This week on Top Chef, it was time for the most famous of Top Chef challenges, the one we’ve all been waiting for, RESTAURANT WARS! That’s when two teams of chefs go head to head, toe to toe, crudo to crudo, and fight to the death (culinarily) for the right to be named the best at preparing food (God, humans are so awesome). The big question this year was whether the teams would be able to avoid committing any restaurant war crimes, like genocidal ceviche or bouillabaisse ethnic cleansing.
I kid, but this year’s restaurant wars would look a little different. Why? Because they filmed this show during the quarantine. The big change this year was that Restaurant Wars would be a “chef’s table” challenge. Which, as Padma explained, is a “tasting menu experience that can cost hundreds of dollars a head, with the chefs taking center stage.”
Chefs taking center stage, you say? Hey, why haven’t we done it this way before? In concrete terms, this meant: no patrons, no hosts, no waiters — just cheftestants and judges, sitting inside a thin facsimile of a restaurant. Which is to say, a lot like every week of Top Chef. Only now with a seven-course tasting menu and the demand that the chefs’ dishes fit a concept.
Speaking as a guy who made his Bravo TV debut in last season’s Restaurant Wars (I played “Husky Boi Who Enjoys Dessert”), even I have to admit that I enjoyed this new patron-free, waitstaff-free incarnation of Restaurant Wars. Sure, I got some decent joke mileage out of day-rate waiters claiming to not recognize Padma Lakshmi (I can understand maybe not knowing who she is or her name but every facet of her persona screams “famous person” from 30 yards away) but at the end of the day, it really is about the food. Content, decor, and dining experience influence how that food is perceived, but waiters running food to the wrong tables or mixing up tickets is mostly just a distraction from that drama, not a compliment to it. Yes, those are all important aspects of running a restaurant, but so is doing your taxes. And I ain’t watchin’ that show. Is this Top Chef or Top Middle Manager?
The teams were chosen via coin flip, in honor of the way this year’s host city, Portland, got its name (had it landed differently, Portland, Oregon might be called Boston, Oregon). Thus proving that history isn’t always interesting.
The teams shook out this way:
Shota, Jamie, Byron, Maria
Restaurant Name: Kokoson
Concept: Latin-Asian fusion. Or more specifically, Latin food persented in the style of Japanese kaiseki.
Team Leader: Shota
Front Of House: Maria
“Kokosun” was intended as a portmanteau of the Japanese and Spanish words for “heart” — kokoro and corazón — which made me think the restaurant name was going to look more like “Kokozón.” Kokosun looks funny to me, but hey, that’s why they’re chefs and not English majors (thank God). More importantly, the concept was nuanced but fairly clear. I thought at first it meant that the food would just be Latin and the service style Japanese, but with dishes that included “sesame mole” and “shrimp machaca,” I suppose the dishes themselves were actually Latin-Asian hybrids. That kind of thing can be disastrous, but they made it work. Mostly it seemed they succeeded through solid planning. They had clear roles — Maria as front of house — and a clear structure that inspired creativity from the chefs rather than hindered it.
Team Grade: A- (winner)
Sara, Gabe, Chris, Dawn
Restaurant Name: Penny
Concept: Seafood. Any damn kind of seafood.
Team Leader: Gabe
Front Of House: Everyone/No One
I actually forget why they chose the name “Penny,” which probably says a lot right there. This seemed like the textbook example of when too-loose management and structure can actually hinder creativity. Everyone wasting time wondering what’s going on and what their responsibilities are when they should be thinking about and developing their dishes, concept, service style, etc. “What if everyone just did everything?” is not a great way to share responsibilities, it turns out. Rather than loose and fun, their lack of a front-of-house manager just meant everyone was hyper-focused on their dishes and left the guests feeling neglected and the environment tense.
Never has a room so desperately needed a Brian Malarkey or a Richard Blaise. And I promise, I never say that.
Notable Critique: “I like the driftwood.”
Team Grade: C+ (loser)
8. ((Eliminated)) (-5) Sara Hauman
AKA: Tails. Yogurt. Portlandia. Trapper Keeper. Manic Pixie Cream Sauce. Fiddlesticks. The Queen Of Comedy.
The chef I nicknamed Tails landed on Team Tails! What sweet validation! You know, in an entirely coincidental kind of way.
I admit I’ve been a little hard on Sara this season. But only because I feel like pop culture has finally moved beyond “socially awkward people are cute!” and Sara never got the memo. I understand being self-conscious and hyper-self critical but there also comes a time when you have to quit hand-wringing and put your goddamn name on it. Self-doubt? It’s not that special! Choke it down and pretend like the rest of us.
All that being said, I actually cried out “Come on!” when Sara got eliminated this week. Come on! True, Sara made a creamy halibut dish that everyone hated and a salmon skin dish they loved, which was more or less the same pattern as her teammate Chris, who made a bad pasta and a good ice cream, and the judges seemed to like Chris’s ice cream more and hate his pasta less than Sara’s salmon skin and creamy halibut. BUT, shouldn’t history factor into this *just a little*?? Sara has been near the top of every challenge and Chris should’ve gone home three episodes ago.
Christ, I know I just got through saying I was fed up with her Anxious Annie act, but you’d think Sara deserved the benefit of a little doubt by now.
“I’m about to ‘turnip the beet!’ lol!” (Sara didn’t actually say “lol” but I feel it was strongly implied). “I’m a little worried, because ‘global cooking’ doesn’t generally do well as a concept.” “I need to embrace the weird.”
“I honestly did not enjoy this dish at all.” (the halibut). “This dish was quirky and I think that’s when you’re at your best.” (the salmon skin)
7. (+1) Chris Viaud
AKA: Stretch. Butter. Kelso. Kelpso.
HOW IS CHRIS STILL ON THIS SHOW?? I realize that I was gone last week, but uh… remember when Chris served the healthcare workers grilled chicken breast because he thought that would be comforting? Mmm, yeah, who doesn’t want to tuck into a gloriously mealy, flavorless piece of edible sheetrock? Just like mom used to make! Also, grilled chicken breast is the very definition of “hospital food.”
Chris’s brilliant reasoning continued this week, when, hot on the heels of last week’s “chicken breast will be great comfort food” debacle came the equally brilliant reasoning “they thought my yolk-dough pasta was dry last time I made pasta so I’ll use whole eggs this time.” I realize I’m not a professional chef here but “less fat” is not generally a solution to dryness (hey, but enough about my fetishes…).
His pasta turned out “dry” and “brittle,” with Amar Santana asking “are there eggs in this pasta?” which is almost never a good sign. Chris needed a Hail Mary to stay in this competition and surprise surprise, he actually completed one. It was his dessert that saved him, which was, of all the f*cking things, seaweed-flavored ice cream. This was not only not disgusting but apparently so good that Dale Talde demanded seconds. Unreal.
In honor of this epic algae culinary buzzer beater I’m changing Chris’s nickname from Kelso to Kelpso.
“Flavor-wise this dish is good, but his pasta technique is just not there.” “I wanted to hate this dessert but I really love it.”
6. (even) Byron Gomez
AKA: Manolo. Burger King. Goldblum.
I’m not sure where to put Byron, who did both of his dishes with Jamie this week — a sockeye salmon crudo with rocoto curry sauce, and a tres leches cake with pineapple compote. By the way, that tres leches was basically the spiritual opposite of Chris’s seaweed ice cream. If “seaweed ice cream” is an awful-sounding thing that I would never order in a million years, tres leches cake would get my order roughly a million out of a million times. And remember, I say this in my official capacity as Stocky Daddy Who Saved Room For Cake.
The crudo received mixed reviews — delicious curry and nicely cured salmon, but did they fit together? The judges, not surprisingly, loved the dessert. So where does that leave Byron? Hell if I know. Byron has turned staying int the middle of the pack into a science.
5. (+2) Maria Mazon
AKA: Gas Can. Backdraft. James Brown. Mole Maria.
It was a little touch-and-go for Maria there at the beginning, when we didn’t know how her boisterous style as front-of-the-house manager would fit a fancy-schmancy chef’s tasting menu dinner. It felt a little like she was cracking Bud Heavies during tea at the Plaza at first there. “Do you usually interrupt your guests’ conversations like this?” Richard Blaise asked early on. This is a great point, waiters should be seen and not heard. Think of them as the opposite of Josh Gad.
But if Maria’s style was overly intrusive, it was also welcoming, and miles better than Team Penny’s tension-thick cold shoulder. In the same vein, Maria’s main dish was a lengua sando (another automatic order for this lengua-lover) which seemed perhaps a little down-scale for a fancy kaiseki dinner. But that quickly didn’t matter when the judges tasted how good it was. As Richard Blaise said it (I’d nickname him “Quippy” if he was still a contestant) “You’re all dressed up and the next thing you know you’re eating tongue sandwiches.”
“Tongue sandwich” is what I’m going to call making out from now on, by the way. “Ayy, why you lookin’ so good all of a sudden? I oughta give you a tongue sandwich.”
Anyway, Maria finally got her first win this week. It was well deserved, though I’m not sure how much of that was because of her food.
“I’m like Monica from Friends, the hostess with the mostest.”
“Can I dip it? I’m in.” “In a menu like this, I think you wanna have the fun sandwich up front.” “This her best mole yet.” “This is the best tongue I’ve ever tasted.”
Wow, Padma. The best tongue you’ve ever tasted? Brutal burn for all of her current and ex lovers. Sorry, Sir Salman Rushdie, you may have a knighthood but your kiss game is trash.
4. (-2) Jamie Tran
Aka: Splat. Police Academy. Womp Womp.
Fine, I admit it, Jamie and her god damned sound effects finally starting to grow on me now. I never thought it would happen. It felt relatable when Jamie characteristically attempted to explain her dish using a series of chop sounds, whooshes, and onomatopoeia. And this week’s new judge Kristen Kish was like, “Uh, what the fuck?”
And all the other judges were like “Oh, right, you guys haven’t met before, that’s just Jamie, we think she was dropped on her head as a child or something.”
But Jamie let her food do most of the (*chopping sound effect*) again this week and it worked out for her, with solid returns on her salmon with curry, short rib with puffed rice, and tres leches cake. The first and last of those were co-productions with Byron. If only they could somehow compete as a single person.
“I think it’s lovely, but it’s a lot.”
3. (+1) Gabe Erales
AKA: Good Gabe. Canelo. Fozzy. The Foz. Masa Father. Jamón.
On the one hand, Gabe quickly became the de facto leader of Team Penny, which speaks to the confidence he inspires in people. On the other hand, he wasn’t a very good de facto leader. The concept was vague, and people’s duties were unclear. “Let’s all just be front of the house” may have seemed like an acceptable compromise at the time, but it was a bad one. No FOH manager, no expediter, no coherent concept… let’s just say this defeat didn’t come as much of a surprise.
The more obvious solution would’ve been Gabe as front-of-house manager. Did you see this guy during the Drive-In challenge? The crowd loves him! Even this week they were clamoring for more Big Fozzy. But instead of keeping the guests entertained, Gabe kept his eyes on the food the whole time, leaving his guests to be lulled into a becalmed stupor by the dulcet tones of an immersion blender and the chefs cursing at and second-guessing the food those guests were about to eat. Oops!
Even Gabe’s food, usually his strongest point, wasn’t really his saving grace this week. His seafood tostada amuse should’ve been right in his masa wheelhouse, but the chefs thought it was alternately too big and too hard to eat (insert “your mom” joke here). The only reason Gabe didn’t go home this week was… well, that he was on a team with Chris and Sara. I’m chalking it up as an off week for one of this season’s favorites, but we’re running out of weeks here.
“I like these flavors but it’s very weighed down by the size.” (insert additional “your mom” joke here)
2. (+3) Shota Nakajima
Steve had Shota ranked five when he took over for me last week, which I suppose was understandable based on Shota’s admittedly pretty weak grey un-seared drumstick disaster last week. Though keep in mind he also won the quickfire challenge in that same episode. (Steve also tried to nickname Shota “Big Gulp” even though I’m 90% sure I already used that one on somebody in years past).
This week, Shota proved that I knew what I was talking about when I put him in the top three in all these rankings. Shota arguably had more to do with his team’s victory than anyone. By coming up with a clear, coherent concept and delegating responsibility, everyone seemed to know both the team goal and how their own duties fit into that goal, which allowed everyone to flourish. He didn’t need to yell, belittle, patronize, or threaten, he simply communicated well and delegated liberally. That’s some damn fine leadership! If Shota was an NBA coach or a businessman he could write five shitty books about it.
It was also largely due to Shota’s kaiseki knowledge that his team’s concept even worked at all. He knew what each course was supposed to be and that freed his teammates from the old “blank canvas problem.” Unlike Team Penny, they had a roadmap. Oh, and his food was pretty good too. Lotus root tempura? Hell yeah, man. Hell yeah.
1. (even) Dawn Burrell
AKA: Hothead. ‘Sheed. Legs. Breaking Dawn. Milk Carton. The Sphynx. Zeus.
Dawn has been getting a little better every week — coming a long way since the first two episodes when I named her Milk Carton on account of one of her components was always going missing. She has really solidified her status as a favorite these last few weeks. She makes food that sounds good and tastes good that people like. Simple as that!
Stuck on directionless Team Penny, this week Dawn proved that she could sail the seven seas in a container ship full of turds and still come out smelling like a rose. Is there any doubt that Dawn would’ve won if she hadn’t been on the losing team? First, she made a crab salad on a corn puff dish that managed to out-masa the masa-father, Gabe, and then she came through with a scallop in ham hock broth with cajun xo sauce that both managed to delight XO snoot Melissa King and had the rest of the judges picking up their bowls to drink. It even looked and sounded delicious on TV.
The only possible argument against Dawn this week was that you could say that she sandbagged her team by not being clearer about what she was cooking. They called her a poor communicator, said she was “not present” enough, that she was “off in her own little world” — for a second there I thought I was in a relationship argument. Maybe Dawn wasn’t as good a teammate as she could’ve been, but on the other hand, if everyone else had been able to handle their shit as well as Dawn did everything probably would’ve been fine.
I’m nicknaming Dawn “Zeus” because she came down from “Mount Olympus” (because she was in the Olympics, get it) to suffer humans briefly while kicking ass. Is that one a stretch? Oh yes. Do I feel slightly embarrassed about it? And how. I’m also nicknaming her The Sphynx, for reasons that should already be clear above.
“You had me at ‘ham hock broth.’”
One interesting wrinkle here is that Last Chance Kitchen revealed someone who would be returning to the show two episodes ago and that contestant has yet to show up on the actual show. When will the big reveal happen?? Is there another wrinkle still to come??? Discuss.
Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.