Five minutes with... Chef Lee Anne Wong

Updated: 16 Apr 2013
Five minutes with... Chef Lee Anne Wong

The former Top Chef contestant was in KL to cook up a six-course storm at the Hennessy X.O Appreciation Grows dinner. We sit down with the chef to talk about her climb up the ladder and pairing cognac with food.

Your love for food was found when you were studying fashion.
I didn’t learn how to cook till I was 21. I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 15 doing bartending and waitressing. I was a professional seamstress at the time but I fell out of love with fashion. I started watching Food Network and I would go make my own lunch at the restaurant or cook for my friends. So I went to French Culinary Institute in NYC and it just changed my life.

Did everything you cook come out perfect then?
That’s what so amazing about this career, you’re constantly learning. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

When you started cooking for your friends, was there something you cooked in particular that sparked your decision to go pro?
One year I was living at my friend’s couch and I decided to cook everybody this big New Year’s dinner. I went online and I got these recipes, and that was the year my friends said I needed to go to culinary school.

What did you cook?
I did this really elaborate version of quail with carbonara sauce and homemade sausage and a warm salad. It was good, but when I think back, I had a lot to learn.

Is there an ideal age for someone to pursue food as a career?
First of all, you’re never too old. Knowing how to cook for yourself is a life skill. So no, you’re never too old. But if we’re talking about working in a professional kitchen, it’s definitely a young man’s game. But the food industry is so big nowadays; you don’t have to go into the kitchen. You can go into food journalism, photography, culinary media and production, be an entrepreneur, product development. So you don’t have to literally stand in a hot kitchen for five years.

You’ve worked with Ferran Adria and the likes at the French Culinary Institute. What was the most important thing you took away from them?
You’re never good enough, there’s always somebody better waiting in line. Just when you think you’re satisfied and you’re at your best, there’s somebody waiting to take your place.

That’s comforting.
No, but it keeps you on your toes [laughs]. You can’t be complacent as a chef.

What have you learned from the series of Hennessy dinners?
I’ve learned what it’s like to cook in a 110 degree kitchen [laughs]. I was really excited about the challenge. I had to think about the flavour profile of Hennessy X.O. This is a spirit normally thought of as an aperitif or an after-dinner cocktail, and now it’s taking good flavours with food. I had to think very carefully about the journey of the diner from the first bite to the last bite, and making sure we didn’t repeat any flavours.

When infusing Hennessy into food, what sort of flavours were you looking for?
When you taste the Hennessy, you sort of get the grape and raisin, but also the tobacco, caramel, leather and smokiness. Unlike most cognacs, this is only 40 percent alcohol, and so this is quite palatable and smooth. It was quite simple when I think about the flavours that characterise Hennessy, but some flavours also run counter. An example was the grapefruit dessert with Hennessy-infused whipped cream, you wouldn’t think Hennessy would go with such tart flavours, but it does. Surekha Ragavan

For more info about Hennessy, visit www.hennessy.com. To learn about cognac, see our feature.