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Revolution is the Mission: An Advance Review of "Restaurant Wars" on "Top Chef"

There are few series more stressful (in the best possible way) than Bravo's culinary competition series Top Chef.

And there are few challenges that are more stressful that that of the pressure-intensive Restaurant Wars, a highlight of each and every season in which the chefs are split into two groups of four and told to open a restaurant in a matter of hours, planning everything from the menu to the decor and service.

On other series, this could be the culmination of the entire season, but on Top Chef, it's the halfway point, with the eight remaining chefs forced to not only participate in a team challenge (with their individual dishes either making or breaking their continued participation in the competition) but also to work their station, stay true to their vision, feed a dining room full of hungry customers, and turn out inventive, imaginative, and delicious dishes. It should be a cakewalk for these talented chefs, many of whom work on the line professionally, but it's always filled with chaos, confusion, and often calamity.

This season's truly sensational episode of "Restaurant Wars" airs tonight on Top Chef but I was able to take an early look at the episode and feel that it is hands-down the best (and most intensive) Restaurant Wars yet, pitting the two teams in a showdown from which only one will remain victorious. So who triumphs? That would be telling. While I won't spoil the outcome of the episode (you'll have to watch tonight), there are a few (minor-spoilery) things I have to say about this year's fan-favorite challenge.

As if Restaurant Wars wasn't enough to throw at the chefs, this week's Quickfire Challenge must be one of the most disorienting and difficult of any season. Again, I don't want to say too much but I will say that it (A) involves blindfolds and (B) really puts the pressure on the chefs to adapt to some unknown variables... and quickly. For the viewer, it's a real treat to watch as it really gets into the mindspace of the individual chefs and allows the viewers to follow the process of concept and execution on a scale we haven't seen so far on the series.

As for Restaurant Wars, this season's big challenge has some minor differences to other seasons but each of them is a step in the right direction. Gone for example, is the onus of the chefs to design the decor of the space and purchase plates, etc. I get what the producers were going for with that aspect of the challenge but it was an unrealistic and unneeded pressure to put on them with such a tight timeframe. Yes, decor and place settings are important parts of a restaurant's overall atmosphere and concept but when they have limited cash, limited time, and limited access, the raw spaces are inevitably rather cheesy-looking. (After all, it's Top Chef, not Top Design, though in future seasons I could see producers pairing the teams with interior designers to transform the raw spaces.)

And so this year's Restaurant Wars removes some of the pressure of decor by setting the action inside one of Rick Moonen's pre-existing restaurants, which has two dining rooms, two kitchens, and two very different essences on its two levels. The move places the emphasis squarely on the food and the service itself rather than bread plates and napkin rings.

As for the teams' performances, it's truly remarkable to see how well they do with this crucial challenge. With Elimination at stake (as well as, um, other considerations), it's imperative that the two teams dazzle the judges with well-executed dishes while also pleasing the diners. But that's not exactly what happens on tonight's episode. There are some major screw-ups, some surprising downfalls, and a general excess of stress, nerves, and bad decisions. (Also look for some major sparks to fly between the two Voltaggio brothers, both in the Top Chef kitchen and at the house; the competition between the two siblings is heating up in some very nasty ways.)

When the chips fall, you might be surprised by who performs well and who doesn't. To say that this episode had me on the edge of my seat would be a glaring understatement. It's more truthful to say that my heartbeat was pounding through my chest in a way that you might mistakenly think that I was on the line in one of these kitchens.

All in all, tonight's fantastic installment is intense, stunning, and surprising. All of the things that really go into making Top Chef the addictive thrill ride that it is week after week. Just be sure to eat ahead of time and prepare to be spellbound in more ways than one.

Top Chef: Las Vegas Preview: Blindfolded Relay Race:

Top Chef: Las Vegas Preview: Michael V. vs. Robin:

Top Chef airs tonight at 10 pm ET/PT on Bravo.


foodie2d said…
Hurray! I love the restaurant wars challenge (even though it totally stresses me out every season). From the preview, it looks like the Voltaggio brothers are on one team and Jen and Kevin are on the other team, which means it's pretty evenly split in terms of talent. Should be fun!
Hadley said…
I'm so happy that they don't have to worry about the decor anymore. As you said, since they don't really have any time or money to put into it, it always ends up looking pretty lame. Let's just concentrate on the food!

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