Top Chef recap: 'Restaurant Wars'
The last six weeks were just battles—opening skirmishes in a conflict that would stretch onward for weeks to come. The lesser players were eliminated. Only the strong remain. Now it’s “war.”
Restaurant Wars is a favorite Top Chef tradition because of its absurd conceit: Open a restaurant in 24 hours. In the real world, chefs invest thousands and thousands of dollars and hours and hours of time in planning, preparing, and conceptualizing before opening a restaurant. In reality TV-land, chefs get one day.
For the cheftestants, Restaurant Wars always serves as a checkpoint of sorts. It’s halfway through the competition and, like we concluded last week, the personality-fueled drama has given way to actual drama—someone’s actually going to have to win this thing.
After doing some number crunching, it turns out that winning Restaurant Wars is a fairly decent predictor of what’s to come: Of the 10 seasons with a Restaurant Wars winner, the eventual Top Chef has been on the victorious team seven times, with Harold, Hung, Stephanie, Hosea, Michael, Richard, and Nicholas all helping their teams to victory before moving on to individual glory later.
By the same token, many perceived top competitors have been tripped up by the breadth of the challenge, taking on either front-of-house or executive chef roles that can doom them before the first plates even make it to the judges’ table. Tre, Dale, Kenny, Marcel, and, of course, Kristen all saw their campaigns cut prematurely short after crashing and burning as executive chefs. It’s ironic: They failed at doing the very thing they were competing to be called the best at.
Given how much the competing chefs and viewers alike look forward to Restaurant Wars, the producers have acknowledged the hype and dispatched with quickfires in recent seasons. Why engage in a skirmish when there’s a war to be won?
There’s still a knife-drawing, though, as Melissa and Katie win the ability to draft teams to join them in the kitchen at the Revere Hotel on Boston Common. Melissa makes a surprising first choice, picking her “buddy” Dougie to join her, leaving Katie to take Gregory, the obvious choice despite almost having his goose cooked last week for cooking goose. That leaves Mei for Melissa, splitting up the favorites again and consolidating the fairness of this fight. Mei and Gregory on the same team would probably have been unstoppable.
The next pick winds up becoming the pivotal one—with Adam, Katsuji, and Keriann remaining, Katie chooses Katsuji. He’s riding high after his win last week, but it’s still a curious choice given how up-and-down his performance and personality have been. All three of the remaining chefs have their warts, but if anyone was going to wind up sabotaging a kitchen, it’d be him. Melissa takes Adam (another hugely important decision), Katie takes Keriann, and Katsuji almost immediately affirms my suspicion, stating frankly, “The truth is I only care about myself.”
NEXT: Gearing up for battle
That sentiment, to a certain extent, is surprisingly echoed by Gregory of all people, who’s still stung by his bird-brained decision last week. Blinded by his string of success, Gregory lost sight of the fact that this is a competition, and he almost went home as a result. What was good for the goose was not good for Gregory, and he decides to stay in the background and cook this week. It’s strategic, but at this point, he can hardly be blamed for that.
It’s immediately apparent that there’s a more united feeling among the younger team as they plan their positions moving forward. Doug wants the challenge of expediting, and Melissa, it seems, has chosen a team that will work together to support him. Getting Adam out of the kitchen and into the dining room makes sense on a number of levels, and his willingness to embrace the role and trust his teammates echoes a sentiment that seemingly can’t be emphasized enough this season: teamwork is key. If your team wins the challenge, you are safe no matter what.
Meanwhile, for all the experience the other team seems to have, with Gregory in the background, they lack leadership. His choice gets at another, less optimistic, recurring theme of the season—as long as you can outcook at least one of your teammates, you’re safe, too. It seems almost certain he’ll survive and advance. Meanwhile, Katie decides the kitchen for her team, and because, as Katsuji reminds us, she “looks cute in a dress,” (ugh) Keriann will be running the front-of-house.
The team’s indecision bleeds into their conceptual framework, where the chefs’ disparate styles of cooking are clearly at odds. Katie wants to cook Sri Lankan, Keriann wants to do French, and Katsuji wants to make salsa. Their unwillingness to search for commonality breeds a menu that sounds lost, despite how well they cloak their uncertainty with the Magellan-themed global concept. Starting a restaurant from scratch in a day is tough enough when you focus on a single style of cuisine. Trying to capture THE WHOLE WORLD seems doomed from the start.
Less is more during Restaurant Wars, and the 4 Pigs team figures that out quickly. While Doug hasn’t really cooked anything that has blown anyone away, his family-style-inspired concept works immediately. It’s simple and straightforward, while somehow managing to avoid sounding like another tired gastro-pub style concept with a deer mounted on the wall. At least theirs is named Katsuji and wearing a do-rag.
NEXT: Pigs’ feats and sinking ships
Once they get into the space itself, the teams’ paths diverge. The Pigs are in the kitchen sharing trade secrets (who knew that freezing butter with liquid nitrogen was the key to flaky biscuits?) and the explorers are wandering the globe as confusion in communication between Katie and Keriann sets the stage for a bad service everyone knew was coming. For the Pigs, there’s a slight hiccup when Adam’s clamshells go missing, but they simply put their heads down and work through it, doing the necessary work to press on.
Adam’s a little too busy schmoozing, and he misses the judges entrance at the restaurant, leading to a humorous exchange that finds Padma, Gail, Tom, and guest Barbara Lynch laughingly indignant over waiting their turn. Though the judges have always been the real stars of Top Chef, it seems like this season more than ever they’ve allowed their personalities to come through. Or maybe it’s just the Terlato Wine.
The Pigs’ food seems solid, if somewhat unremarkable, though I guess that’s supposed to be the point. Tom rightly compares their simple menu to walking a tightrope without a net. But between Adam’s aggressively salty-baked clams with bacon, sunflower seeds, and, of course, ramps, Mei’s solid chicken liver toast with plum puree, and Doug’s Beantown-style PBR-braised pork and beans, with pickled red onion and mustard seeds, the judges, diners, servers, and service, more generally, are happy. Despite some missteps, the food comes from one kitchen led by one vision, Doug’s. He’s a worthy and unexpected winner for the second week in a row. Maybe this competition is farther from over than we thought.
Meanwhile, Magellan seems off course from the outset, with servers bringing food to incorrect tables over and over again, and no one seems to have any food at all by the time the judges arrive. Poor navigation from the bow and stern (that’s front and back for you landlubbers) have steered the service toward certain disaster. Katie isn’t expediting correctly, Keriann is nowhere to be found, and the dining alums Kristen and Stephanie are forced to humor the Chase Sapphire VIP guests while they wait for food that is coming inconsistently, if at all. (Disclosure: I have a Chase Sapphire card, but was somehow not invited to dinner…)
Before the judges even sat down, it was clear Magellan was in danger of a service shipwreck, and course correction was not really an option when the navigation lacked direction when they left their home base. Katie roasts beets well, but inexplicably pairs them with a Sri Lankan curry that’s out of place and underwhelming. Katsuji’s “from-everywhere” cuisine is probably the only food that makes sense on this blighted voyage, but he’s primarily concerned with saving his own hide, playing it safe, doing what he’s told, and not making waves. Even Gregory struggled somewhat, preparing a noisy plate that was weighed down and confused.
There’s a (perhaps necessary) mutiny afoot in the kitchen when Katie decides to alter Keriann’s crepe dish before service. The mousse isn’t mousse, she wants it cold when it might benefit from heat, and, most unsurprisingly, it follows the pattern and lacks a concept for plating. What’s worse is that dozens of diners were served the altered version, and Keriann was too busy to notice.
It raises an interesting debate, though—should Katie have been able to edit Keriann’s dish? Though it was a team challenge and Katie, it seems, was attempting to act in what she felt was the best interest of the team, she easily could’ve made Keriann’s dish worse and caused her to walk the plank for something she hadn’t done. The judges (probably rightly) give Katie the benefit of the doubt, though, and either way, it seemed, there was no saving Keriann’s crepe. It was the worst dish of the night (Barbara Lynch says it pisses her off), and combined with Keriann’s poor service, she was the logical choice.
In her parting words, she suggests that the other chefs never respected her or her food, and especially when considering Katsuji’s remarks at the beginning of the episode and Aaron’s behavior throughout the early part of the season, she’s not wrong. But unfortunately, “war” is certainly unfair, and she became the latest “casualty.”