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Murder on the Orient Express: The Final Teams Go Head to Head on the Season Finale of "Last Restaurant Standing"

The dream has been achieved for one team.

On last night's season finale of BBC America's deliciously addictive culinary competition series ("First Class Service"), the final two teams faced off against each other as the prize--the chance to open a restaurant with famed chef and restaurateur Raymond Blanc--was within their grasp.

But before Raymond Blanc would make one couple his partners in a future restaurant venture, he would be putting both teams through their paces with one of their toughest challenges yet as Blanc tasks them with devising and serving a lavish five-course meal to the passengers aboard the famed Orient Express.

No mean feat this. The well-heeled clientele of the Orient Express expect the very best in cuisine, service, and atmosphere and, if that weren't enough for the teams to worry about, they also have to contend with the fact that they are preparing this meal in a small, cramped kitchen aboard a moving train. In other words: this could be a disaster.

So how did the final two teams fare in the final challenge? Let's discuss.

Overall, I have to say that I was both impressed and disappointed by both teams, both of whom made a wide array of errors in the final challenge. That said, I do think that they were both way out of their depth in such an elaborate and complex challenge such as this. Raymond Blanc really stacked the deck against them with the Orient Express challenge and that was the point: it wasn't to see who could pull off the better meal (though, certainly, that was part of it) but really to see which team was more adaptable, more flexible, more ready to roll with the punches... or at least the turns in the train tracks.

Alasdair and James. Throughout the competition, this team of best friends has been rightly slated by all and sundry for the lack of communication between kitchen and front-of-house and their side has often been let down by the inattention to detail shown by Alasdair. However, over the last few weeks, I do have to say that Alasdair has taken on board all of Raymond and the inspectors' criticisms and has shown more confidence and skill in front of house. The lack of communication, however, is felt all the more in this final challenge as bulldogish James keeps railroading Alasdair's efforts to know what is going on in the kitchen, resisting his requests for information about timing, etc. If these two have any hopes of eventually opening a restaurant of their own, they have got to work together better and learn to talk amongst themselves without getting defensive or aggressive, as they have in the past.

The duo started off the train journey on the right foot, offering guests aperitifs, champagne, and canapes... but their decision to offer travelers a bowl of mixed olives and a cheap disposable camera reflected a disconnection from their clientele. These weren't appropriate "gifts" to give customers aboard the Orient Express and James and Alasdair should have realized this. Nothing wrong with olives per se, but it lent the proceedings the atmosphere of a corner Italian trattoria rather than the lush excess of the fabled Orient Express. Likewise, the camera was the wrong signal to send. I get what the guys were going for but again wrong audience here. They should have offered something simple and elegant to takeaway from the train, not a cheap disposable Kodak from the local corner shop.

Big mistake trying to make risotto on a train and getting it out to customers on time. Risotto has to be eaten piping hot and there was no way that James could serve the risotto to all of his guests without it getting stone cold in the process; additionally James overcooked the rice, turning it to the consistency of porridge. (Ouch.) I understand why he thought--conceptually, anyway--that a summer vegetable risotto with broad beans would be a showcase dish but it failed on all fronts. Likewise, the ghastly lobster Thermidor and its accompaniment of bitter vegetables (loved the face Raymond made describing the bitterness of the turnip). This was intended to be a showstopper and instead the lobster was overcooked and rubbery and just looked... not right. This should have been elegant and refined but lacked any real panache. Not improving things was the fact that Ali never took a headcount of the guests aboard the train and told inspector David Moore that he had run out of lobsters... even though he actually hadn't.

The guys did make some good decisions, however. The idea to book a close-up magician was a good one and showed that they were looking to think outside the standards and they offered a superior cheese plate and a vastly wider selection of wine than their competitors. Additionally, James' dessert, a duo of strawberry and champagne soup and lemon posset, struck the right chord as a final course. But would it be enough to put them over the top?

Michele and Russell. I've been pretty hard on this couple throughout the competition because Russell is just so damn talented and Michele often lets him down with her scattershot attention to front-of-house details, frequent histrionics, and inability to receive criticism of any kind. To me, Michele is not the ideal business partner in any venture. She's far too given to make emotional outbursts and become bitterly defensive when faced with any sort of negativity. Her entire purpose of being is seemingly to create a welcoming atmosphere for the customers of The Cheerful Soul but she lacks the business acumen and the culinary knowledge to truly achieve that goal. Russell has been a patient and level-headed chef for most of the competition but recent weeks found him becoming self-doubting and slightly whinging at times. (Last week's risotto plating, for example.) Still, they've clearly been doing something right, winning Restaurant of the Week more times than any other couple and wowing the judges with their well-executed dishes that reflect the bounty of the English countryside. Would it be enough for the discerning palates of the Orient Express travelers, however?

Russell was extremely wise to offer a delicious broad bean and pea veloute served in a tea cup as a first hot course. Able to prepare the soup ahead of time, all Russell had to do was to simply warm the soup and serve it; the choice of a tea cup as a vessel for the green elixir was a stroke of genius that left diners wanting more rather than leaving them with a bowl of half-eaten cold soup at the end of the course. Sarah Willingham waxed ecstatic about the veloute, saying that she could have eaten a whole bowl of it. (Always keep them wanting more!) Up next was a spice and nut-crusted goat cheese salad which seemed fairly fomulaic and straight-forward. None of the wow factor of the previous dish and it screamed dining room standard, not Orient Express dining car.

The same was true of Russell's poached salmon with cucumber and dill salad, sauteed potatoes, and a lemongrass broth. Many complained that the dish was very cold and the flavors bland. Again, this is the sort of thing that would work quite well in the casual atmosphere of The Cheerful Soul and less well aboard an elegant train ride when customers are paying an arm and a leg. Likewise, I thought that their choice of entertainment--a musician and accompanist playing some songbook standards--was unoriginal and didn't quite match the theme or tone of their venue. (A train ride to Venice through the English countryside and the singer is crooning "Lullaby of Broadway"? Really?) At least the musicians got on the train. Michele failed to check to see that they did climb aboard the Orient Express and she last left them a long time before departure in the waiting lounge and then never checked up on them, only realizing after the train pulled away that she never double-checked to see they were on board. Fortunately, for her, the musicians were paying more attention than she was.

Russell did, however, prove himself willing to roll with the punches. Discovering that there were no freezers aboard the Pullman car, he still went ahead with his grapefruit sorbet, turning the dish into a lovely and delicious granita, which Sarah raved about ("you can taste every grapefruit") and which seemed to please the travelers as well. And when the biscuits for his double-decked dessert went crashing onto the floor, Russell didn't let it derail him, instead opting to transform the dessert into an elegant single-layer. Michele's gift boxes which tied in the English country theme of the evening were a little too down-home for my liking but Raymond seemed to appreciate the little touch of the countryside aboard the train. Still, not sure why Michele found it necessary to call Russell--while he was trying to prep all his dishes alone--when she couldn't figure out which tissue paper to purchase for the gifts. Priorities, anyone?

All in all, I thought that Russell and Michele winning was really the only plausible outcome here. I've thought that Michele and Russell were going to walk away from this competition with the big prize for quite some time now. In fact, they seemed like the front-runners since nearly the very beginning of the season, although they did make some pretty big missteps along the way. I do think Russell is extremely talented and Michele is a welcoming presence in the front of house; they both have a ways to go to become the professional restaurateurs that Raymond is expecting them to become but that's part and parcel of the learning process.

As for Alasdair and James, they both have a lot of growing up to do before they are anywhere near ready to take on a challenge of this magnitude. I would have been amazed if Raymond had decided to open a restaurant with them. They've proven that they are adaptable and take on criticism and suggestions but a partnership with them would be a hands-on operation, with Raymond pushing and pulling them constantly in order to get them anywhere near the level they need to be at.

What did you think of the final outcome? Would you have awarded Russell and Michele the top prize? Did the teams perform to the standards you thought they would in this final challenge? Discuss.

BBC has commissioned a third season of Last Restaurant Standing, which airs in the UK under the name The Restaurant. Stay tuned for news about when BBC America will schedule the third season.


Claire said…
I wish that Russell had not played it safe with his Orient Express menu. At least his food tasted good, though, and he was able to work well under pressure and in such a confined space.

I'm glad they won, even though Michele still drives me crazy. I couldn't believe she actually called Russell about the stupid tissue paper as he was prepping the entire menu alone! Crazy!
rockauteur said…
The episode was completely anticlimatic... heck, the whole season was... Russell and and Michele won Best Restaurant of the Week two out of the three times it was given out (at least on the american version), and were the obvious front runners all along, even if Michele knew nothing and couldn't make a decision for herself. Alisadar and James would have made a more interesting choice in the end, and a surprising one, and that's how i like my reality television.

Prediction: Michele and Russell will run their restaurant into the ground, just like the first season's winning couple.
Foodie said…
After watching both seasons I think that in spite of starting out with "innovative" contestants RB goes with those he considers to be the most "traditional" in the kitchen.

I was disappointed in the choice of Russell and Michelle - thought that there were far better couples. Heck, Michelle appeared to be clueless and her perpetual plastered on smile spoke of a more volatile personality that Raymond might not want to deal with in a business partnership. I know I wouldn't.

I also predict - like the poster above - that their restaurant will fail and fairly quickly. But maybe Raymond doesn't care. The purpose of all this is television and publicity for Raymond, and once the show is over - it's over.

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