Stephen Lee is one of the competitors (and top three finalists) from season 6 of MasterChef on Fox. While Stephen didn’t win, he demonstrated not only his excellence as a top-notch chef and showed us a personality worthy of its own TV show. I coined a phrase I think describes Stephen well. I call him the high-strung chef. He’s wound tighter than a guitar string. His energy and personality are infectious. Watching him on MasterChef was pure joy, and I hope we see more of him in the future. The food world is in need of this crazy man.
Carl Hose: I appreciate you talking to me, Stephen. I call you the “high-strung chef.” There should be a show and a cookbook with that title. Where do you get your seemingly endless supply of energy, and is there ever a quiet, introspective Stephen Lee?
Stephen Lee: Alright, Carl, it’s my pleasure, and I am grateful for the opportunity. In regards to the endless supply of energy, I take supplements and I try to do as much in a day as I possibly can. Good reason for this is I am making up for lost time. Let me un-pack that by saying in my youth, I feel I lost some years to a reckless life. Living with my motto at the time, ‘Live fast die Young.” It’s a punk rock thang. Although there were many great years with the punk rock scene, there were also some equally not so good years. I was chasing the idea and the illusive dream of euphoria and high octane adrenaline. I am grateful that I have comparable energy as that of my younger years, and I take advantage of the energy to do as much as I can for as many people as I can. That’s my payback of my karmic debt. I have to work twice as hard as my competition in order to get the results I can be satisfied with. We all have a cross to bear and that just happens to be mine. In regards to the quiet times, I feel life is best lived with a balance for those in my life, so I make a point to sit on the coach with my family and just be with whatever is happening. It could be, for example, my granddaughter torturing me with her endless questions of why this, why that, why, why, and why. Maybe my partner /lover sit and watch our favorite show or movie from the Criterion collection, or helping my son with something he is working on for that day. The most important thing is making myself available for people around me in the hopes of creating a better life.
CH: Are you a coffee drinker? I ask that because I love coffee in general, and Starbucks particularly, but in your case, the question is even more important. I can’t imagine you on a couple of cups of java.
Stephen Lee: I do love a cup a joe in the morning, and my girlfriend and I love going to our local coffee shop, usually on a Sunday, where we spend time catching up on our week or reading the book of choice for that week. There is a rich, romantic history surrounding coffee, with so much intrinsic value. It feels good to take part in that history.
CH: How long have you been cooking and what drives your love of food?
Stephen Lee: I started cooking at about age 8, as far as I can remember. My mom was diabetic and before she died, she often was ill and was not able to cook us dinner at night. I learned how to make steak and green beans; we ate this often :). This responsibility gave me my initial understandings of how important food is to a person’s health and to the three bodies that make the individual. That is the physical body, mental body, and the emotional body. Only through the balanced health of these three bodies can a person find the best version of themselves.
CH: Local ingredients are important to you as a chef. What ingredients local to your hometown do you enjoy working with the most?
Stephen Lee: I cook seasonally and my local ingredients are varied and plentiful. I am blessed with everything from avocados to zucchini blossoms and all the lives in between. I choose foods for their optimal taste and nutrition. Glyco-nutrients is what sets local organic food apart from everything else. Nutrition has a taste that appeals to me. There is a glow to the person that eats healthy organic glyco-nutritious food. It is like a constant smile that lives within the body and reflects outward.
CH: While you seem to have a garden focus on your food, it’s clear you know how to handle proteins. What is your favorite way to cook meat? Also, what is your favorite non-meat main course?
Stephen Lee: Oh sure, I have my gardens and all the bountiful fruits of my labor, but also have experience with animal husbandry and know that only through the humane care and preservation of animals can there be a good quality product. This proper treatment is something that can be tasted. And I believe in the purity of the foods I cook and enhancing their own value by concentrating the natural flavor of the ingredient used. For me, it is all about concentrated flavors and preserving its own natural integrity. It is good to keep foods simple and clean; why mess with divine nature?
CH: I’ve always viewed food as an art. Do you believe food and cooking is as valid a means of expression as music, writing, or painting?
Stephen Lee: I believe in hard work and a pragmatic approach to life. My canvass is life itself, and everything within that sphere of influence is the painting. On the microcosmic level, each plate is as well constructed as a play and as well put together as a symphony. That is my idea of life and art. Living art is my aspiration toward a thoughtful life.
CH: I have been pushing for a Food Network or Cooking Channel show featuring you. Judging from other folks, I’m not the only one who thinks that’s a good idea. Is that something you would actually consider doing?
Stephen Lee: I am a firm believer of not getting in my own way and taking the next indicated step. So yes, I welcome all opportunities that will allow me to benefit others in whatever way I can to the best of my ability. It is always my honor to make people happy and their lives better whenever possible.
CH: Let’s get to the nitty gritty of the MasterChef show. My wife, mother-in-law, and I watched faithfully. I thought it should have been you and Derrick in the finale. That would have been poetic, given the relationship the two of you had. Before you left and Ramsay asked you who you thought would win, you didn’t choose Derrick, but at the finale you were a Derrick supporter. Why the change, and in the end, did you and Derrick develop a mutual respect for one another? When push came to shove and the two of you were forced to work together, against all odds you guys always nailed it.
Stephen Lee: Great question; sometimes I see Derrick as a younger version of myself. In my younger years I was filled with piss and vinegar until my early thirties, and that is my connection to Derrick on that emotional level. All of my rants and raves toward Derrick were and are terms of endearment. Think of it as me shaking his roots to make him stronger. I believe in Derrick, that he has the potential to be a great chef. That will not happen by people telling him how great he is. It will only come through hard work and discipline. I am here to support people in being the best version of themselves, period. And in regards to working well with Derrick, that is what the situation demanded. The point comes down to I could work with my X-wife if I have to. That train of thought is important for me to the future, and that is showing everyone respect and embracing the differences that lie within us.
CH: My wife, though she loves you as a person and a chef, thinks you were sometimes a little mean to the other contestants. Personally, I don’t think you were too mean at all. How much of what she saw is accurate and how much of that is in the editing for TV?
Stephen Lee: It is true we only see a glimpse into the person through the editing process, but the truth is, I am 100% responsible for my actions. And I think it is important to remember we all carry our own baggage around with us and our perceptions are internalized depending on the baggage we carry, and then our perceptions are expressed. For example, depending on one’s baggage, I, to some, am hilarious and to others not so funny. The important thing for me is to accept life on life’s terms and accept everyone’s opinions. As long as I do my best not to step on the toes of my fellow man, then what other people think is not my concern, but let it be known, I am a good person and I only wish the best for all people, always in all-ways.
CH: It’s no secret this season finale was dramatic and a bit controversial. I’ve never seen the chefs get it so wrong. Derrick should have beat Claudia. Seems the majority of viewers believe that. Are we wrong or is there something we don’t understand or see in the finale? I realize we aren’t there to actually taste the food, but one thing that sticks out in our minds is how the judges so often call a chef out for not being diverse enough, but it seems this season they didn’t do that with Claudia, who we felt relied heavily on her cultural foods. What’s your take on that?
Stephen Lee: I think it is important to accept the outcome. Here is what I did and did not do. During every challenge of MasterChef I had one task at hand, to do my best and not worry about the results. That also relates to the outcome of MasterChef. I believe and trust that the outcome is for the good of all concerned. Claudia is the winner of MasterChef #6 and now it is our job to support her. The season was filled with tough challenges and she came out on top. I applaud her for that and support her 100%. That doesn’t mean there wont be a re-match, because I want to beat her, and somewhere, sometime, I will. I plan to work harder and practice more in the hopes that I am lucky enough to be given the opportunity for another challenge, which I will no doubt be victorious.
CH: What’s on the menu for you? Anything coming up fans can look forward to on the Stephen Lee horizon? How can fans keep up?
Stephen Lee: Please go to stephenleecooks.com for the latest information on what I am doing and where I am going. #PEASOUT.
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