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Wedding Wars and In-Fighting on "Top Chef"

I have always loved the "Restaurant Wars" challenge on Top Chef. It's creative, dynamic, and revealing, allowing the teams of cheftestants to create and work in their own original restaurant concepts and go head to head to prove to the chefs which of them is the best competitor and the strongest leader/chef.

I was happy, however, that the producers decided NOT to include this challenge on this season of Top Chef and instead keep things more spontaneous and intriguing. Even though there were eight contestants remaining and they were separated into two teams... they would instead be competing against each other by catering for 125 people each at a wedding.

Now I'm getting married in, oh, exactly five weeks from today, so I know how much work and preparation go into the Big Event (my fiancée and I have been planning for nearly a year now), so to give these teams a day and a budget of $5000 is a huge ask. I was curious to see just how they'd devise the menu, work to please their client (either the groom or the bride) and, um, construct an elaborate wedding cake on top of that, all on little to no sleep whatsoever.

I was thrilled to see that one team definitely rose to the occasion, while the other.... well, they just devolved under a lack of leadership into name-calling, aggressive theatrics, and throwing one another under the bus. Gee, what a surprise. I knew from the second when Dale punched that locker and threw out a charming little exclamation (right in front of Tom, no less!) after losing the relay challenge, that this team was already sinking fast. But that's what happen when you put such strong personalities such as Dale, Lisa, Nikki, and Spike on the same team. While Dale has some mean cooking chops, the other three have yet to impress me a single time this competition and just irk me to no end. No, it was clear which team I would be routing for here.

Across the kitchen, on Richard, Antonia, Stephanie, and Andrew's team, it was quite a different story though it was clear that Andrew was straining a little under Richard's leadership for no real reason. I thought that they got a clear and concise brief from their client (they had the right of first choice and went for the bride) and I am happy that they did select the bride to cater for. As married Richard explained, it is her day and they wanted to make her happy. It also gave them a bigger challenge to meet her expectations and I think, in this competition, you often have to make the hard choices and push yourself to win.

So what did they end up cooking? The bride expressed that she, like Richard, was from the Atlanta area and loved down-home Southern cooking. The team definitely delivered on this front offering a selection of passed canapes, including their take on a pulled pork sandwich with a homemade pickle, little mini-pizzas with delicious crusts topped with prosciutto and goat cheese, short ribs and blue cheese in phyllo with almonds and a red wine gastrique. For their buffet-style dinner, they offered some delicious options including a 24-hour braised brisket of beef, creamed spinach with star anise (which, sadly, overwhelmed the spinach a little), and potato gratin, a fillet with horseradish sauce and red wine syrup, a crunchy chicken dish (courtesy once again of Andrew).... and a gorgeous tiered wedding cake made by Stephanie with alternating layers of chocolate and lemon, which she decorated with piped frosting and fresh flowers. (It was a thing of beauty.)

Glad that Richard was named the winner of this challenge (his leadership and vision are second to none) and it was sweet of him to give his prize to Stephanie for her hard work on the wedding cake... though I am sure Richard's wife was none too pleased that he gave away $2000 from Crate & Barrel. Ouch.

On the other team, they stuck to the groom's Italian request. Nikki, Signora Italia herself, should have put herself in the leadership role in this challenge but whenever any member of her team had a question, she refused to give them an answer or point them in the right direction. In the end, their food was messy, not very well planned, not particularly Italian, and disjointed; it was rather comical as she started the challenge in the driving seat and then within a few minutes drove her team right off the cliff when she refused to keep her hands on the wheel. Dale ended up doing about 50 tasks himself while Spike focused solely on one dish after grilling the vegetables (or most of them) for the antipasti... which ended up far too messy and greasy. Despite having a huge assortment of veg to choose from, it didn't seem all that appetizing and looked heavy and soggy on the buffet table.

While this team was meant to be forwardly Italian, the food didn't totally seem authentically Italian; rather it was like a caterer's idea of traditional Italian cooking: rock-hard bruschetta with roasted tomatoes (impossible to eat), overly sweet butternut squash tortellini (more like dessert, according to Tom), boring and dry mini-pizzas. Like the other team, this time also cooked a filet mignon with horseradish cream, but that cream was completely vacant of any flavor; the beef was served with potatoes and looked a hell of a lot less tasty than Richard's dish. I loved, however, that the judges far preferred Dale's "Italian" cuisine--his pork and beef ragu with pasta--to Nikki's dishes, given that she is an experienced Italian chef. Shocking. Spike's single dish of Chilean sea bass with artichokes, capers, olives, and tomatoes were said to be delicious, but it took him "three hours" to do, according to Dale. Lisa's groom's chocolate hazelnut cake--which to be honest, looked like an atrocious battleship designed by a ten-year-old--allegedly tasted good and the judges actually preferred the taste of her airy, chocolate/nutty cake to Stephanie's, which looked far superior.

It was no surprise that Nikki's team was summoned before the judges as the losing team. I don't feel like they (A) worked well together as a team and (B) didn't dazzle the guests or the judges with their food. It felt like catering food and not the work of one or four Top Chefs. It was extremely disappointing and actually bordered on the embarrassing, especially when they began to squabble in front of the judges. Dale and Spike's behavior was utterly ridiculous, given where we are in the competition at this point. Down to eight chefs, are you really going to make yourself look so immature in front of the people holding your future in their hands? Really?

While I was glad that Dale said that he did the lion's share of the work on this challenge, it's true that he didn't do all of it very well. The crostini for the bruschetta was tooth-crackingly dry, the beef was overcooked, the horseradish cream lacked flavor, etc. So, yes, if Dale hadn't done the work, no one would have as no one was running things on the team or assigning roles (and I am still not sure why Spike asked Dale to finish his zucchini)... but he should have performed these many duties with the utmost skill and patience. As for Spike, I think he's always looking for ways to coast on by and this was no exception; he focused all of this energies into one dish to try and dazzle the judges without being a team player. Plus, calling Dale a "little bitch" didn't exactly help the way I look at Spike. Idiot.

Ultimately, I am glad that it was Nikki who would be packing her knives and going home. I haven't been impressed with her throughout this competition and her behavior in this challenge--shutting down instead of stepping up--belied a real lack of leadership and initiative. She might already have her own restaurant but she certainly wasn't behaving like a Top Chef.

What do you think? Should Nikki have gone home? Or should the judges sent Dale packing for his shocking behavior and lack of anger management?

Next week on Top Chef ("Serve and Protect"), the chefs are tasked with reformulating the humble salad and then must trim calories and fat with a reinvention of a classic entree. Oh, and former cheftestant Sam stops by as well. You were waiting for that, weren't you?


Jennifer said…
I might be wrong on this but I believe that they're still going to be doing Restaurant Wars this season but with 3 against 3 like seasons 1 and 2.
iko said…
I agree with you - Nikki definitely was the correct choice to send home. And, Dale has been impressive all season, maybe a little bit angry, but what chef isn't? I just really HATED this challenge. "Restaurant Wars" is at least relevant to being a Top Chef. Catering a wedding? Not so much.

I really enjoy your recaps...keep them coming!
Anonymous said…
I dunno...I kind of felt that Dale should have been sent packing for so many reasons. depsite a decent track record throughout the season, we knew that TC is never shy about sending someone home after one bad night (call it Tre syndrome).

After the knives were drawn, in 4 seasons of TC I don't think I've ever been so sure about which team I was rooting for. Also, least surprising winning team/losing team ever. It was so lopsided - no amount of editing could make me think otherwise.
I would have been happy if all four chefs from the losing team were sent home. There was absolutely no reason for Nikki to still be around. Spike is all talk and not much talent. Lisa has failed to impress (although I was impressed that she, and only she, wisely kept her mouth shut during elimination). And Dale? His skill in the kitchen has previously been enough to allow me to overlook his bad attitude but not so in last night's episode. That was not the behavior of a Top Chef but, rather, a two-year-old throwing a tantrum. And I love how he and Spike hugged afterwards (once they knew they weren't going home). It made me gag.

I had high expectations for the other team and was delighted that they came through. I think that Richard is the one to beat this season but I'm hoping that he, Antonia, and Stephanie face off as the final three.

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