Chef and Tell: Elise Wiggins of Panzano

Elise 2.jpg
Elise Wiggins
One food you detest: Bulls' balls. I don't like the taste at all. Maybe that's why I'm a lesbian.

One food you can't live without: Louisiana hot-pepper sauce. I'll put it on pizza, eggs and on a lot of comfort foods, like red beans and rice. You can make the worst thing in the world palatable with pepper sauce.

Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: It was 2001, and I was the executive chef at Palio, a four-diamond Westin resort restaurant in Puerto Rico. The chefs were assigned uniforms consisting of black jackets and polyester pants -- pants that no one had told me needed to get stitched again because they were so cheap that they'd unravel after a couple of washings. So one day I'm leaning forward while talking to my cooks through the pass-out line with my legs spread and my butt facing the dining rooms and servers stations, and I keep overhearing the male servers saying, "Mira! Mira!" which means, "Look! Look!" But every time I'd turn around, they'd quickly turn away and act like nothing had happened. Finally, a female manager from another restaurant whispered in my ear, "Nice ass!" I thought she was joking and shrugged it off, but she said, "No, no, your pants are split and you can see everything!" I jolted upright, threw my hands around to my backside and completely felt everything exposed from the top of my belt loop to the very middle of my crotch where the seams are sewn together. The kicker was that I wasn't wearing underwear. It's hysterical when I think about it now, but when it happened, I was mortified and wanted to crawl into a hole.

Favorite celebrity chef: Julia Child. I know she's gone, but she was the best -- so funny, entertaining and informative. There will never be another chef as good as she was.

Celebrity chef that should shut up: Giada De Laurentiis. I get it. I know that guys love her. And I like boobs and all, but that's all they show when she cooks. It drives me nuts.

Hardest lesson you've learned: You can't lead a team by force. When I was coming up through the ranks and cooking with Germans and Italians screaming at me and throwing plates, I realized that they were using fear to try and get the best out of me, but instead I was always nervous and would screw up even worse; I'd never get optimum results. I demand perfection, but I never yell, because yelling doesn't motivate people. I want my team to succeed, and I believe in pushing people, but instead of using force and yelling, I always ask, "Where's your love? That's not enough love."

What's next for you? Win the lottery and open my own restaurant. At some point, I'd really like to do an upscale Louisiana, Southern-style place with things like tasso and boudin blanc.

For part two of Lori Midson's interview with Elise Wiggins, check back here tomorrow.


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