There are several certainties in life. Everyone has to pay taxes, if you remember your umbrella it won't rain, and when Top Chef gets down to eight contestants, then it's time for restaurant wars.
The remaining chefs gather in an event space in LA and are greeted by Padma Lakshmi and guest judge and owner of Bestia Bill Chait. They all guess that they are here because of restaurant wars and even prepared a song and dance to go along with it. It feels kind of like a high school talent show number, if the prize for the talent show was $125,000.
Padma looks at them and says, "Unfortunately, this isn't restaurant wars... just kidding!" Man, great joke. Nice of her to lighten the mood before the challenge that typically leaves all of the chefs on the verge of setting the building on fire with everyone else inside. When the laughter finally dies down, she explains the rules of war.
The chefs go to draw knives to see what their teams are, but instead of being randomly split up, there are just two marked knives in the block. Amar Santana draws "first choice" and Karen Akunowicz draws "second choice." Amar chooses Kwame Onwuachi and Jeremy Ford as his first two picks. His final selection is Phillip Frankland Lee, which isn't based on how they work together or Phillip's skill as a chef, it's because in the car on the way to the challenge he said how he would like to work the front of the house position, which is always a nightmare.
Karen picks Marjorie Meek-Bradley, which would be my obvious first choice, too. Not only is she talented and pretty level-headed in the kitchen, but she's a badass baker and can whip up desserts that aren't just good, they win challenges. Karen also picks Carl Dooley and Isaac Toups to round out her team. It's definitely the team with less ego, but anything can happen in restaurant wars. And by anything I mean people can get irritable.
Everyone thinks they know the drill: they get 24 hours to put together the restaurant and prep for service where someone has to be an executive chef and someone ends up being front of the house. But, Padma explains, there's a twist. Instead of just doing dinner service, the chefs are responsible for lunch service, too. And just so no one gets screwed, everyone must take the role of either executive chef or front of house for one of those services.
The teams split off to get started putting together their restaurants. Amar's orange team seems like it would be full of head-butting, especially with Phillip and Kwame, but the decisions are coming together pretty quickly — likely through the magic of editing. They settle on doing a modern American menu so they have some flexibility with dishes and decide to name their restaurant District LA.
Over on Karen's team, there's a surprising amount of animosity between two of my favorite people in this competition, Marjorie and Isaac. It totally makes sense though. Marjorie is all business when it comes to these competitions and she knows exactly what she wants to do and what will work. She's proven that, though, with an impressive amount of wins. Isaac's style doesn't quite mesh with the rest of the team. They decide to do a fresh California-style menu and he's upset that they won't go Cajun. Marjorie doesn't "want any clunky food on our menu." I'm with her. The team decides that for lunch service, Marjorie will be front of house and Isaac will be executive chef.
Over at District LA, the boys decide that Kwame will be front of house for lunch and Jeremy will be executive chef. This group is great at like, breaking down chickens or slicing up raw fish, but they admit to having some issues with the decor. Phillip is dead set on mason jars as glassware because, well, look at his hair and chest tattoo. Kwame shoots it down because this isn't a Pinterest board for your dream rustic farm wedding, it's an LA restaurant.
Every season I get extra stressed out for the chefs during this challenge because this isn't just about knowing how to plan a menu or cook. You also have to know how to buy for and design a restaurant to a degree. Carl's input during the set-up process is, "I don't know how many forks we should order. I don't know, just get a lot of them." This would be my reaction. As someone who lives alone in a studio apartment, my only experience with having forks is owning two. Any more than that seems just like, who cares anymore, get all the forks.
The teams have to split up to shop for food, and Kwame asks Amar to pick up bacon for him at Whole Foods because they don't have what he needs for his veloute where he is. Amar forgets to grab it and Kwame is left using some back-up pancetta instead of the smoky bacon in his soup. It doesn't seem like anyone would intentionally leave his item off the list to mess up his dish. They're still on the same team. But it sets a pretty uncomfortable tone.
On day two, the teams are running around finalizing prep and setting up the restaurant and the GMs are training the servers before opening. Jeremy says, "I wish I had a Xanax to give Kwame now," when he sees him running around trying to get everything ready. See, this is why you should always carry one or two Xanax with you. That's what that tiny pocket in jeans is for.
First stop for the judges is District LA. Padma is wearing white to go out to eat. It's a bold choice. The only time I wear white out is when I know the only thing I'm having is vodka. Otherwise it's Spill City, USA.
Kwame puts in the tickets for the judges' food, and Jeremy decides that these dishes should take priority over the existing one they are firing for other diners. Phillip and Amar disagree with the decision, but since Jeremy is the executive chef, it's his call.
The table notes it's a very straightforward menu and not too exciting, but they seem like appropriate lunch dishes. Gail Simmons is drinking beer at lunch while the other judges drink wine — further solidifying how much I want to hang out with her.
Appetizers come out and the judges all enjoy Kwame's corn and sage veloute as well as Jeremy's asparagus salad with crispy egg and truffle vinaigrette. They are pretty quickly served their entrees because Jeremy decided to finish their entire service before getting other diners their food. Everyone likes Amar's roasted chicken breast with polenta and mushrooms, but Tom Colicchio points out that it's yet another chicken dish from Amar. They also like Phillip's salmon with crispy skin enough, but don't enjoy the ratatouille being on top of the fish, or really at all.
While the District kitchen then tries to recover from severely delaying the other orders so they could serve the judges, Padma and crew head next door to Palate. Unfortunately, when they arrive, Marjorie is nowhere to be found. She has been running around trying to get the lingering tables to get out of there so they could turn them over. Look, I'm all for spending an insane amount of time hanging after a meal, ordering more wine, chatting too loudly about how your last Tinder date ended. But this isn't a chill restaurant, it's like, a high pressure pop-up dining experience being filmed for a reality show. Get out of there. Marjorie cleverly plies the slow-to-leave diners with some champagne if they would just follow her.
Finally, she's back and seats the judges for their lunch. They are already more excited about the menu at this restaurant than they were at the other one. Service is running smoothly so far, too, even though there was some miscommunication between executive chef Isaac and Karen on the line when things got started.
The appetizers arrive and are pretty underwhelming. No one at the table likes Carl's pork and bacon terrine with haricot vert and gem lettuce. Tom cleans his plate even though he didn't like it in a move I'm all too familiar with. No food left behind. They all enjoy Marjorie's marinated beet salad with arugula, pepitas, and garrotxa, but it's nothing special and it's her only dish for this service.
Entrees arrive and the judges absolutely love Karen's spicy steak salad with peanuts, papaya, thai basil, and about a million other things you would want to go in that style of salad. It's a crowd pleaser both as a tasty dish and as an appropriate lunch menu item. Karen has kind of been a sleeper in this whole competition, but in the last few challenges has really come into her own. Maybe she was paired up with some rough teammates, maybe she's just finally getting comfortable with the way things work, but she's pretty much nailing it. Karen/Marjorie 2016 (not for president, but for a Top Chef final). Everyone likes Isaac's seafood stew with braised fennel and grilled bread, but it needed more oomph. Either way, they still liked it more than either entree over at District LA.
So service ends at Palate and all of the food is out, all of the diners are served, and it was a successful, uneventful lunch. Things are not so over at District, likely thanks to Jeremy's decision to prioritize the judges instead of just getting out orders as they came in. Palate is done but diners are still getting seated next door. And they still have to break down between lunch and dinner, plus prep those dishes.
What's going to happen? Will Jeremy and team get all of the lunch patrons fed? Will they have enough time to prep for dinner? Will Padma change her outfit for the second meal? All of this and more on next week's second installment of restaurant wars.