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The Sea Bass is Actually Oysters: Teams Struggle to Get the Details Right on "Last Restaurant Standing"

I thought that last night's episode of BBC America's deliciously addictive culinary competition series Last Restaurant Standing ("Masterclass") was a fantastic way for the three remaining teams to prove their mettle to the master chef himself. For far too long this season, the chefs--and indeed their front-of-house counterparts--have been able to hide in the confines of their kitchen without Raymond looking over their shoulder too much. No more.

This week, Raymond put each team through a mini-masterclass, with the chefs cooking with him in the kitchens at the exquisite Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons (and undergoing an impromptu blind herb taste test) and the front-of-house staffers working a busy lunch service at perfectionist David Moore's London restaurant.

It was a suitable challenge for both teams, who would have to make sure that they got all of their details right, whether that meant cooking their turbot to the very point of perfection or making sure the chairs didn't touch the tablecloths at David Moore's restaurant. While some might quibble that you aren't going to get customers by being so punctilious about tablecloths/chair proximity, I would say that it's the details that matter: the little touches, whether they're elegant or just memorable or comfortable, are what keep happy customers coming back time and time again.

This week, something a little different as I want to take a closer look at the two remaining teams entering Raymond Blanc's final challenge, battling it out for the opportunity to go into business with the famed restaurateur.

Before we get to that, I just want to say that I wasn't at all surprised that Tim and Lindsie were the ones to get cut from the competition this week. While I really do like them quite a lot, they've been struggling since the beginning, though it was heartbreaking to see Tim give up quite that easily when Raymond asked him, if the tables were turned, if Tim would go into business with someone in his position, especially as Lindsie has rallied in recent weeks and blossomed into her role in front-of-house at their restaurant, True Provenance. That Tim would say "no," without thinking about the ramifications showed just how lost he'd become. For all of his business acumen, he was running True Provenance with an absurd 92 percent food cost, an astronomical figure that really does boggle the mind. There was no way that Raymond would go into business with someone who had that much in food cost and couldn't find a way to lower the percentage, even by increasing the prices on the menu. I'm sad to see them go but I think it was rather a done deal.

Which brings us to our two remaining teams, who couldn't be more different from one another: The Cheerful Soul's Russell and Michelle, who have won Restaurant of the Week more than any other couple this season, and The Gallery's James and Alasdair, who... just keep making mistake upon mistake.

Russell and Michele. Throughout the competition, I've been keenly aware of this team's strengths and weaknesses. It was easy fairly early on to peg these two as the strongest contenders for the title but they've been undone several times by Russell's lack of exterior passion and Michele's inability to handle criticism or grow a thicker skin. Russell has typically remained confident and unflustered in the face of stress, but this week showed a very different side of Russell: one that was whiny and uncertain about his abilities.

The dithering in the kitchen last night when it came to plating his risotto (for Raymond's Michelin-starred guests) was shocking to me as was the poncy manner with which he was attempted to present the dish: not in a bowl, piping hot on its own, but with squiggles and flourishes on the plate, all of which looked ridiculous. Raymond has been upfront about his desire for clean flavors and presentation: risotto, by its nature, should be served hot, slightly oozing, in a bowl. Not molded and upended on a plate surrounded by slashes of color. I'm not sure what shook Russell's confidence, but I am hoping that he regains it by the finale. I think he's an extremely talented chef and runs his kitchen efficiently and creatively.

Michele, on the other hand, I'm still not too sure about. She definitely lacks the culinary knowledge necessary in a quality front-of-house manager and she's far too easily flustered by criticism. In other words: she means well and tries to please but she can't quite muster the ability to get the details right. At David Moore's restaurant, she couldn't recall the names of the cheeses, dropped the bread on a customer, and just seemed frantic and in over her head. The same applies to her role at The Cheerful Soul. Tasked this week with getting the details painfully right, she let all quality slip: plates went uncleared, bottles of water sat empty, wine glasses piled up... when they arrived at all. If these two are going to win, they have to get it together and pay attention to the small things as well as they do the big things.

James and Alasdair. I'm sure a lot of you are wondering just how these perpetual ne'er-do-wells have ended up in the final challenge... and you're not alone. Throughout this competition, these two have danced so perilously close to the edge of the precipice that it seemed a foregone conclusion several times that they'd be sent packing. And yet here we are, about to go into the last round, and they're still standing. Somehow. James is an exceptionally gifted chef; he's proven that over the last few weeks and erased from my memory his first painfully awkward performance with that awful mash in Week One. It's pretty impressive all the more when you realize that he's only 25 years old. His skills, however, are matched by his ego and his lack of communication with his partner, best friend Alasdair. Slated for their lack of conversation between them time and time again, they still haven't quite taken this lesson to heart. There needs to be clear lines of communication between the kitchen and the front-of-house and on that front they are falling way short.

Alasdair has come into his own a little more each week as a front-of-house manager, gaining some much needed confidence and attempting to oversee the dining room with more authority. Last night's episode showed him trying to train his young waitstaff about wine, which was a very good thing, but then he failed to introduce himself to Raymond's guests until halfway through their meal, a very bad thing.

The problem with these two overall is that they continually make the WRONG decision: instead of making takeaway meals, they try to sell overpriced sandwiches to regatta attendants; instead of making bread (or bringing it in), they make canapes, which was unnecessary for their new brasserie-style service; instead of offering people a taste of James' cooking at a demo, they think it's unnecessary; instead of prepping for a private dinner, James takes off to pick up more chairs, leaving everyone scrambling. The list goes on and on, really. Whenever they are faced with a problem, they pick the the least correct solution. If they are going to win, they'll have to (A) work as a team, (B) balance out each other's strengths and weaknesses, (C) communicate, and (D) think things through before reacting.

Who do you think will win this final challenge? Who will become partners with Raymond Blanc and achieve their dream of owning their own restaurant? And which team will go home empty-handed? Discuss.

Next week on the season finale of Last Restaurant Standing ("First Class Service"), the final two teams must create and serve lavish five-course meals to extremely discerning passengers aboard the Orient Express before Raymond Blanc announces with which team he'll be going into business.


justjoan123 said…
Although at times it has seemed that because Raymond sees his younger self in James it will be James and Aladair standing last, I feel now that that honor will go to Russell and Michelle. And you may well have nailed the reason in emphasizing that the two unerring go for the wrong choice, time after time. They are simply too high-maintenance for a busy professional like M. Blanc. Had he the time to devote himself to grooming and training both men, then over time, yes, James' food and Ali's greatly improved FOH skills would produce a fine restaurant. But in reality, the winners will not really be given a restaurant, they will have a portion of a Blanc restaurant to run, profitably. The learning curve for Russell and Michelle will simply be shorter, and Russell, up until this week, was a calm, very competent chef. I'm betting on them.
I definitely have faith in Russell (in spite of his little tantrum this week) but just don't understand Michele's approach to front of house. She definitely wants to make people happy, which is a good thing, but I don't think she understands the blood, sweat, and tears that it takes to run a restaurant. And, instead of being open to learning, she behaves like a spoiled child whenever someone gives her criticism. It will be interesting to see if she holds it together during the final challenge.

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