It’s not difficult to judge most reality TV competition shows from the comfort of your couch. On Project Runway you don’t need to be there to see if a dress looks good; on the old Trading Spaces it was clear which interior designer did a better job; and on Chopped I don’t have to be present to know I don’t want to eat any of that garbage. Top Chef is different though.
A longtime Top Chef watcher like me doesn’t hesitate to form strong opinions about dishes the cheftestants present to the judges. But really, I have no idea whether a meal was good or not. I can see the artfulness of the plating and the reaction of the judges and the coherence of the narrative behind the food, but I’m not actually tasting it, so who am I to judge?
Well, dear readers, it took until season 17 of our favorite reality TV cooking competition for me to have to wonder no more. Last night I was one of the gawking psychos bellying up to the trough to dine during Top Chef’s signature episode “Restaurant Wars.” I arrived on location that day ready to unleash hell with withering critiques like, “Oh, you decided to use mint in this salad? THAT’S A CHOICE, I GUESS.” How would the cheftestants withstand such a barrage? Well, I’ll never know. Because I didn’t really have a bad thing to say about the meal I ate that day—it was so much better than I imagined the food would be in a cooking competition show. In fact, if what I visited were a real restaurant, I’d definitely tell my friends to go there and eat too. But would that restaurant win the day? Let’s dive into the episode.
On this expanded edition of Top Chef there was still no time for dilly dallying with a quickfire challenge. The chefs were summoned to the kitchen not to participate in a mini-competition, but for the captains for this Restaurant Wars—Gregory Gourdet and Our Favorite Ginger Beard Kevin Gillespie—to choose up sides and start building their concepts.
Kevin gets first selection and he picks Flat-Brimmed-Dad Bryan Voltaggio. Of course, that means Gregory will pick Melissa King second. Not so fast! He takes Brian Malarkey to ensure he has a front-of-house person on his team. Melissa goes to Kevin, Lee Anne Wong to Gregory, Karen Akunowicz to Country Captain and Stephanie Cmar to Kann, but she proves to be a very valuable pickup on the day.
The Guest Judges
The champ is back. Stephanie Izard, who judged the pitches in last week’s episode returns to see the full concept along with her restaurateurs Kevin Boehm (also from last week) and Rob Katz, the two James Beard Award winners behind Boka Group in Chicago.
With the teams divided up, they’ll create Gregory’s Kann, a Haitian restaurant, and The Country Captain, Kevin’s ode to a lesser known dish of the South and Southern home cooking. It’s apparent early on that Kevin plans to be much more expansive, offering more dishes and giving the other three chefs more leeway to be creative. Whereas Stephanie makes it clear that Gregory was pretty steadfast in the food he wanted cooked on the day, not leaving a lot of room for his teammates to put personal twists on the Haitian menu.
The teams split, purchasing for the kitchen and the dining room. That’s when Ginger Beard and Karen get TESTY with Malarkey and Lee Anne because they feel the Kann team is stealing their idea for serviceware. “Oh, of all these fucking plates, you guys can’t find anything else that works than our established place setting? That’s kind of fucking chintzy. Whatever. I think it’s bullshit, but whatever.” Ginger Beard says, losing his cool for the first time this season. Malarkey can bring this out in people, but it’s strange to see Kevin this off his game. He seems to be feeling the pressure right now.
- Gregory: Twice-cooked pork; stewed chicken; white rice; kidney bean sauce
- Lee Anne: Mixed salad with habanero-lime dressing; pineapple upside-down cake with rum raisin ice cream
- Stephanie: Fried green plantains; salt cod patties; pikliz
- Malarkey: Whole roasted red snapper
The Country Captain
- Ginger Beard: Country captain with curried chicken and yellow rice; warm banana pudding
- Melissa: Chicken liver mousse on brioche; hasselback potato in raclette;
- Voltaggio: Smoked trout puff with caviar; crab louie; dilly beans; shrimp and grits; cucumber pickles
- Karen: Madeira glazed mushrooms; red pepper relish
Let’s check in with Ginger Beard’s teammates to see how they’re feeling about serving twice as many dishes as their competitors:
- Karen: “It’s going to be tough. But it’s also Restaurant Wars, what are you going to do? Make four dishes and call it a day?”
- Melissa: “I feel executing 12 dishes is aggressive.”
- Voltaggio: “There’s a lot running through my head. Country Captain is 12 dishes so there’s a lot to scrutinize, so I don’t know if we’re overexposed or not with this menu. This is a big load.”
Not great, Tom.
Kevin is either setting up his team for a huge success or an epic failure and not leaving a lot of room in between. The bad news is, he’s trying the sauce of his country captain and he knows it’s not as good as the one he presented in the pitch.
The first night of prep finishes and the teams regroup at the house and then quickly get back to it the next morning to complete work before opening for service. And they don’t have all day to do this because, although you wouldn’t know it from watching the episode, they’re serving at lunchtime, not dinner. Karen immediately has the Restaurant Wars front-of-house lament, which is that her prep is taking too long to give her enough time to go and fully train her wait staff. And as the Country Captain team looks over at Kann’s kitchen they see all the staff in a lineup meeting having the dishes explained to them and getting the opportunity to taste each one. Meanwhile, Kevin’s team doesn’t have time to fire dishes for a lineup and you can already tell they’ve given themselves too much to do.
The restaurants both open and some calming music plays. Perhaps they’re both going to pull this off easily. Karen heads to the back and sees the beautiful canapes being plated for table 8 and as she confidently strides out to the dining room she drops on of them on the ground. Foreshadowing!
Over on the Kann side, Lee Anne looks ready to murder some servers who aren’t adhering to her expediting system. Stephanie, stepping up as a truly calming presence, sees the waiter abuse happening and steps in to take over expediting.
And this is where I come in. I’m not given the option of where to eat, or given any clue as to who will be cooking, but I’m taken to Kann. At this point, I have no idea who the eight remaining cheftestants are, but then arrives the man in the straw hat himself, Mr. Malarkey. He lets us know our food is going to be a while because, well, the judges are going to be eating before us and that’s the way it is. You could kind of sense that the rest of the place went on pause once the Padma, Gail, Tom and crew rolled in.
I read the menu and I was intrigued, because I’d never had Haitian food before. Knowing this was an All-Star season and seeing Gregory’s first name on the menu, I knew it was Gourdet leading the kitchen that day. The dishes began rolling out with the pikliz, the crunchy pickle with a touch of spice that you could snack on alone or put on anything to give a nice punch of acid. Unlike the judges who thought the pork was a little dry, ours was a perfect, unctuous little bite to start the meal off. The plantains were a touch bland, but a good vehicle for the pikliz. The cod patties were golden bites of goodness, with a great texture. The fish had a warming subtle spice and was perfectly cooked, while the sauce to the braised chicken thighs reminded me almost of barbecue sauce without the sweetness, but with hints of smoke. And the dessert that the judges thought may have been a bit sweet was cooked in such a way that the exterior had an almost crispy quality like a donut right out of the fryer. It was an addictive capper to the meal. Everyone at our table agreed with Tom Colicchio’s assessment: “It just feels like a restaurant and in a lot of Restaurant Wars it doesn’t.”
I didn’t get to try any of The Country Captain’s food, but I could see their dining room and telling they were absolutely crushed and in the weeds. It looked like a really tough service for them and what aired on the episode bore that out.
Top Chef… for Now
By the time the cheftestants arrived at judges table, the choice seemed clear. Kann was a complete vision of a restaurant, executed well. Rob Katz said he’d definitely go back to the restaurant, and that’s high praise from a great restaurateur like him. Gregory, Lee Anne, Malarkey and Stephanie win Restaurant Wars and $10,000 each.
Pack Your Knives and Go
Coming into Judge’s Table Karen has the fear of God in her eyes. She knows front of the house was a struggle and she didn’t get to finish her dish. When she finds out Tom hated her mushrooms, she turns to her team and blames them while Melissa keeps her cool. But the real problems on the day began at the top. The concept wasn’t sharp enough, the menu too ambitious, the décor not in line with the original pitch and the execution lacked Kevin’s normal excellence.
“Kevin, this is your concept, this is something really close to you, how do we not send you home right now?” Tom pointedly asks.
Kevin seems to take a beat, but then takes responsibility. He said the faults land firmly on his shoulders and he wouldn’t throw anyone under the bus. The buck stops with him.
And seemingly without any of the usual deliberation, Padma tells Kevin, “pack your knives and go.” It felt more like “Fall on your sword and go” for Our Favorite Ginger Beard. This country captain has gone down with the ship and one of the competition’s strongest competitors is out.
On the next episode of Top Chef: Anger, tears, elation, disappointment, deception, resignation and famous last words? Some of these things will occur in the remainder of this All-Star season, tune in to find out which ones.