I scream, you scream, we all scream because tensions are extremely high on Top Chef at this point in the season. Also, now I want ice cream. Sure, part of that anxiety cloud that hangs over every room of their house could be that it’s finally time for Restaurant Wars, but it seems most of it is coming from Jamie Lynch’s surprising elimination after volunteering his immunity.
Emily Hahn is still very worked up over the previous challenge. She’s walking around the house crying more than the only single girl at a bachelorette party during last call. It’s not helping that Katsuji Tanabe is just poking at her constantly. He’s a pot-stirrer in every sense of the word because he likes to cause problems and start trouble, but also he is a chef and literally stirs pots for a living.
There’s not a lot of surprise or explanation to this challenge, which sadly also doesn’t give Padma Lakshmi the chance to make any of the awful puns she’s usually forced to introduce challenges with. All she does is confirm that yes, it’s time for Restaurant Wars, and introduce guest judges and partners from Eleven Madison Park, chef Daniel Humm and restaurateur Will Guidara.
One change to the show’s most notorious challenge is that rather than cook in competing spaces next to each other, one team will takeover a restaurant one night, and the other team will take it the next night. Conceivably, one team does have the advantage of an extra day to plan and discuss systems. And most importantly, this means we get not one, but two Padma dinner outfits.
The chefs draw knives for who will be team leaders, and it’s Shirley Chung and Katsuji. They pick their teammates one at a time, and sure enough, Emily and John Tesar are the last two remaining. Even though Katsuji and John have gone after each other a bit in the kitchen before, he picks Tesar to be on his team. So far on the show the two of them have had a real Odd Couple vibe, but in Restaurant Wars that could go from charming to season-ending for one of them.
The blue team of Katsuji, John, Sheldon Simeon, and Casey Thompson starts planning their restaurant and settle on doing Lowcountry food served family style, despite the fact that Katsuji wants to do some Mexican dishes. He wants to cook three full dishes for service, and so he concedes the power of executive chef to John. “I like a woman in the front of house, I’m not being sexist,” says John, being sexist. Casey takes on front of house, though, because she knows she can do it.
The red team is Shirley, Brooke Williamson, Sylva Senat, and Emily. They are all — with the possible exception of Emily — pretty level-headed and reasonable, so they seem to make a good team. They settle on a seafood forward menu for their restaurant named Latitude, inspired by the sea.
Shirley and the red team are serving on the first night, and their shopping and prep goes relatively smoothly. Emily is trying to make her dish a certain way and Shirley tries to steer her toward something that works better with the rest of the menu. Shirley manages to do it without a lot of drama or tears, which is arguably more impressive than any cooking anyone does on the show.
Brooke takes front of house for Latitude, and her calm presence keeps the dining room moving in a nice rhythm. The yin to her yang is Shirley’s intensity in the kitchen. Brooke describes it as, “bossy, but in a good way,” kind of like the Kelis song.
Padma, Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, Daniel, and Will arrive at Latitude for their first meal. I would have expected Padma to go with an elegant jumpsuit, but she went with a cocktail dress. The judges like the decor and the visual choices that the team made for the dining room, though the one questionable choice was for the seating to be benches. It seems a little casual. I also deducted points (because yes, I’m always keeping score) because I don’t care how casual or how fancy your restaurant is, benches are uncomfortable to sit on. Chairs. With. Backs. Please.
The first course comes out and it’s Brooke’s cured king salmon with pickled kohlrabi, Marcona almonds, and tiger’s milk. It’s a huge hit with both the judges and the other diners. The other appetizer is Emily’s squid ink tagliatelle with calamari, lemon bread crumbs, and shrimp butter. It’s a dish that sounds good and then just isn’t executed that well. It lacks the flavor you’d expect it would have.
The two entrees are Shirley’s snapper with bone broth, chile de arbol, and wild mushrooms, and Sylva’s pan roasted halibut with fennel dust, mushroom rice, and tomato chutney. Both are excellent dishes, though Sylva’s really stands out.
Finally, for the dessert course, the judges are pleasantly surprised and enjoy Emily’s poppy seed buttermilk cake with miso butterscotch, pistachios, and blackberries. They are, however, unpleasantly surprised by how much they don’t like Shirley’s plum wine panna cotta with cherries, toasted cashews and lychees. She had been concerned it wouldn’t set in time so she added gelatin and it ended up getting too firm. Overall, it’s a very good meal and experience and there weren’t many missteps.
Now for night two. The blue team has named their restaurant Southern Belle. Casey is walking the waitstaff through service and explains she wants to be the one greeting every guest and seating every table when they arrive, which is a bold statement to make, especially for someone who has already survived a Restaurant War before.
Back in the kitchen things are already heated between Katsuji and John. Since Katsuji has three dishes, he has the most to prep, but is getting more and more frustrated that John will not help him. There’s so much hostility and aggression but it’s hard to focus on it because I laughed for a full three minutes after seeing one of the food runners skeptically staring at the beef tongue like, “Wait, you’re going to cook and eat that?”
Tom, Daniel, and Will pop back into the kitchen and not only is it hectic and tense, it’s an absolute disaster. Katsuji, the king of 1,000 ingredient dishes, is also a mess when he’s cooking with all of those items. I don’t know how anyone could tolerate working in a messy kitchen like that. Didn’t everyone learn from their mom growing up to clean as you go? And also to wash dishes before putting them in the dishwasher and clean before the cleaning lady comes? It’s like in Glengarry Glen Ross, ABC: Always Be Cleaning.
Service begins and it’s busy and disorganized and Padma is not in a jumpsuit. She had three outfits in this episode and not one jumpsuit. I feel like my entire world is crumbling into the sea. If Padma does an episode without wearing a killer jumpsuit, does it even count?
Casey seats the judges but then disappears for a while mostly to put out fires. There are roasted nuts on the table, which is a nice touch. There are two appetizers. One is from Katsuji and it’s a sweet potato tamale with charred chile onion relish. It’s a mediocre tamale, but more importantly, it makes no sense on a Southern food menu. It is also not a family-style dish. The second is John’s pimento cheese crab dip with benne seed crackers. It’s fishy in the worst way. I’m from Maryland, and crab dip is basically one step below being its own religion. I could tell just from looking at it that it was not a good crab dip.
For entrees, we have another dish from Katsuji, fried green tomato & almond gravy beef tongue with green olives. The judges and diners all really enjoy it. They do not, however, enjoy Sheldon’s acorn squash stew with sorghum cod and eggplant crumble. It lacks a lot in both the flavor and texture departments, which are the two most important departments for food.
On the line, everything is falling apart. The system that John set up has completely broken down and no one knows what’s happening with most of the tickets that are back in the kitchen. At one point Casey comes back to check and ends up plating 17 portions of her dessert that was supposed to be handled by someone else while she was running the dining room.
The judges finally get dessert. They get yet another dish from Katsuji that’s a subpar blackberry cobbler with tequila whipped cream. The dough is undercooked and the tequila in the cream makes absolutely no sense. Casey’s strawberry lemon sorbet with buttermilk curd, meringue, and roasted strawberries is fresh, sweet, tart, and probably the best dish of the meal.
For the judges, determining which team won the challenge is a piece of cake. It is without a doubt Shirley’s team. Everyone put out good dishes and service ran smoothly, so there’s not much more anyone on that team could have asked for. The overall winner for the challenge though, is Brooke, for her great salmon dish and being a good general manager.
Now for the harder part — who goes home from Katsuji’s team. Even just during some questions from the judges, John and Katsuji explode into a fight. So who is at fault for this team’s performance? Is it Katsuji for taking on three dishes and then leaving the team in John’s hands? Or is it John for poorly expediting food and also making a not great dish? The judges decide that Katsuji is the reason for his team’s loss, so he must pack his knives and go.
I thought that the day we lost Katsuji would be the day there’s no “villain” on the show anymore. But despite John’s many claims that he’s calmed down, that therapy has helped him with his anger, that he’s nice now, John emerged in the last two challenges as the real one to watch.
And I think I’ll miss Katsuji’s bowties most of all.
Alison Leiby is a writer and comedian.