Top Chef: Restaurant Wars!

M: This week we got a super sized hour and 15 minute episode of Top Chef: Las Vegas.  With that hour they brought back another of the Top Chef Masters contestants, this time Rick Moonen, as the guest judge, and after a hilarious quickfire challenge they launched into what always turns out to be one of the best episodes of each season, restaurant wars.  For restaurant wars the contestants split into two teams, and each “starts” a restaurant, albeit for one night only.  One team shone, one team bombed, and we’ll let you know who…  after the break.

Starting off the episode we got a little clip into the “downtime” for the contestants, with Jen in a bikini joking with Laurine about cooking in just it and high heels that night, then voice over of Laurine talking about her apprehensions and yet confidence as the number of contestants dwindles, and a quick bit on the brothers Voltaggio competing, narrated by Kevin.  That was the entire scene, and as far as I could tell (at first) the point of it was for Bravo to prove that they understand that straight men do watch Top Chef.  More thoughts on this scene later, though.

Rick Moonen comes in, and we get introduced to the most bizarre (E: but awesome) quickfire, well, ever.  They spilt up into two teams, with Jen and Voltaggio-the-Younger getting to pick sides.  Jen ends up with Kevin, Mike I and Laurine, while Mike V ends up with his brother, Eli and Robin, who actually got along for an entire episode!  (E: Sweet relief!) The teams are informed that each team will cook only one dish, that they will work individually in 10 minute intervals, that they can’t talk to each other at all about what the dish is, and while the people before them are cooking they have to stand waiting….. blindfolded.  It was hilarious, as each person got to their turn and tried to figure out what the person before them was doing, and had to figure out what to do from there, but only have 10 minutes to do it all.  My favorite moments of it were Mike I staring at what Jen and Laurine had done before him looking flabbergasted for a good minute or more before figuring out what they’d done and where it was going, and then Kevin, noticing that each of the three before him had set it up for their fish to be poached and saying “yeah, but I’m not gonna do that”.  Just classic.  (E: I loved watching the contestants who’d gone before unable to direct their teammates; I thought Jen was going to chew off a finger watching Mike freeze and Kevin throw out her poaching oil.)

Both teams make good dishes, but Jen’s team won, largely because of her sauce, and because she set them up in her 10 minutes with a clear direction, while Eli did a ton and gave his team a lot of options, but not a clear direction, and each person took it a bit more their own way, so it wasn’t as cohesive.

The two groups remained in the same teams for restaurant wars.  In this year’s version both teams had a HUGE advantage over past seasons.  This year they took over Moonen’s restaurant, which has two floors and a separate kitchen for each.  Because of the established restaurant, they didn’t have to spend time, thought, effort or money on decor, which allowed them to focus their efforts on the food. (E: Do you suppose they couldn’t find the empty space, or that they’ve lost Pier One’s sponsorship?  Either way, it’s nice to see them concentrate on the food, although I’m certain they gave them less time to prepare it. M: My guess is that it was to have the contestants, as well as the airtime of the show, focus more on the food.) Jen’s team, renamed Mission after mission style architecture, took the fine dining floor, while Michael V’s team, renamed REVOLT (Robin, Eli, VOLTaggios, har har) took the more casual floor.  Michael took on the head chef role, whether they all wanted him to or not.  That ended up causing some stress, oddly enough not with his brother who you would expect it from, especially considering Bryan has his own restaurant and Michael doesn’t, but with Robin.  At one point they traded words, and both dropped some “colorful metaphors”, to quote Captain Kirk in Star Trek IV, or as it is more commonly referred, the one with the whales.  That led to a pretty humorous segment about Michael saying how nice a person he is and how confidence can be mistaken for arrogance, and how they’re no place for yelling and swearing in the kitchen, all while clips of him yelling, swearing and belittling people played in the background.  Very well put together. (E: Best mid-commercial bit of the season.)

On to the dinner service….  The judges went to Revolt first, and things went particularly well right from the start. (E: Well, after the judges stopped snickering over the name, anyway.) Eli was chosen to serve as ‘front of house’, being the maitre d’, and he did surprisingly well despite intentionally not tucking his shirt in, which he got called to task for at Judges Table.  Michael’s chicken and calamari appetizer was a HUGE hit with everyone, with Tom even trying to steal Padma’s so he could have more.  Interestingly, one of the big decisions in preparation, and one of the big differences between the two teams, was whether or not to do dessert as one of their three courses.  Revolt chose to do dessert, while Mission shied away because people had screwed up dessert in past restaurant wars and lost over it.  Well, Revolt’s desserts were both hits, including Bryan redeeming a chocolate ganache that he had not executed well in a previous quickfire, and Robin doing a peach pithivier that they judges all agreed was the best dish she’s done in the entire season.  It was nice to see her get some positive feedback, and maybe a touch more respect from her fellow contestants. (E: You can wish.  Michael was totally claiming responsibility for that dish.)

Misson was not so lucky.  Laurine was their front of house choice, and she did not do well at all.  She was late getting the serving staff ready, didn’t keep things running smoothly, kept disappearing, and at first didn’t even explain the dishes to the judges as she served them.  (E: To be fair, I don’t think she actually disappeared like Radika did last season; I think she was apologizing to costumers for mistakes.) Compared to Eli, and to what you would expect a good maitre’d to be, she fell very flat.  Watching it I wasn’t too upset, because if things went south for that team, she is the one who has shown the least promise.  (E: As it became clear how big the team’s failure was, I was praying it’d be her.  And I like her.) Then came the dishes.  Mike I did both first course dishes, and Padma, after having to call back Laurine to get her to tell them what the dishes were, had to ask for salt to be brought to the table for one of them.  Not good.  The seconds course was two seafood dishes from Jen, who appeared to be struggling the entire time, and once again made a good sauce, but the fish with it counteracted it, and the second dish missed as well.  It ended with Kevin cooking a pork dish (surprise!) really well (another surprise!), but badly undercooking the lamb that was technically Laurine’s dish.  (E: Jello lamb = nasty.) She had told Tom in the walk through during prep that anything that wasn’t up to snuff she’d prevent from leaving the kitchen, but because they were running way behind (having one person doing both dishes for a course?  Bad idea!  Jen steaming muscles and oysters to order?  Again, bad idea!) she rushed things out and didn’t hold any back.  Lastly, the judges all commented that there was not dessert.

In the end, Revolt won, with the judges saying it was the best restaurant wars offering ever.  Mike V took home the top honors for the week, earning him $10,000, which he promptly said he would share evenly with his team.  Maybe he does “probably have the biggest heart”, as he claimed in the bit on him I mentioned above.  (E: But of course his brother had to be pissy and decline it.  Bryan, I thought you were the mature one!)  Mission knew that they had bombed, and each one of them took it on the chin from the judges.  In the end, Laurine got sent packing, and while I think she was certainly not undeserving of that, Jen really bombed, and was probably worse in this particular challenge.  (E: It seemed that way, didn’t it?  I was super scared for her. M: Me too!)  However, I feel that the judges did take into account that Jen has been consistently better than Laurine, and on of the top contestants the entire season, which I think they should do, but didn’t seem to when they sent Ashley home. (E: Tom claims they never do that.  He explains that they considered only one of Jen’s dishes a full strike against her, while Laurine had two for failed service and the failed lamb dish. M: Yeah, I still think that may be rationalizing.  I know if it were me and I could find some sort of out, I’d go with the one that hasn’t been consistently at the top!)

Now, back to that opening scene I said I’d have more on later.  The thing I realized after knowing the outcome, was that it was one of the few times this season that they had any extended voice-over from Laurine, and it happened several other times during the episode.  Is it coincidence that it happened to be in the episode she got cut?  I thought back, and while he certainly had more than Laurine through the season, Ash had more voice-over time during last week’s episode where he got the boot, too.  Now, it could easily be a matter of the numbers being much smaller now than when the show started, however, there was far less focus on Robin and Eli and the tension between them, and more time spent on the person who ended up going home.  (E: There are often subtle clues in the editing, but it can just as easily be the person who will win over adversity.  You do always have to watch out for the first person who speaks, though!) Just something to watch for in next week’s episode, in which they’ll be cooking for Natalie Portman.


19 comments on “Top Chef: Restaurant Wars!

  1. Krizzzz says:

    I loved watching Robin get some recognition, and was pleased to even see Eli putting his animosity aside. I REALLY got steamed at Michael’s whole “relax. relax. RE. LAX.” Again with the pseudo-conciliatory passive-aggressive talking over somebody, to prevent them from making a potentially valid point, while ALSO making out as if THE OTHER PERSON is the only one having an issue. SO INFURIATING.

    I’m still not fond of Mike Isabella and his derogatory remarks, but how much did I LOVE him turning to Kevin with no hesitation and saying “You’re better at plating.” There are times when he shows a lot more of the Stuff, and I wish he’d lean harder on that side of his personality.

    • E says:

      I think Mike I is capable of being a self-less team player. I just think it’s easier for him to do that when he isn’t deferring to a girl. 😛 He does seem more respectful of Jen lately, at least, which makes me a feel a little better about him. Or maybe he looks better when compared to Michael V’s bs this episode.

      • Krizzzz says:

        I agree about Mike’s team capability. I think he’s had to admit that Jen is good, and he likes to win. But as you say, he seems to make the girls work harder for it: when Jen won a few weeks ago, it was supposedly because she’s good-looking, not because her dish rocked. I think enough evidence has piled up to prove EVEN to him that she’s really that good, but the double-standard was really irritating. I’d love to see him grow into the bigger person: when he’s on as a cook, he can turn out some good stuff, and when he’s funny, he’s funny.

  2. Krizzzz says:

    I also wondered if — even though they agreed that Jen cooking the fish dishes to order each time was a bad idea — they were a little impressed by the task she was trying to undertake.

    • E says:

      Mmm, good point. I’m sure they’s rather see someone fail by taking on something too ambitious than fail at something basic, while comparing (as they were) different ways of royally screwing up. I wonder if that counted against Kevin, too, because his failure to cook the lamb was a basic mistake, too. Of course since that was compounded by the servers not asking anyone how they wanted their meat cooked, it all goes back to Laurine in the end.

    • E says:

      (Oh, nice typos, E.)

  3. Krizzzz says:

    I’ve also been wondering about Jen’s sauce breaking: although the judgets absolutely called her on it, they didn’t zing her as badly for it as I might have thought. And I wondered if maybe they had the reaction I did: Jen didn’t seem to realize the sauce had broken…because it separated after she plated it? When Laurine was in charge of it? Laurine who promised not to serve anything that wasn’t perfect, and then put a plate of separated sauce down in front of Tom. The sauce was broken as soon as he got it: did Laurine not notice? I felt as if that was more Laurine’s gaffe (even if Jen overcooked the sauce), and it seemed that even though they didn’t mention it in her list of errors…they also didn’t hammer it home as hard in Jen’s list as I would have thought. So just wondering if maybe they also put that in Laurine’s column instead.

    • E says:

      That’s a very good point.

      I can see where Laurine went wrong – it’s one thing to say “I won’t send anything out that isn’t perfect” but when people are clamoring for their food, and it’s been a long time, I can see why they’d feel like they just had to get it out. I think it’s an impossible task, starting a restaurant in 3 hours. 😦

      Organization definitely seemed to be the missing link, and while they could have blamed anyone in the kitchen for not taking control, I’d say that’s why Laurine got the boot. It sounds like she should have told them to start cooking the judges second course as soon as the first course went out, and she didn’t. I don’t know enough about restaurant structure to know if she was the person who ought to have been doing that, but that’s certainly the kind of thing – expediting, haven’t they called it? – that was lacking and that they got massively dinged for.

      • Krizzzz says:

        Yep — I wish I knew more about Fancy Restaurants. There seems to be a lot about how a place is run that I’m only just starting to follow. The person in what they call the Front of the House seems to essentially be the maitre (maitresse) d’hotel — master of the house, in its full flower, and seems to be responsible not just for chatting up the guests, but for a lot of the organization and timing.

        • Matt H says:

          And, in all honesty, while, sure, that’s a responsibility for a chef who would own his/her own restaurant – if someone’s just simply a CHEF… should they be evaluated on how well they host? I’m not sure I think that’s fair. Because the goal here isn’t necessarily to open your own restaurant, is it? OK, nevermind, I take it back. According to the season 4 section of the website (the only place I could find mention of the prize,) part of the reward is: “The winning chef will receive $100,000 (I think it’s $125k now?) in seed money to help open a restaurant.” So, OK, fair enough, I guess, to judge on front-of-the-house, although it still seems to me that it should be a competition about COOKING. (I mean, we’re not judging them on, you know, how well their accounting books are in order.)

          • E says:

            I really hate seeing the Front of House people go home for just that reason, although being a celebrity chef must mean doing a lot of schmoozing with the customers, so I suppose it’s vital to running a restaurant that you know how, anyway. 😦 If you read Toby’s blogpost, he insists (somewhat oddly for a food critic) that food is actually the lesser part of the restaurant experience. (You’ll have to read it, because I can’t really do his argument justice.)

  4. Matt H says:

    That definitely DOES seem to be something with the show. If someone doesn’t get a lot of screen time in an episode, then they’re probably neither winning nor going home.

  5. Jacques says:

    Definitely a regular feature on both Top Chef and Project Runway. Liz and I have figured out that in the first 10 minutes of an episode, you’ll be able to pick out 5 or 6 of the contestants who will be in the top or bottom, though not necessarily figuring out who will be in which.

    On Top Chef, it’s why we heard so little from Laurine until the last couple of episodes, and on Project Runway, it explains why we still have so little sense of Althea and Logan (except for Logan being the heartthrob).

    • M says:

      I was thinking about who could be the Laurine of this week, and I think we’re in trouble. The wrench in the works for this theory is Robin. She has mostly been in the middle (a couple bottom appearances, with one quickfire a mixed in, but mostly safe), but because of all the drama we’ve heard a lot from her. So this week if we hear a lot from her at the beginning, it could mean she’s either top or bottom…. or not! Everyone else has gotten at least decent face-time, with Eli probably being the next lowest. It’ll be interesting to see.

      • E says:

        Well, of course it’s hard this week – and will continue to be so. While Robin and Eli seem the likeliest candidates to go home, if Mike Isabella or any of the fab four has a bad enough day and E/R has a good one, we could have trouble. The cuts are always harder when there’s no fat left.

    • E says:

      My least favorite editing habit on top chef comes particularly in the quickfire. Sometimes in the beginning when you’ve got 16 chefs (or what have you) you’ll get to see what six people are which. And, big surprise, those are the top and bottom three. And I get the need for compression, I really do, but how else are you going to get a feel for their cooking styles and their level of competence if you can’t see what they cook? REALLY frustrating.

      Telegraphing the winner and loser comes in second place as an annoying editing structure.

      BTW, Jacques, I saw your boy Spike on Extreme Makeover Home Edition last night.

  6. […] I began testing out the theory I mentioned in last week’s Top Chef review, where the people getting lots of air time during the episode are either going to win or go home […]

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