This year's Restaurant War was hell. We're also left to wonder whether a "verbal fire" is a thing.
Over the years, Restaurant Wars has gone from a Top Chef trademark to a Restaurant War of Attrition. For the most part, the chefs seemed to treat it this year as an obstacle to get past than an opportunity to wow us. Most came out of this experience dinged up and with a bad case of trench foot.
With 10 chefs remaining, everyone knew this week would be Restaurant Wars, and from the outset, it looked as if the teams were unevenly stacked. The Green Team had Carlos, Justin, Shirley, Nina, and Sarah — tons of winners in that group. In the Purple Team were Brian, Stephanie, Travis, Nicholas, and Carrie, who only had a handful of challenge wins among them. However, the Purple Team was clearly the more fun team to be on, which in a stressful collaborative challenge is a big asset. Looking at the Green Team, you have Nina’s foul mouth, Shirley’s excitability, Sarah’s downer attitude, and Justin’s aggressive, mean ego… a recipe for disaster!
For this year’s battle, the chefs would cook for restauranteur Danny Meyer, pork bun whisperer David Chang, and a group of Chase Sapphire customers. Ugh, I’m a Chase Rewards customer, and all I get is 5 percent cash back on select purchases. No, I don’t feel like shopping at Kohl’s this month!
The Green Team’s divisions became apparent right away when they realized none of their cooking styles aligned. They ended up with “modern American” as their theme, which could literally mean anything. Worst of all, they called their pop-up restaurant Found, which may be the worst reality competition team name since Mosaic. The Purple Team decided to go uncreative but clear with Fin, a simple, casual seafood restaurant. (Seriously, no one was trying to blow us away here).
From the get-go, Justin, who claimed to have been preparing himself for Top Chef glory for a long time, decided to use intimidation and volume as his leadership strategies and seemed to get angry before anything even went wrong. He did a lot of sweating and yelling about problems instead of trying to fix them, like undesirable flatware and his apparently very particular method of filling out order tickets, or things that couldn’t be changed, like an overly small coffee machine. On the other hand, Sara didn’t seem like a great choice for a front-of-house person, and it surprised me that she volunteered for the position so readily. No joke, I get cold sweats even imagining having to be the front-of-house person during Restaurant Wars, even though I’m fairly certain that situation will never come up in my life. You have to be a particular kind of person to be that good at schmoozing and opening wine bottles as Tom Colicchio stares on. (Some of us get the wine-opener jitters under pressure). Justin ripped into Sara about the expediting, but it was hard to tell if Sara was actually failing or if Justin was just being abusive — my guess is a little bit of both, although it really looked like Justin would rather be angry than win. Meanwhile, on Team Fin, Travis jumped at the chance to work front-of-house with puppy-like enthusiasm. “Gays belong in front of the house!” he exclaimed. There’s truth to that statement. Nicholas gamely stepped up as Executive Chef, which was his opportunity to finally make a big move.
NEXT: One chef serves up purple snot. Another has apparently never eaten at a restaurant before.
Unfortunately, we didn’t see as much of the restaurant-building process as in past years, but apparently the warehouse spaces had been successfully converted into pop-up restaurants. Found had the better menus; Fin had the better name.
Fin’s service opened on an ugly, purple note. Brian served up scallop crudo with squash relish and purple corn gel, which he accidentally made with xantham gum. David called the gel “snotty,” which is never good. Carrie picked things up with her sauteed gulf shrimp with chickpea puree — Tom loved the flavors but thought the shrimp butter was like an “oil slick.” Everyone loved the chewiness and saltiness of Stephanie‘s linguine with caviar, oyster cream, and fennel. Nicholas delivered the best dish of his team with a roasted black drum with oxtail ragout, kale, and hibiscus reduction. Travis not only whipped up a great olive oil cake, but did a great job hamming it up in his front-of-house duties. Padma even said it was the best front-of-house performance in Top Chef history.
Found got so pummeled in this challenge that it wasn’t even a contest. Justin kept going nuts about the tickets, Sara neglected to describe the dishes to the judges — Padma’s eyes just about exploded when Sara walked away after plopping the dishes on the table — and Justin roasted parsnip agnolotti with Mississippi rabbit and Sara‘s mascarpone-free cake were the worst dishes of the night. Carlos’ red snapper crudo wasn’t well-sliced, but Shirley and Nina saved Found from being a total disaster with their strong dishes. The killer, though, was the horrible service. Those Chase Sapphire holders were about to revolt.
It was no mystery that Fin had won the night. Nicholas and Travis were up for the individual win, but Nicholas ran away with it for his leadership and kick-ass dish.
Things got more interesting with Found. Clearly, it was between Justin and Sara for elimination. Justin was an ineffective bully who didn’t even put forward a good dish. Sara seemed in way over her head, and she had zero energy leading the front of the house. It was curious that she only described her own dish and not the other chefs’, and all she did to guide the servers was to say, “Big smile!”
After Sara got the boot, she said her biggest mistake was focusing on everything but the culinary side — but it didn’t look like she focused enough on the front-of-house side at all.
Who messed up worse, Justin or Sara? Do you think a “verbal fire” is a real thing?