Is Stephen Lee the most misunderstood contestant on MasterChef? Granted, the urban gardener's raging, cursing, and impatience have marked him as season 6's wild man. But you might be surprised to learn he has a gentler side we haven't seen much on camera.
Speaking of wild: What about the nail-biter, when he and Christopher Lu
both kept their aprons? True drama. But Stephen's apparent meltdown? Well, we're going to let Stephen tell you his side of the story. He called me from his home in Palm Springs, California.
A Tiger on the Loose
First things first. What the heck's an urban gardener?
"Basically, I go into people's backyards and show them how to grow food," he says. "I change backyards into mini-farms. I belong to the Organic Seed Alliance for North America. We save heirloom seeds. I save all the seeds from this area, and they're acclimated to this environment. I'm building a collective with other gardeners, and we share our harvest."
So what's a back-to-the-land kind of guy doing yelling and cursing on the MasterChef set?
"I was brought up with punk rock, so I have that energy and attitude of doing things my way," he says. "I have a certain style about how I approach life. I like to live every moment to the best of my ability and also make life the best for everyone around me.
"My energy level is also on the higher RPM level -- I'm hard to contain in a room. During filming, I was like a tiger in a cage. I made the others on the show nervous!"
Keeping with the tiger theme, he also admits to a cat-like tendency to size people up before becoming close to them. "I'm not saying that's a good thing!" he says. "But if you fit me, then we'll be great friends. As time went on, I think everyone started to understand one another." And in fact, during a recent cross-country road trip with his daughter and granddaughter, he visited many of his fellow contestants.
Are We Seeing the Real Stephen Lee?
We've all seen reality reunion shows where contestants whine that viewers never saw "the real me." I asked him whether he feels he's being portrayed fairly in the final, edited versions.
"Actually, I feel I am," he says. (A refreshing attitude!) "My insight into the editing process is that it brings out a person's personality. If you talked to my buddies, they'd say that's what I'm like. I'm kind of wild, too sarcastic, a little crass, very competitive - that's how I am.
"You've got to accept the good with the bad -if you didn't do it, the camera couldn't pick it up. We all have regrets, of course. But the difference with being on camera is that you get caught. And you have to watch it later!"
Fortunately, as one of the steadiest competitors on the show, he's had plenty of episodes to watch himself on.
When Pastry Cream Melts Down
Throughout the season, Stephen has had the highest of highs - psyching out Shelly Flash
during the Las Vegas challenge
comes to mind - and the lowest of lows, such as his less-than-optimal fruit tart. (Those Christina Tosi baking challenges are rough!)
But - and this is important to him - he wants fans to know he didn't have a meltdown during the challenge. That moment when he sank down to the ground by the blast chiller? He was thinking, not collapsing. Though he admits it might have looked that way.
"All my hot components were done," he explains. "I was actually trying to hide from the cameras, so I knelt down, and they caught me on camera anyway. I was just waiting by the blast chiller and running through the steps and processes for what I was going to do next."
No one would have blamed him if he had lost it momentarily. Mistakes carry extra weight now, because we've entered Top 10 territory. Every week, another fan favorite goes home. But not this time.
Though neither Stephen nor Christopher created a perfect tart, they both managed to beat the "dreaded elimination test" (as Gordon Ramsay likes to call it) in one of the closest calls in MasterChef history. It was a stunning - and gratifying - outcome.
Stephen prepared for the worst. "When we got saved, it was like a rollercoaster," he says. "You know that moment when you have that falling feeling and your heart's in your throat? And then we got saved! It was like being hit by a train!"
An Environmentally Friendly Cat
Ask anyone on MasterChef, and he or she will admit to having a favorite judge. Given their entertaining yell-and-growl moments this season (including last week), it's not hard to guess that Stephen feels an affinity for the famously gruff Ramsay.
"Growing up as a kid, I moved around a lot," Stephen says "I had a pretty rough childhood and worked hard to get where I am. I like to think that I have a good heart and am empathetic toward people, but I have a rough edge to me.
"I see a similar personality type in Gordon. He had a rough childhood, too, but he's a good person, a good family man. I see him as inspiring me to do better."
If that emotion surprises you, coming from the self-described tiger of MasterChef, you might be even more surprised to hear his philosophy of life. He's actually a bit of a softy!
"I would say that seize the moment -- stay in the moment," he says. "Let go of expectations. Live life. Help each other. Let's cook food and save seeds. Let's be kind. Let's save the environment.
"I want people to have a real love for cooking whole food and eating good food. Every single person has the right to eat good, nutritious food. Take care of yourself, and your family, and the land.
"That's what it's all about."
MasterChef airs Wednesdays at 9pm on FOX.
(Image courtesy of FOX.)