This is the week of Top Chef that everyone has been waiting for. It's the television event that forces a nation to take sides as Bravo pits cook against cook, brother against brother, Portland-based rustic American chef against Portland-based Asian-influenced fine-dining chef. That's right, it's Restaurant Wars.
There's no romancing us with a Quickfire Challenge this week, we're skipping the foreplay and going straight to the main event. Padma Lakshmi greets the chefs along with guest judge/Beard award winner Barbara Lynch. Like every season, the chefs will split into two teams and each open a restaurant in one day where they will then serve 100 diners.
Along with the judges and a sea of random Bostonians, the teams will serve (obvious sponsor) Chase Sapphire VIP cardholders. How do you qualify for this with a Chase card? How much money do I have to spend on it to earn the chance to be an ancillary judge on a reality cooking competition? I have an account with Chase, but I didn't choose it for the perks like that, I just needed an account to deposit the tens of dollars I had when I moved to the city for an unpaid internship.
The chefs draw knives to determine teams. Melissa King and Katie Weinner each draw the first and second choice knives, respectively, and can select their teammates one at a time. Once the elementary-school-kickball-flashback scenario ends, the teams are settled. The Grey Team is Melissa, Doug Adams, Adam Harvey, and Mei Lin. I love when Doug and Adam are on the same team because writing their names together is like a Wheel of Fortune "Before And After" puzzle. The Orange Team is Katie, Gregory Gourdet, Katsuji Tanabe, and Keriann Von Raesfeld.
The teams have to plan their menus, choose what dishes they will each make, and assign the roles of executive chef, line cooks, and front of house. Watching these decisions get made is usually my favorite moment in the entire season of the show, particularly the front of house duty. Most chefs avoid the responsibility because it's easy for service to fall apart and then that be the reason you're sent home. Also, it's often the spot for the weakest cook on the team because they have the least chance of ruining other dishes. It's like when my friends have a dinner party and everyone has to bring a dish and they ask me to bring napkins and a Spotify playlist (spoiler: the playlist is just "Fantasy" by Mariah Carey on repeat until someone asks me to leave).
On the Orange Team, Katie steps up as executive chef and Keriann takes front of house. Gregory is happy to take a back seat as a line cook after being in the bottom of the last elimination challenge, and Katsuji is happy to watch someone else try and fail to run a kitchen.
Doug decides to be executive chef for the Grey Team with Adam running front of house and Mei and Melissa working the line. He wants to do a family style meal, with some little plates in addition to two larger ones on the table. Adam is hesitant about it because it is a more complicated service than a standard menu, but Doug's the boss, so they go with it.
The Orange Team has a difficult time figuring out a theme for their restaurant since they all have wildly different culinary backgrounds. I totally get wanting to make a dish for this challenge that highlights your skills, but Katie should have just decided on a theme that most of them could handle and said, "This is what we're doing." Instead they opt for a mixed up menu of four different international cuisines. They may as well have called their restaurant Epcot. Thankfully, they did not, they stepped it up slightly and named it Magellan, after the explorer. I know there is a lot of thought involved in naming something (unless you're a celebrity who just had a kid, then you kind of flip through the dictionary until your Xanax kicks in, I think), but the name does absolutely nothing because before I think of food I think 1. dead guy with a boat and then, 2. the space program. Neither is appetizing.
While the Orange Team forces together a theme, the Grey Team figures one out while shopping for restaurant decor thanks to Melissa's discovery of some oversized piggy banks. They name their restaurant Four Pigs, which I'm very on board with. It sounds like the kind of restaurant where, on your way out, you'd drunkenly take, like, six matchbooks and a few cards because they have some really cute logo.
Since Keriann is working front of house, she opts to do a cold dessert so her team won't be responsible for prepping too much while she serves and seats patrons. She makes a chilled crepe, which Katsuji points out would usually be something that is made to order. He claims to have plenty of time to handle it for her, but he won't tell her that because he's only looking out for himself. It's not that I want someone to be the resident asshole of the show, but it is nice to have a little bit of drama stirred up before this becomes so supportive and friendly it's dull. This is reality television, not a book club.
During prep, the Grey Team seems to be working together pretty well. I have a deep jealousy of the bond/bandana partnership between Mei and Melissa on the line and won't really feel satisfied until the two of them solve crimes, Rizzoli & Isles style. Or like, open a restaurant or something. I'm not picky, I'm just on board.
Since Adam is responsible for a dish as well as managing the staff for service, he leaves his station during prep to go handle the servers. When he returns, the clam shells he had cleaned for his dish are missing, and no one knows where they are. Panicked, he shucks another 150 clams in (thanks to television editing) 25 seconds. Losing a major part of your dish sounds stressful. Usually those things always turn up in some weird place you forgot about, like when I find my remote in my kitchen, or my wine opener in my bed.
Keriann is training her staff and culling from her front of house expertise from the restaurant she opened and ran on a cruise ship. She gives us no other information about this and I spent the rest of the episode wondering about it in the back of my head. The staff seems confused and she does too when it comes to figuring out a system. Again, great time for Katie to step up and say, "This is the ticket running system I would like for the kitchen," but she backs down and leaves it up to Keriann and her boat restaurant running experience to figure something out.
Service begins and the judges' first stop is the Grey Team's Four Pigs. Padma cracks the first dad joke of the night by telling the waiter at the station, "We have a reservation, I promise!" which, coming from her, probably gets a laugh from every man, woman, and parking meter she comes across. She looks unreal in that dress, and she's not even my type (because my type is emotionally unavailable men). How does anyone around her eat when she is there? I'm doing sit-ups at commercial breaks just so I don't have night terrors about ever having to stand next to her.
Adam rushes to the station with the kind of disposition that usually makes you whisper to your friend while you walk to your table, "Oh I like this place, it's so fun!" He looks like a mannequin from a J.Crew that was specially made for Williamsburg, and has an upbeat energy throughout the entire experience. There's also something slightly Jeff Goldblum-esque about him in this role, which is the highest compliment I can give anyone about anything. The judges agree with me (at least on his handling of the service, maybe not those specifics, we don't talk...yet) and compliment him on his front of house presence.
The first dishes are Adam's salt-baked clams with ramps, bacon, and sunflower seeds, as well as Mei's chicken liver toast with plum puree. The judges love both, and liken Mei's dish to peanut butter and jelly, but in a good way, which sounds incredible.
The entrees come out next, which are Doug's braised pork shoulder with baked beans, pickled red onion, and pickled mustard seeds, and Melissa's seared scallops over a radish salad with grapefruit. Everyone loves Doug's pork, though Melissa's scallops are over-salted for some at the table. In addition to the mains are Mei's fried brussels sprouts with anchovy vinaigrette, which the judges enjoy at first, but then find the acid to be overpowering.
The meal finishes with Melissa's buttermilk biscuit cobbler with apples, mixed berries, and cardamom cream. It's a hit, because who doesn't love cardamom? Okay I'm sure plenty of people, but let's be honest, they're wrong.
Overall, Padma, Barbara, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons had a positive experience at the Grey Team's restaurant. The menu was cohesive, the dishes were overall well-executed except for a few missteps, and the service was pretty much flawless.
While the judges dine at Four Pigs, the Chase Sapphire VIP cardholders are at Magellan, and among them are previous Top Chef contestants Stephanie Cmar and Kristen Kish (who are also conveniently spokespeople for the card). Service at this restaurant is much more chaotic. Multiples of dishes are going out while other table still haven't received any food. There's a lot of confusion between what's happening at the front of house and what's happening back in the kitchen.
The rest of the Orange Team is working on their dishes, but it looks like Katsuji was responsible for prepping and plating Keriann's dessert. She described it as being a crepe with mousse, but the mousse element was too cold and hard to work for the dish. Needing to improvise, Katie and Katsuji end up heating up the dish and changing Keriann's initial intention. It's super confusing as to where the problem started. Did Keriann ever once check on her dish after prep began? Did she provide Katsuji or someone with instructions on how to prepare and plate it? Did anyone think to go ask her what to do when it clearly wasn't working?
When the judges arrive at Magellan, Keriann is nowhere to be found. Tom pulls the second dad joke of the night by stepping behind the station and pretending to be a host, asking Padma, Gail, and Barbara, "Can I help you?" in a silly voice. It felt like he was a few minutes away from looking at the menu and saying, "I don't see any prices, so does that mean it's all free?"
Keriann seats them while wearing her what must be wildly uncomfortable heels, which makes her slightly sad disposition make sense. It could also be that the service has been a non-stop nightmare since the first seatings and the kitchen is way behind. Padma notes that only one couple in the whole restaurant had food on the table.
Servers finally come to the judges and the first dish is Katie's roasted beets with Sri Lankan curry, toasted coconut, and pickled cauliflower. Though elements of the dish work on their own, the judges all agree it never really comes together. Next are two dishes from Katsuji: hamachi sashimi with roasted poblano, blistered tomato, citrus habanero salsa, and garlic chips, and a dry pozole with dungeness crab, chili, and chicarrones.
Following that are two dishes from Gregory. He prepared a seared haddock with spiced tomato, garam masala, and pickled mushrooms, as well as a hoisin glazed pork with baked scallops. The judges enjoy both, and certainly like his scallop more than Melissa's saltier one.
It's finally the dessert, course, and Keriann personally serves the judges. Even though they are pretty much the last table of the night, it seems this is the first time she noticed that her crepes and mousse are hot, which was not her plan. There's some fighting among them in the kitchen over who made the call, Katsuji throwing it to Katie and Katie kind of brushing it off to continue the last of the dishes for the night while Keriann slowly grows redder and hotter trying to figure out why they took it upon themselves to change her dish. It's tense to say the least.
At judges' table it's clear that the Grey Team won the challenge. They put out excellent dishes and maintained consistent service under a concept that really worked. The overall winner of the challenge is Doug. Not only was his dish good, but he also smoothly ran a successful kitchen.
The Orange Team loses, and elimination is between front of house Keriann and executive chef Katie. They both failed pretty majorly in comparison to everyone else's performance, but ultimately it is Keriann who is sent home.
It seems slightly unfair that Keriann is going home for a dish that other people meddled with and changed without her knowing. But, well, life isn't fair, just ask Al Gore or Nancy Kerrigan or me when I found out that the plane I was on recently had run out of scotch and only had Irish whiskey (I considered contacting the TSA). It's just another historic Restaurant Wars lesson that's bound to be repeated.