Around the midway point of every Top Chef season, the contestants are split into teams and asked to execute a pop-up restaurant in just two days. It’s a point of pride among the contestants who make it through this checkpoint in the season, and a fan-favorite challenge with unpredictable outcomes. The show has only rarely tweaked the Restaurant Wars formula over the years (in season 16, the challenge came earlier than usual, with 12 contestants split into three teams instead of two), but this year features another big change: The all-stars competing on season 17 had to pitch their restaurant concepts, and the two winning chefs—Gregory Gourdet and Kevin Gillespie—are set to bring their visions to life on tonight’s episode.
In my decade-plus time as an entertainment journalist, I’ve been lucky enough to dine on some fantastic reality-show cuisine. There was the Top Chef: California premiere, which had a fairground of 17 unique dishes, and the MasterChef Junior challenge where I judged two teams’ seaside lunch offerings. But I finally got to cross Restaurant Wars, the Holy Grail of cooking competition show opportunities, off my list last October when I attended a Top Chef episode shoot at a recently converted space in downtown Los Angeles. To avoid spoilers, I won’t go into great detail about the food that was served, but here’s a taste of what it’s like to dine at Restaurant Wars.
It’s always a shame when the contestant who takes on the front-of-house duties goes home on Restaurant Wars. But the truth is, it is a crucial role that has a major effect on the dining experience. (It’s similar to a singing competition: The way someone makes you feel is just as—if not more—important than if they missed a note or flubbed a lyric.) There’s always a lot of waiting on a filming location, but that waiting is made even worse when you’re told to arrive hungry. Restaurant Wars is obviously a produced reality show challenge, but the Top Chef producers attempt to make it as authentic a restaurant experience as possible. Guests wait in holding areas so there isn’t a deluge of people arriving all at one time. I can’t speak for every season, but this season the host stands really did have reservations under certain names and times in their Open Table systems. When my party of four was given the green light to make our way from the holding area to the restaurant, we gave our reservation name and were told it would be just a minute. It was not just a minute.
Even though there were many open tables of four, we waited for about 15 minutes while other parties were seated as soon as they walked though the door. The cameras weren’t actively rolling on us, no producer was running over to ask us about the wait, this was not some made-for-TV drama. It was basically just a Central Casting-booked host who was doing the best she could on what amounted to a first day of work with maybe 10 minutes of training. We saw no sign of the contestant in charge of front of house, and no one offered us a drink to pass the time, though that soon changed.
Once we were seated, our server was quick to offer us wine, water, and the signature cocktail—of course, we said yes to all three. The server also informed us that the meal was to be served family style, which meant no ordering was necessary and the food would start coming out shortly. “Shortly” ended up being an hour and a lot of wine later. I was thankful for the booze blanket, because we were sitting right under a vent pumping a steady stream of frigid air into the space. We were freezing, but the temperature control was completely understandable given the crews lugging heavy equipment and servers and contestants frantically running around just trying to keep their heads above water.
Around the 60-minute mark, we got the first of our dishes—something that amounted to a delicious garnish but was pitched to us as though it was meant to be eaten on its own. (I am eager to watch the episode tonight to see if that was truly the intent of the dish.) It was another wait until we got our remaining courses, the main dish complete with a long hair attached for extra flavor. In all, we’d been at our table for two hours when we finally finished our delectable dessert. While I can’t go into any major details about the food ahead of the episode airing, I ranked everything—aside from the cocktail and the aforementioned first dish/garnish—a 7 out of 10 or higher when filling out my post-meal survey. If the restaurant I dined at doesn’t win, the other team must have served gold.
I was also impressed with the authenticity of the dining experience. The only time the day felt produced was when a crew member stopped by our table and asked us to hold off on finishing our desserts for a few minutes so they could bring a camera over and interview us while we were still eating. If they end up using any of my audio, I’m sure I was throwing around random culinary terms I’d never uttered before and had only heard while watching the show the past fourteen years. Forgive me.
I realize I’ve spent a lot of time highlighting the negatives about the Restaurant Wars experience, but as a big fan of the series I loved every minute of it. It helped that I was at a table with other fans. Every long wait was met with an excited discussion about what might be going on in the kitchen, rather than the frustration we likely would have felt during any similar dining experience in the real world. It was thrilling to have the front-of-house contestant come by and check on us, ask us how the meal was going, and do that whole “I’m making a joke about the long wait to make you laugh, please don’t score us low” bit. And the food—it’s been months since we dined and I don’t think I’ve had a more delicious meal since. If you ever have the chance to attend Restaurant Wars, jump at the opportunity. But consider having small snack beforehand—and bring a jacket.