BUSHWICK — A lot has changed for Lisa Fernandes since she first appeared on “Top Chef” in 2008. The Bushwick-based chef has worked on the corporate side of a major restaurant group and served as executive chef at Midtown’s Dos Caminos. For five years, you could find her dishing up fusion fare out of the window of Sweet Chili, her wildly popular southeast Asian food truck that, in November, came back to life with a brick-and-mortar iteration in Bushwick.
Now Fernandes is returning to reality TV for an All Stars season of the cooking competition, along with 14 other past finalists who will battle it out for the Top Chef title.
Fernandes finished as a runner-up last time around, tying for second place along with Richard Blais during season 4, which Stephanie Izard won. According to Fernandes, her offscreen experiences since 2008 have changed the way she cooks and competes.
“I’ve worked in so many restaurants since then, learning new techniques and honing my skills,” she said. “My recipes have gotten bolder and spicier, with a very heavy focus on Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese flavors.”
That shift to boldness is evident on the Sweet Chili menu, where diners can find unexpected combinations of ingredients, like a strip steak marinated in coriander and served on a bed of peanut buttery mashed potatoes, tofu glazed in a miso-and-maple marinade and the Liquid Pad Thai, a whiskey cocktail flavored with tamarind, Thai basil and sriracha.
Fernandes said she chose to root the formerly mobile Sweet Chili in Bushwick because, after she moved to the neighborhood, she noticed the area lacked Asian options that were both interesting and affordable.
To that end, Sweet Chili’s entree prices range from $7 to $32, with the majority of dishes priced under $20. The cocktails will set you back $10-12.
“Bushwick is the perfect neighborhood for dishes and cocktails like this,” she said. “People want to try new things, and not spend a ton of money on their meals.”
Since Fernandes and partner Sean Flaherty opened the restaurant at 1045 Flushing Ave. last month, business has been good. The neighborhood seems to be responding positively, though running a restaurant in New York City always entails stress — even more than competing on a reality show, Fernandes said.
“You always have 65 things to do at any given time, and you have to balance everything perfectly,” she said. “It is a lot of work, but this has been my dream since I was six, so it’s all worth it in the end.”
Top Chef season 17 premieres March 19 on Bravo.