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Just Desserts: Restaurant Wars on "Top Chef"

Ah, Restaurant Wars. My favorite Top Chef elimination challenge got even more heated last night with a showdown between the two teams that had to be seen to be believed.

While you read my advance review of last night's episode of Top Chef ("Restaurant Wars"), now that the episode has aired, there are still a few things left to to discuss that I couldn't until now.

For one, I was completely shocked to see just how poorly the blue team performed in last night's badge of honor challenge (or to quote Tom Colicchio, "badge of courage"). Was it overconfidence? Nerves? Lack of support from front of house? Or all of the above, really? I'm not entirely sure what went down in the blue team's kitchen in their upscale eatery, Mission, while I was certain that everything would implode in the red team's kitchen, especially with confrontation between the Voltaggio brothers an inevitability and the fractious paring of Eli and Robin.

So what exactly happened and how did the chefs perform? Let's discuss.

Before we get to Restaurant Wars itself, I want to reiterate my comments from the other day that this week's Quickfire Challenge has to be one of the best Quickfires to date, as the chefs were forced to cook relay-style, with each chef getting ten minutes in the kitchen before handing off the metaphorical baton to the next chef... without uttering a word about what they were doing. Oh, did I mention that they'd be blindfolded until it was their turn?

To say that this was complicated is a major understatement. Relay-cooking would be tricky at any time but each chef walked into a dish that was already underway and had to quickly adapt to what was in front of them, try to decipher the intent of the chef(s) before them, and execute a dish from the elements assembled that would hopefully build on what came before. To watch our cheftestants do just that was in a word: stunning.

The Red Team--Bryan, Michael V., Robin, and Eli--made a pan roasted New York strip with whipped miso, avocado puree, nasturtium salad, and pickled vegetables. I have to say that they worked quite well together as well, with Bryan ably predicting how Michael would best be able to finish the dish and preparing several elements for his brother to follow through with. But while an admirable effort, it didn't quite match up to what was going on on the other side of the Top Chef kitchen.

The Blue Team--consisting of Jennifer, Laurine, Mike I., and Kevin--prepared a pan-seared sablefish with sauteed mushrooms, ginger-shiitake-shrimp broth, and a radish salad with yuzu vinaigrette. (Poor Jennifer seemed to be all nerves in this episode, calling the sablefish "trout" here in front of guest judge Rick Moonen.) The team was able to follow through on what was set out for them and the credit really goes to Jennifer for creating that amazing stock in the first place, which made the dish sing. No surprise that they took home the win, which included a $10,000 chip. But rather than take the cash, the quartet decided to let it ride on the hopes of winning $10K apiece in the elimination challenge, if they won. Hmmm....

For their elimination challenge, the chefs would remain in their teams and would open up individual restaurant spaces in Rick Moonen's rm seafood space in Las Vegas. Due to the fact that the location was already a fully functional (and gorgeous) restaurant, the chefs wouldn't have to deal with the issues of decor and table settings as they had in previous years. As I noted in my advance review, I think that this was a smart move on the part of the producers; it removes the emphasis on an unrealistic complete overhaul of a blank space and puts it squarely on the cuisine. But the chefs would still be responsible for front of house and training their staff... and whoever was selected to man the front room would still be responsible for conceptualizing an individual dish as well.

So what did the two kitchens prepare? Let's discuss.

Red Team:
  • Eli: smoked arctic char with beet sauce, horseradish sour cream, and crispy potatoes
  • Michael: pressed chicken and calamari "noodles," tomato confit, and fennel salad
  • Michael: cod with parsley sauce, billi-bi croquettes, and zucchini tenderloin
  • Bryan: duo of beef with braised short ribs and prime NY strip with sauce matignon and sunchoke puree.
  • Robin: pear pithivier with intense vanilla bean ice cream, frangipane, almond praline, and elderflower syrup
  • Bryan: flexible chocolate ganache with spearmint ice cream and chocolate tuiles

Blue Team:
  • Mike I.: skillet asparagus with six-minute egg
  • Mike I.: arctic char tartare
  • Jennifer: trout with brown buter emulsion, hazelnut, and braised endive
  • Jennifer: Alaskan halibut with muscles and clams and saffron ailoi in bouillabaisse consomme
  • Laurine: lamb with carrot jam and green bean salad with herb dressing and morel mushroom sauce
  • Kevin: pork three-ways with maple-glazed pork belly, pork sausage wrapped in cabbage, cornmeal mousseline, and red-eye gravy

I knew right away just from glancing at the menu that this would likely be a very uneven battle. I understand the Blue Team's position that dessert is always tricky but what they needed to realize was that they were cooking not only for the judges but for their restaurant's patrons as well and after a meal like that, they do expect dessert of some kind. The Blue Team realized this and offered not one but TWO dessert dishes for the end of their meal; I think it was a wise choice. Desserts have led teams to lose Restaurant Wars in the past but dessert is also a critical and crucial element of any tasting menu. To decide not to put it on at all was a major oversight and blunder.

Mike's first courses were totally outshown in every respect by Michael's genius pressed chicken and calamari "noodles" dish (which netted him the overall win and, in an uncharacteristic display of generosity, distributed his $10K prize among his team). Asparagus and a six-minute egg? Really? At this point in the competition? Adding insult to injury, his artic char tartare was bland, underseasoned, and just dull. Unless you ate every bite with every single ingredient on the plate, it had no flavor whatsoever.

But even Mike's poor showing was nothing compared to Jennifer's unusual lackluster performance. I was stunned to see her cooking her shellfish to order in a course where she was also responsible for another warm dish. And she herself was more than chagrined that her brown butter was broken when it arrived at the judges' table. I was convinced that she would be going home, which would have made me chuck my television set out of the window. (Yes, Jennifer going home would have led to some serious destruction.)

Kevin was responsible for that truly gorgeous pork dish, which the judges were incredibly pleased with. It was ambitious, confident, and beautifully presented. But Kevin also really undercooked that lamb dish that Laurine concocted, which surprised the hell out of me. His precision and execution has been top-notch this entire competition so it was really odd to see him mangle the hell out of that dish.

Of course, Laurine didn't send the dishes back as she promised Tom she would if she was dissatisfied with how they looked at the pass. Her mismanagement of the front of house was appallingly bad. Was it the reason the Blue Team lost the challenge? It certainly added to it and made things even worse. (Look at the poise and charm of Eli in the Blue Team's dining room and compare it to Laurine's sullen, harried, and terrified behavior here.) I knew that it would come down to the judges choosing between Laurine and Jennifer, which had me freaking out that one of my picks for the Final Four could be booted only halfway through the competition.

But it was Laurine who would be packing her knives after all. I'm glad that the judges did the smart thing and kept the supremely talented Jennifer around. Yes, we've been told in the past that you're only as good as your last dish but they clearly see that Jennifer has talent, passion, and vision and there's no way anyone could keep Laurine around and boot Jennifer.


What did you think of this week's episode? Where did the Blue Team go wrong? Were you stunned that Robin was called out for praise for her pear pithivier? Who would you have sent home? Discuss.

Next week on Top Chef ("Meat Natalie"), TV Guide editors stop by to complicate the chefs' latest Quickfire Challenge with a list of shows to use as inspiration for "TV Dinners," the chefs are tasked with preparing dinner for Natalie Portman and her friends at craftsteak, Tom Colicchio's Las Vegas restaurant. But, as always, there's a catch.

Top Chef Preview: TV Dinners:

Top Chef Preview: It's Natalie Portman:


Mimi C said…
Jennifer looks exhausted. I think the pace and stress of the competition is just wearing her down physically and mentally. I hope she can make it to the final four so she can refresh her batteries and come back strong.
Unknown said…
Jace, great recap of the episode. I was also impressed by the serious skills shown by the chefs in the relay event. Not sure how they could make it any more stressful, unless they lit each chef on fire while scratching a chalkboard. The idea to ditch the oil poaching added to the team's win. I've never been thrilled with that technique.

Mike's cooking was exactly what I'd expect from Robin. I think I made the asparagus and egg in Home-Ec. when I was 12. And arctic char tartar is never a mind-blowing app. Adding, salt and pepper, with acid and oil to Arctic Char doesn't change the fact that it's raw salmon on a plate. Unless you're in Sweden, no one can eat an entire plate of that and be happy.

Moving on to the lamb. Kevin's explanation of what's rare and what's medium rare was a little shaky. He was obviously in the weeds, and didn't have time to rest the meat, which evens out the center, making it pink instead of red and raw. He knows better, was too busy to notice, and was more focused on creating a kick-ass pork dish-as he's the king of pork and has the tattoo to prove it. You can’t put all of the fault on Laurine for asking which was which, I’m sure Kevin put up four “rare” dishes and told her two were “rare” and two were “med-rare.”

As for dessert, that was indeed ballsy. You have to know your audience, err, diners. Since they're serving at a restaurant in the M resort, you have to expect at least 50% or more of the guests to be ladies, and ladies love dessert. Huge oversight, due to the fact there was NO LEADER. I mean come on guys, a tart tatin is the easiest thing you can make, and hell, and you can pre-cook all of them and fire them to order. Make a special lavender sauce with a sugar tuile and send it out. My question is what was Mike doing when Jen and Kevin were in the weeds? Was Jen too proud to ask for help? Was Kevin too set on creating a perfect pig dish to ask for help on the lamb?

Finally, Laurine dug her own grave. I think she felt like she was the weakest of the chefs, and decided that the front of the house would be a better fit. Unfortunately, most people don't know how stressful the FOTH can be, especially when the producers do their job (creating drama) by sending in ~85 diners at once. What did the chefs expect, a nice leisurely evening with two-tops?

If all things were equal, Jen should have been sent home. But due to her extraordinary skill set, and challenge-winning dishes, (plus bikini-ready bod, as promoted in the latest episode) she was given a "pass." Luckily for the judges and fans, Laurine gave an abysmal showing, and was called out for breaking her initial promise. I have no doubt she contributed to the poor dining experience, but the argument can definitely be made for Jen to "pack her knives and go." And yes, I would have done something destructive to the TV as well if Jen got the boot.
Eric said…
No way would they have sent Jen home. Not over Laurine or Robin who should have been thrown out of the kitchen weeks ago. Not making dessert was a big mistake.

@Chris What *was* Mike doing? Good question.
Alice said…
Yes! What WAS Mike doing? I can see why the judges were upset with Jen and Laurine but they were not hard enough on Mike who made two of the simplest dishes of the evening (and didn't even do them well) and then seemed to disappear when his teammates really could have used the extra help.

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