A heated Restaurant Wars leads to one of the most inexplicable eliminations ever. Has the show lost credibility?

By Stephan Lee
Updated January 17, 2013 at 07:01 AM EST
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David Moir/Bravo

Top Chef

S10 E11
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  • TV Show
network
  • Bravo

UPDATE: Read my interview with Kristen Kish.

Note to Top Chef judges — This has been proven time and time again: Always listen to Gail Simmons. Never has it been truer than this week.

Restaurant Wars, the signature challenge of Top Chef, often brings out the worst in the contestants, but this year, it brought out the worst in the judges. It’d be easy to point all the blame at Josie for this week’s shocker elimination, but really, you can’t deny that Kristen made significant mistakes. But still, given all the information, the judges had an easy decision on their hands, and they made the wrong one for reasons I can’t begin to imagine. The worst part is that the inevitable backlash to the elimination will overshadow the exciting showcase of Filipino cuisine we were treated to tonight.

To be fair, Kristen wasn’t entirely comfortable leading her team from the get-go. She seemed to be masking fear with confidence; as Brooke noted, she didn’t have experience heading up a restaurant. Even last week, I thought Kristen’s concept for Atelier Kwan was a bit amorphous. High-brow French food only kind of not? Sheldon, on the other hand, identified with his modern Filipino concept for Urbano so closely, and that really focused him and inspired his team.

The ever-so-brief battle for kitchen space at the beginning of the challenge was such a perfect illustration of Kristen’s mindset as a leader vs. Sheldon’s. Sheldon staked out his side of the courtyard quickly and decisively. Kristen immediately questioned it, more as a gesture of assertiveness than having a real opinion one way or another.

Then came the decorating portion of Restaurant Wars, which has rarely been a decisive or particularly interesting factor in the past and the chefs understandably seemed to not worry about it too much. Still, I enjoyed watching Stefan shopping for flowers — and no, Stefan, I don’t think people would mistake you for gay, although you’d fit in very nicely at certain gay bars I know of — and Brooke and Josie shopping for wares together was a humorous mismatch. If Brooke is the Posh Spice of the chef-testants, that makes Josie Scary.

Team Urbano got off to a quick start with prep, browning their meat early. On Team Kwan Atelier, Josie wanted to mise everything tomorrow — bad idea … doesn’t “mise” literally mean “preparation”? — with the explanation, “I don’t rush things.” No effin’ kidding! That’s been working so well for her. Instead of prepping your ingredients, just tell them bad non-jokes and laugh your loud laugh at them.

NEXT: A crucial mistake … Gelatin-gate …

The first major point of contention on Kwan Atelier: Kristen planned on cooking fish to order on the day of service, while Josie thought that was a bad idea. It didn’t look like she made any kind of effort to assert her opinion otherwise; I think Tom was right when he later suggested that Josie was all too aware that there was someone else who’d take responsibility for her errors. I’m far from an expert, but isn’t it a bad idea to pre-plate all that fish?

What turned out to be a crucial moment occurred 30 minutes before service. Josie hadn’t yet added the gelatin to her dish. Because time was running out, Kristen made the executive decision to add cream instead.

The judges entered Atelier Kwan sufficiently impressed by the decor, which looked held together with fishing line and chewing gum, sort of like the wham-bam remodeling jobs on Kitchen Nightmares. The first dish was Lizzie‘s take on charcuterie, which really was French food with a huge, exciting twist. She took pulled rabbit to mimic a riette, accompanied by roasted chicken and rabbit broth with yellow beets and pickled turnips. Gail never thought a charcuterie could be a hot soup but thought Lizzie pulled it off beautifully.

A lot of drama went into plating Josie‘s bouillabaisse, thanks mostly to her total lack of urgency in getting it done. Kristen made a really cutting comment about Josie’s performance: “I would prefer one of the dishwashers in place of Josie.” The strife around putting the dish together showed in the final product, which included halibut, Dungeness crab, and scallops in a broth. The plates were inconsistent across the table. Emeril’s seafood — which Josie was entirely responsible for preparing — was both undercooked and overcooked. And then there was that overly thin broth that everyone noticed.

Kristen‘s beef Bourguignon went over better. It was cooked perfectly, but it was the victim of misleading expectations. The lack of red wine, in the judges’ minds, made it not a Bourguignon. That’s a tough one, though, because it’s supposed to be French food with a twist. But I guess the omission of red wine wasn’t all that intentional on Kristen’s part. But it’s as if the judges would have loved it if she didn’t call it a Bourguignon, which I feel is sort of B.S. (It’s like one of my pet peeves: I hate it when I recommend a book strongly to someone, and after they read it they tell me, “I would have loved this book if you hadn’t told me it was good in the first place. I would have liked it if I had no expectations.” And I think, “Are you so weak-minded that any little prior notion you have about something can totally warp your experience of it?” … Okay, this example isn’t as relevant to the present situation as I thought it would be, but I had to vent).

Brooke‘s cheese course looked beautiful, and for the most part, tasted great too. Danny had a bit of trouble biting into the sticky-sweet pine nut, but the baked Gougere (best bread ever) and St. Agur Blue looked spectacular. The meal ended with Kristen’s very deconstructed macarons, which were hardly recognizable as macarons. Again, couldn’t this just be Kristen taking a particularly bold leap with her concept? Gail seemed especially adamant that what she was eating was not a macaron, saying she’d die and “come back as a macaron.” Umm, maybe if you mean because no one would eat you? I know this makes me crazy, but I hate macarons. At weddings I’ve been to, the macarons go untouched because they’re not all that enjoyable. So Kristen, if your dessert is nothing like a macaron, I’d probably like it.

NEXT: Customer service is not Stefan’s specialty …

Okay, that was interesting and full of ups and downs. Now for a trip next door to Urbano, where Stefan was desperately and gracelessly trying to kick people out of the restaurant to clear space for the VIPs. First up was Stefan‘s version of kilawin, a Filipino raw fish delicacy. His was made of yellowtail with cilantro, spicy chili, and white soy sauces. Danny and Gail both appreciated the contrasts of acidity and sourness.

Josh had the difficult challenge of putting a spin on balut, which normally looks like this. If you haven’t tried balut before, take my word for it: These duck embryos actually taste not-terrible. Even some of my friends with normally unadventurous palates have been able to stomach it. Josh made a more presentable version of it by using a normal unfertilized egg and putting duck confit and foie gras mousse inside of it. Tom said it didn’t taste Filipino or remotely like balut, but it still tasted good. Didn’t Kristen get reamed for making a beef Bourguignon that tasted good but didn’t match the standard definition of Bourguignon? Didn’t Gail “expect” balut but get something different? Lines are being blurred. Maybe the judges were just so relieved not to be eating real balut.

Unsurprisingly, the dish of the night came from Sheldon with his adobo pork belly with mung bean puree and pea shoots salad. Tom said it was the best-tasting dish of the night, and Danny couldn’t stop eating it. Sheldon’s other dish, the miki with prawns, was delicious too, but less appetizing was Stefan’s behavior while serving it. First, he neglected to explain what it was, and then when Padma asked for more information, he flat-out dismissed her, leading Gail to say, “We were just made to feel like idiots.” Emeril said, “The way he made us feel is worse than that bouillabaisse.” Stefan was incredibly rude, of course, especially to the people judging the dining experience, and some of the judges — Padma especially — looked ready to eliminate him on the spot. Josh finished off the meal with a strong dessert, halo-halo, and Stefan made something too, but the judges were mostly just reeling from Stefan’s condescension.

NEXT: Ugh, I can’t with this Judges’ Table …

At the Judges’ Table, it was clear that Sheldon’s restaurant had the better food, although it had worse service. Sheldon got a really deserved win — I’ve never been to a Filipino restaurant, and Urbano made me make a reservation to one for next week.

On the losing Kwan Atelier team, Lizzie and Brooke were safe, leaving Josie and Kristen on the chopping block. Josie put all the blame for the bouillabaisse on Kristen and took not one smidgeon of responsibility. Sure, Kristen did deserve some blame, but Josie’s slow pace, lack of urgency, and total deference to Kristen’s “vision” was a huge part of the dish’s failure too. Even though Kristen was supposed to lead, there’s only so much you can do to control another person. These are adults. Lizzie graciously gave Kristen half of the credit for her dish, which was the team’s best. Brooke knew Kristen didn’t deserve to go. Why didn’t the judges?

Kristen didn’t argue much for herself and whispered to herself “Bite my tongue, bite my tongue.” If only Josie listened to that advice … ever. (I hope I don’t get more tweets from Josie in response to this recap). As I said in the beginning of the recap, I don’t think Kristen’s elimination was Josie’s fault. The judges said they had equal reason to eliminate both Kristen and Josie. All things being equal (which I don’t think they were), shouldn’t they have spared the chef who’s shown more potential throughout the season? They seem to follow the “You’re only as good as your last dish” rule inconsistently, but they certainly enforced it here. (Even though Kristen’s dishes were better than Josie’s this week. Again, this decision is making less and less sense).

I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but this was ridiculous. Are the judges under the mistaken impression that we found Josie interesting in her previous season or this current season? Did they want to shake up Last Chance Kitchen? This wasn’t quite Gretchen-gate on Project Runway, but like that debacle, it might cause a short-term boost in ratings but an irreversible dip in credibility.

Gail even said, perfectly, “We’ve been down this road with Josie many times. I can’t help feeling like she’s skating by because everybody has to take responsibility because she’s not stepping up.” Exactly. Tom completely agreed. So what’s the problem here? As far as I’m concerned, there was little justification for this decision. I know the judges can only go by what they see, but honestly: Did any one of them really think Josie was a more deserving Top Chef winner than Kristen?

Also, why was Padma the one gunning so hard against Kristen? She couldn’t handle another model in the kitchen? And that fake-out — not necessary.

Kristen left the Judges’ Table with her head held high. Josie returned to her Stew Room seat acting like a victim. Enjoy your much deserved trip to Korea, Kristen!

So did anyone think Kristen deserved to go over Josie? We need a better answer than, “It was Kristen’s vision,” or “Kristen was the leader,” because that doesn’t explain everything. Was Stefan’s snub of the judges really worse than a bad dish? Can Kristen go all the way in LCK? Was this the most unjust elimination in Top Chef history? Do you think Josie, in her own subtle way, was being a saboteur?

Follow @EWStephanLee on Twitter.

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Top Chef

Tom, Padma, and Gail tell the cheftestants to pack their knives and go.
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