost fell off my chair. I thought the cameras were coming out; I thought they were playing a sick joke on me. Are you really going to tell me the dish I was just sent home for you’re actually serving to me on a tasting menu? Dale was crying; he was laughing so hard. He had to apologize to the chef because I’m hysterically crying at the table, hysterically crying, and the chef was just looking at me going, “I’m so sorry, what did I do?” And I said, “Really, it’s not your fault. My reality-TV world was just crushed yesterday.”