Restaurant Wars is one of the classic challenges on Top Chef: It winnows out the real challengers from the hapless ones, and stokes the drama fires if they aren’t already ablaze. This week was the pre-amble to the wars to come, a chance for the chefs to show off their restaurant visions to the chefs. It’s a smart idea: It eliminates the usual half-baked collaborative effort between the chef teams, and allows two winners to take the helm next week with a clear goal already in place. But there’s still plenty of dead weight to drag either team down.
Who’s that beside Padma? Behold, it’s the mirthful Wolfgang Puck, who appears to judge one of the quickest Quickfires of the season. This week, in homage to the show’s partnership with Canada Dry, the chefs must create a dish that spotlight ginger. And they have to do it in 15 minutes, less than the time you should allot for a decent disco nap.
Some of the combinations the chefs come up with border on the bizarre. Josh’s white chocolate and ginger soup was one of the judges’ least favorite because of how understated the featured ingredient was, but the whole concept seemed off-balance. Lizzie also came up with a soup: A cold, watermelon-ginger number that earned her a spot in the top of the heap.
Most of the other contestants went a more traditional route, using the ginger or scallops. Kristen hit upon the method of using a CO2 canister to pressurize her ingredients and force more flavor into them. It was clever, but didn’t quite make her shine. Wolfgang and Stefan labeled Sheldon’s wok-fried ginger beef dish as “pedestrian Chinese food.”
Brooke’s caramel-ginger squid dish sounded unappealing, but the spicy-sweet-seafood balance won Padma and Wolfgang’s hearts, and she nabbed immunity for the elimination challenge.
After the ginger-a-thon, out comes Danny Meyer, restaurateur of Shake Shack and Gramercy Tavern fame, to announce the pre-Restaurant Wars challenge. Rather than the traditional two-team free-for-all, the restaurants will be under the umbrella of executive chefs. Who gets to be those executives? Whoever can best present a concept and representative dish to the judges and 200 other guests. Oh, and each of the two winners also gets $10,000, in the new tradition of dishing out cash grand prizes by no discernible logic whatsoever.
Several chefs go straight for the restaurant themes you would expect of them all season. Josie, sticking to her Miami roots, dreams up a Cuban-influenced rustic joint named Home: 305, where she will serve up family-style cuisine. In honor of his father, Josh goes for a meat-and-potatoes joint named Bistro George. Kristen opts for a more formal French-inspired restaurant, whipping up a deceptively complicated egg dish for the judges.
Others have fusion ideas that don’t quite jell. Stefan’s restaurant is German Thai food, an interesting combination that he doesn’t manage to represent at all with his lobster bisque. Brooke’s “Jewish food gone awry” is almost good, but the matzoh ball in her soup is a heavy, indistinguishable brick that Gail Simmons calls “an insult to my people.” Ouch.
Lizzie’s idea, a restaurant inspired by the cuisine of northeastern Italy, is also an unexpected dud. Her dumpling is undercooked and the sauce gets likened unfavorably to a slice of American cheese. Micah’s idea, a raw restaurant inspired by his forays into healthier eating, relies entirely on Kumiko’s skills as a sous-chef. The plate he serves to the judge is a bizarre decoupage of sliced raw fish and vegetables, like a sushi roll picked apart by a squeamish toddler. Danny Meyer gave him “a C minus across the board” for concept, execution, and soulfulness.
Kristen’s artful egg dish, Josh’s homey beef, and Sheldon’s sour tamarind soup made the cut at the top third of judge’s table. Sheldon’s modern Filipino cuisine and Kristen’s nouveau French date restaurant are the two that will be duking it out next week. But the win comes with a caveat: Both team leaders have to choose their team before learning who gets eliminated this week.
The list of the bottom three—Lizzie, Josie, and Micah—is bad news for Kristen, who has both ladies on her roster. Josie’s dried-out pork dish, which Danny Meyer described as fighting against his fork, looked like it would knock her out of the competition for good. But in the end, it’s Micah who goes home, kicked off by his lackluster faux-sashimi. Next week Kristen and Sheldon go head to head, and the smart money is on Kristen—just as long as no one puts Josie out front.