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3-Course Interview: Shirley Chung 

Sarah Baird talks to the Top Chef alumnus about cooking with Leah Chase

Chef Shirley Chung is the owner of Chung Lee Consulting, a culinary consulting company in Las Vegas, and was a contestant on Top Chef Season 11 in New Orleans. She will cook alongside other female celebrity chefs at the second annual Edgar "Dooky" Chase Jr. and Leah Chase Family Foundation gala fundraiser Saturday, June 14, at the Hyatt Regency New Orleans. Chung spoke with Gambit about her Top Chef experience and why cooking in Leah Chase's kitchen made her tear up.

What were some of your favorite New Orleans experiences while filming Top Chef?

Chung: Last year when I found out I was going to New Orleans for Top Chef, I was super excited. It was my first time in the city even though it has always been on my "must visit" list. New Orleans really embraced us as visiting chefs and welcomed us with open arms — people in the city really understand that food is art. Everywhere we visited we would have such a great time, and at every event or competition talking to local New Orleanians was the best part.

  New Orleans is one place where I feel like, genuinely, every single person is a foodie. It's not only because of the big, bold flavors in the dishes, but it's because New Orleans is home to the first "fusion" (I know that's a dirty word for a lot of chefs these days) cuisine where all the cultures kind of mashed together into these Creole flavors. It's a true American cuisine.

  At the finale, watching Chef Emeril (Lagasse) cook and how his team worked together was pretty great, but almost every single experience in New Orleans was memorable.

What was it like to cook in Leah Chase's kitchen?

C: First off, it's amazing that Chef Leah has a station in her kitchen to this day. It was great to peek into her life a little bit and see what she has on her station, on her desk, in the kitchen and what she's working on.

  I'm a female chef, so I always respect and admire other female chefs, but with Chef Chase it was really special because the love she gave us was unbelievable. When we walked into her kitchen to start cooking, the challenge that day was a "family challenge" so we were all pretty homesick and emotional anyway. When I saw her, I felt such warmth from her and she reminded me of my grandmother. I remember pretty much everyone was sitting there crying because it was amazing to watch the connection she has with her staff and kitchen. It was such an honor.

When you come back for the gala, are there any New Orleans dishes you want to try again?

C: Since we were filming during Top Chef, we couldn't really explore on our own. I really want to have Chef Chase's gumbo again since she's the queen of gumbo and I haven't gotten to eat it in her restaurant. I also really want to visit our fellow contestant Justin Devillier at his restaurant La Petite Grocery. He said he already has a menu ready for us when we get there. I'm just excited about wandering around on Bourbon Street without our coordinator telling us where to go next. — SARAH BAIRD

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