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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Top Chef: "Restaurant Wars"

Illustration for article titled iTop Chef/i: Restaurant Wars
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My wife is one of the world’s biggest Top Chef fans, but she’s also been a little underwhelmed by this season. On the other hand, this is finally the season that has won me totally over to the show’s side. (It takes a while for reality shows to win me over.) But I can definitely see where the lovely and talented Mrs. VDW is coming from. This season is so obviously heading to that amazing final showdown between Jennifer, Kevin and the brothers Voltaggio that everything on the way there feels pretty anti-climactic, no matter how clever the show is at coming up with challenges and ways to stretch its contestants. It’s just a long march to that final showdown. I realize that everyone following the show this season has already said this (hell, I think Scott has), but it’s in the back of my mind every time I watch an episode.

That said, when the episodes are as entertaining as “Restaurant Wars” was, it’s hard to care too much about things like that. “Restaurant Wars” put strong personalities in conflict, offered up some glimpses at some mouth-watering food and indulged in one of the show’s richest traditions, forcing the contestants to come up with their own takes on what they’d do if they owned a restaurant. Not having the contestants have to come up with their own décor ended up making this a little less interesting than some of the past Restaurant Wars challenges, since it let the contestants fall back on some pretty nebulous concepts, but the rest of the episode was a delight, a great study in contrasts.

Actually, my favorite part of the episode was how the whole thing opened, as the eight remaining contestants were split into red and blue teams and then had to compete in one of the weirdest challenges on this show in its run. In 40 minutes, both teams had to come up with a dish. The winning team would get $10,000 and a leg up in the elimination challenge. The twist? Neither team could really communicate. One chef would start and cook for 10 minutes, and then the next would take over and try to figure out what, exactly, their fellow chef had been doing. Those other three chefs waiting to cook? They were blindfolded, unable to understand at all what their fellow teammates were doing and asked to step up to the plate and figure it out quickly.

The challenge ended up being a fun one to watch because it combined both of the things the show does well – cooking and interpersonal conflicts. It required a certain amount of cooking knowledge, but it also required what seemed like a certain amount of psychic knowledge. One of the contestants remarked that it was necessary to think like the other chefs to figure out what was going on, and it was that element of barely restrained panic and frustration that made this so much fun. The blue team – Jennifer, Kevin, Laurine and Mike I. – came up with a cod dish, while the red team – Mike V., Bryan, Robin and Eli – came up with a steak dish. Guest judge Rick Moonen, the owner of a sustainable seafood restaurant in the Manderlay Bay casino, seemed to like both dishes, but he gave the edge to the cod (which, indeed, looked delicious), and the blue team not only got to shop at Whole Foods but was offered the chance to bet its $10,000 that it would win the elimination challenge. If the team did, the members would all get $10,000 each. And if not, they’d get nothing.

With those high stakes (the best thing for any reality show to have) established, the episode headed into an object lesson in how important leadership is to a kitchen. The blue team named its restaurant The Mission and seemed intent on deciding everything together, ending up with a menu that relied entirely on Jennifer being able to prepare two intricate seafood dishes at the same time. The red team, on the other hand, seemingly let Mike V. take over, and he spent his time giving Robin lessons in how to cook, bristling at any questioning of his authority and running about as tight a ship as can be run in the restrictive Restaurant Wars format. A collision with Robin – heavily promoted by Bravo – was as good of TV as it seemed it would be, but it also showed just how much Mike was in command of what was going on. (Also, all of the use of the word “cuss” made me think of the Fantastic Mr. Fox trailer.) Sure, they named their restaurant Revolt, with a ridiculous looking backward E, for some reason, but they seemed way more on top of things than the blue team.

Eli ended up working the front for Revolt, while Laurine was up front for The Mission. This being a “Restaurant Wars” episode, the editing of this show not exactly being subtle and the person up front for the losing team often leaving in a “Restaurant Wars” episode, Laurine was marked for elimination from an early point, but it was still fascinating to watch the blue teams utter, utter implosion in the face of having to deal with customers. The red team had at least one or two dishes that the judges loved, especially Mike’s delectable looking chicken starter course, and while their pacing was a little slow, they didn’t end up having what seemed to be the huge gaps between courses that the blue team had. Considering Mike V’s cod dish was also heavily praised by the judges, making Mike seem like the big winner for the night from early on. Only Bryan’s cold beef dish seemed like a dud. Even Eli’s hard sell demeanor ended up working for the team.

What’s interesting is how obvious from just looking at the dishes from the blue team it was that they weren’t going to work at all. Jennifer’s fish dishes looked surprisingly sloppy for her, and the sauce on one of them had obviously broken just from gazing at it. And no desserts on the menu? It’s a bold call, but not one that seems likely to work. In short, there was very little that the blue team did that seemed capable of appealing to the judges, and the whole enterprise seemed doomed from the first when Padma asked for salt for the asparagus. Even more interesting is that Jennifer, whom I’ve been thinking of as the presumptive favorite, seems to be cracking under the pressure. You can track exactly how her brain seems to be frazzling just from looking at her throughout the episode.

So, yeah, Laurine ended up leaving, and Mike V. ended up winning, as predicted. Meanwhile, the blue team lost its cash by failing at the gamble. All of this seemed like a foregone conclusion by about halfway through the episode, but it was fascinating to watch the red team pull off something that seemed like a modest success while the blue team collapsed into train wreck-y goodness. I’m sure there have been more intense “Restaurant Wars” episodes (well, I know there have been), but this one might have been my favorite, just for the study in contrasts provided.

Stray observations:

  • I like that Moonen runs a sustainable restaurant, but good God, did they say that word a lot in this episode.
  • So, listen, if Jennifer completely snaps, who’s going to win this thing?
  • "There's a fine line between being helped and being dominated."

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