By now I’m used to seeing people I have met, even know, on television. Back during Season 4 of Top Chef, however, that was not the case. I was quite surprised when I recognized a very familiar face. Lisa Fernandes and I can both say we knew one another “way back when.” Growing up in the same small corner of suburban New York, Lisa has a sister my age who was one of my close friends. I spent many days and nights huddled around Lisa’s parents’ kitchen table. What a phenomenal kitchen it was! It’s not shocking that Lisa grew up to be a successful chef. She had all the right tools there in her own childhood kitchen, which I can still picture her sitting on the counter “holding court.” She always had an attitude of business and no time to waste. These days she is holding court on her brand new food truck, Sweet Chili. The NYC mobile eatery features the Asian inspired cuisine that is her specialty. I was excited to reconnect with Lisa after all the these years and find out about Sweet Chili as well as what happens behind the scenes on Top Chef!
TBB: You and I go way way way back so it is really exciting to have our paths cross again like this. When did you first discover your culinary talents?
LF: I was in the kitchen from the age of 5 setting the table, helping clean up, and my sister and I used to play restaurant. I remember being 11 and opening my mom’s cookbook. I made cookies that were amazing, from that point on I knew. My first job was in a dirty Kosher deli where I worked 4 hours a week. Every job I’ve ever had has been at a restaurant. When I was 16 I was already a line cook and knew I wanted to go to culinary school. I am very lucky to have known from a young age exactly what I wanted to do. I honestly can’t see myself doing anything else!
TBB: How did the opportunity to be on Top Chef arise?
LF: A really good friend of mine was on the prior season and referred me, so (the producers) contacted me and told me they wanted me to be on the show. I was on vacation with my family at the time and I wasn’t interested, I didn’t want to do it. They kept calling.
TBB: The show, from a viewer’s perspective, looks like it’s quite the pressure cooker for the contestants. Describe the experience.
LF: It’s definitely intense. It’s a lot of waiting, a lot of anxiety building and trying to figure out ways to pass the time. In the kitchen is when the pressure went away, you are in your element but you have to try not to get in the way of the camera, and not to get hurt, it’s very intense!
TBB: Any favorite behind the scenes stories you’d like to share?
LF: We had some good times finding ways to cure our anxiety. We would come up with games to play like flipping bottle caps into a cup. Once we found some sidewalk chalk in the warehouse and used it to play Pictionary and got way into it!
TBB: I remember you being on the The View after Top Chef. That must have been exciting…
LF: Me, Spike, and Stephen had to do budget friendly foods for a family of 4. I got to meet Whoopi Goldberg which was mind blowing! Sherri Shepherd almost knocked me over saying “such an honor to meet you” I was like, ‘No, it’s an honor to meet YOU.’
TBB: You have a flare for combining unusual flavors, for instance your peanut butter mashed potatoes (see recipe below!) which were a big hit with the judges. How does an idea like that happen?
LF: I think it just kind of happens. I’ll be thinking abut ingredients and I’ll say to myself, ‘peanut butter’ and throw it in. Sometimes it comes out good, other times, not so good. I do like to combine things that people normally wouldn’t put together.
TBB: What advice would you give to future Top Chef contestants?
LF: Be yourself and cook what you know. Don’t try to do something you’ve never done before, stick with what is comfortable and true to your styel
TBB: You now have your own food truck business called Sweet Chili. How is that going?
LF: It’s a learning process and it can be stressful. I’m excited to have my own company. It’s my own food and my own rules, the way I envision things. I like that I get to interact with people! It’s me out on the truck everyday!
TBB: What types of items are on the menu?
LF: You choose a salad and a protein and everything is accented with my own individuality in every dish. Sweetness, saltiness and crunch….I call it Thaietmanese.
TBB: We certainly want to try it! Where can people find Sweet Chilli?
LF: You can find us at 70 Varick Street in the Lent food truck lot Tuesdays and Fridays 11am -3pm. All other days are to be announced so like us on Facebook and follow us @sweetchilinyc for all the latest updates!
3 lbs. Yukon Gold potatoes peeled and cut into chunks
1 cup half and half
1 cup milk
1/2 cup butter
1 cup natural peanut butter chunky OR 1 cup roasted peanuts and 2 tbs peanut oil (combined in food processor until chunky smooth)
Boil a pot of salted water. Add potato chunks and cook until they begin to fall apart. Drain completely and place in ricer. Run through food mill until they are smooth. Combine half and half, milk, and butter in a pot and heat until warm. Combine potatoes, milk mixture, and peanut butter. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
*Add more milk and butter for creamier potatoes