Top Chef Seattle: Episode 11 – Restaurant Wars

Queen Dido Falls upon the Sword of Aeneas

Queen Dido Falls upon the Sword of Aeneas

I’ve come to hate Restaurant Wars, because someone usually gets screwed. Except, when I really look at past seasons, that isn’t really the case.

Only once before has there been a true heartbreaker: S3, when Tre was eliminated and it seemed that conniving CJ had something to do with that. I can’t remember exactly what he did – something about apple bread pudding – but that’s where CJ started to feel slimy. I wasn’t happy with S4 when Dale Talde went home instead of Lisa, but that was more a matter of not liking Lisa than liking Dale. Nor, to a much lesser degree, was I happy with S5, which saw Radhika cut while Jamie massacred fish, but that’s where Carla Hall started to grow on me and she stayed in even though her ice cream melted. In those cases, the eliminated were the execs. In other cases, the execs of the losing restaurants fared better, such as in S1 when LeeAnn stayed while Miguel was knifed, and S6 which saw Laurine (who?) out instead of Jennifer, who was starting her funk around then. And sometimes I really didn’t care, like in S7, S8 (All-Stars), and S9. So there really is no pattern.

But there’s the inherent problem with RW: the nominal leaders can’t really be in charge. They have limited choices of who to hire (sometimes no choice at all, though Kristen’s problems started here at the end of last week), they can’t rely on raises or promotions to incentivise effort for those who need that sort of thing, or threaten to fire anyone in any way that has consequences (though Hugh blogs, “It would be the best TC ever if, while playing the role of Exec Chef, someone fired the other chefs” and I think the optimum time for that would’ve been here and now), and most crucially, they are in the end running a team of people they’re competing with.

I’d seen the previews. I was ready to have my heart broken.

Prep:

No Quickfire; it’s all Elimination Challenge this episode. Danny Meyer and Emeril are the judges.

They tour the space, and notice there are no kitchens; they’ll have to create kitchens in the outdoor courtyards. Sheldon takes a side, and Kristen, bless her little assertive heart, tells him not so fast, she wants to check out that side and see if she wants to fight for it. Doesn’t take her long to figure she’s fine with the other side.

Sheldon: Urbano (Filipino cuisine)

Sheldon’s excited about showcasing Filipino cuisine. Josh is concerned because neither he nor Stefan knows anything about Filipino cuisine.

Sheldon goes to the Asian market (where a stock clerk knows exactly where the dried mung beans are; clerks in my store can’t tell me where toilet paper is, let alone dried mung beans) and sends Stefan to the flower shop (Hugh Acheson tweets: “Stefan has found the crazy laughing flower lady in Aisle 8!” and “With his hat and his backpack [Sheldon] kind of looks like a Hawaiian Where’s Waldo character, but easily found.” I love it when Hugh live-tweets Top Chef. I don’t know if he gets paid extra for it, but he should).

Kristen: Atelier Kwan (Modern French)

Kristen is going to take French flavors and turn them upside down, an idea she had when she was 5 years old watching French cooking shows. Now wait, what 5-year-old watches French cooking shows, and just what French cooking shows are those in what must’ve been 2000? Josie asks if she’s bringing any Korean influence; nope. Brooke feels like they’ve all had some acquaintance with French cuisine so they should be able to handle things.

Kristen isn’t looking forward to an afternoon with Josie, so she sends her to the restaurant supply store with Brooke, which is kind of hilarious. Brooke: “They type of restaurant we’re opening takes a little more… class?” They set up the kitchen so Kristen can touch every dish that goes out, which sounds awful (David Rees at Grub Street is going to have fun with that) but it’s Chefspeak for control freak with an overtone of “I don’t trust some of these people.” Josie goes off to roast bones for her stock. Some time later, Kristen asks if she’s still using the oven, only to find she isn’t roasting the bones, she’s doing mis en place and she’ll get to the bones tomorrow; “I don’t rush things.” Yeah, we know, we know. Lizzie, in the meantime, is roasting bones for her stock, because, well, she’s actually participating.

Overnight:

More consult about service. Brooke’s concerned about the initial rush of customers. Josie wants to pre-plate, but Kristen isn’t hearing it, and Josie gets a little peeved: “She cooks a la minute at her restaurant every night, that’s how she does it, but this is a hundred people.” I think that’s called “catering,” and it’s why caterers tend to be looked down on by restaurant chefs. Josie isn’t getting any love from the girls, so she goes over to the boys to complain more about how wrong Kristen is. “As a line cook I know how to get it done but we’re going to be working hard, I’m not the exec, I have to step back.” Nobody speaks, but after she leaves, Josh seems to agree with her (“If they cook the fish to order they’re going to go down”), but I’m not sure if he’s agreeing with the principle or with the idea of Josie cooking 100 plates in a short time, given her exasperating slowness at the berry festival and the last challenge.

Day of opening:

Sheldon

He invokes the menehune spirit again (and this time explains they’re little Hawaiian warriors who “get stuff done bigger than their stature”). He recruits the dishwasher to help with prep. Stefan’s Front of House since he’s Mr. Restaurant, but he suddenly realizes, minutes before service, that he doesn’t really know what the dishes are. Sheldon calls out a one-sentence description as Sheldon’s walking out to greet their customers.

Kristen

Brooke has, with her husband, opened four restaurants, so she’s FOH. By the way, I didn’t realize until I read Gail’s blog that Kristen’s a sous chef, not an exec, in real life. Josie gets behind, surprise surprise, and suddenly, a half hour before service, asks where the gelatin for the broth is. Kristen is stunned. It’s that look you get when, on April 17, when your ditzy cousin says, “So, hey, am I supposed to mail this envelope you gave me addressed to the IRS?” Kirsten changes her plans and tells her to add cream. Then it’s the foamer she doesn’t test in time, because, like she said before, she doesn’t rush, especially when someone else’s butt is on the line. I’m not sure if it’s deliberate sabotage or if she’s honestly that lackadaisical about cooking. Kristen is doing a pretty good job of keeping herself in check (at least in the kitchen; in her interview, she says, “I’d prefer a dishwasher instead of Josie” which is kind of mean, though not totally uncalled for) but Josie isn’t pleased: “I’m sensing a little bit of attitude, I’m not blind.” Josie makes clueless an art form. Kristen: “I had a vision and now it’s all f*d up.”

Showtime. Brooke’s a little dismayed to see the judges; she’d hoped they’d be at the second seating and they’d have a little time to get in the groove, but no such luck. And it’s on such happenstance, perhaps, that our destinies turn.

Service:

Atelier Kwan:

Emeril’s impressed with the room they set up in 48 hours. Danny likes the graphics on the menu. I like that he appreciates such thing. During service, some customers ask Brooke if they can see the kitchen, so she gives little tours, which is probably not something Kristen really needs right now.

I was wondering last week where the name came from; the Atelier makes sense, of course (a high-end artist’s studio) but the Kwan? Hugh offers an explanation I appreciate though it doesn’t help much: “Atelier Crenn is an amazing SF restaurant that must have inspired this choice. Must have.” Dominique Crenn, chef of that amazing restaurant, only lasted until Round 4 of NIC2, the one that Jose Garces won, which is how competitive cooking shows go.

Charcuterie” – Rabbit, Pickled Turnips and Yellow Beets in Chicken and Rabbit Broth (Lizzie). Danny was expecting a rillettes, but it’s not; Gail’s happy about that. Emeril and Tom like it a lot.

Bouillabaisse” – Halibut, Dungeness Crab, Bay Scallops with Shellfish Broth (Josie): There’s a noticeable delay in service, so Danny provides a little anecdote: when restaurant critics showed up, he’d make sure the tables around them were having a great time. Eventually the food comes. Padma finds the crab tasty; Emeril’s halibut is overcooked but his scallop is raw. Gail doesn’t have the foam the others have. Tom: “Something happened back there, this wasn’t done correctly.” A guest – presumably a chef (they’re all over the place, including Thierry) but I don’t know which one – says it’s great conception but the execution’s off. Josie: “If we’d plated ahead of time like I’d suggested we would’ve had more free hands.” For the record, post-show, Josie tweeted: “For clarification Chef, I suggested pre-plating the cheese & dessert course not the fish.” That would’ve almost made sense… but was there space to put 200 plates? And why was Josh talking about fish the night before?

Beef Bourguignon” – Braised Short Ribs, Garlic Puree, Mushrooms and Carrots (Kristen): Padma loves the tender, tasty beef, but Tom wonders where the Bourguignon is; Gail misses the wineyness. Tom: “If you’re going to reinterpret, you can’t do something that’s too close or we’re missing the sauce; they didn’t take it far enough.”

Baked Gougere, St. Agur Blue Cheese, Roasted Radish and Stone Fruit Compote, Sticky Sweet Pine Nuts (Brooke): Emeril’s not getting the sticky, it’s hard to eat; Danny’s worried about losing a filling. Tom notes it’s a classic and it works.

Almond Cake Macaron with Coconut Custard and Caramel Buttercream (Kristen): Danny loves it, but Gail’s disappointed that it’s nothing like the billed macaron: “If I could come back as any single item in the culinary lexicon, I’d come back as a macaron.”

Hits: the charcuterie and the beef. The main problem seems to be that it wasn’t clear that the items were takeoffs on the terms used in the menu, so they were expecting actual bouillabaisse and bourguignon and macarons. That’s a conceptual flaw. Turns out, the bouillabaisse was worse than I realized (or was exaggerated in hindsight), but I wouldn’t know that for a while.

Urbano:

Hugh tweeted: “Is Stefan wearing a velour blue suit? He’s like the Finn-Deutsch Leisure Suit Larry.” That’s just the beginning of the Stefan narrative. At least he’s learned the name of the restaurant, which he stumbled over during the first seating. He started pouring booze for people to keep them happy, and seems he kept them too happy: they wouldn’t leave. So now he’s trying to get them to leave so he can bring in the second seating, and especially the judges. He runs seven restaurants; you’d think he’d know how professionals handle this. Again Danny makes an astute observation about the menu: the “o” of “Urbano” is smaller than the other letters: “That means, look out for a little twist.” I like this guy; if I said anything snide about him last week, I take it back. Anyone who interprets typography is ok in my book.

Kilawen” – Yellowtail with Cilantry, Spicy Chili and White Soy Sauces (Stefan): Emeril loves it; Danny likes the interchange between the acid and sour, and Gail appreciates the beautiful contrast. Kilawen, by the way, is Filipino ceviche.

Balut” – Poached Egg, Duck Confit and Foie Gras Mousse (Josh): Authentic balut is duck fetus, somehow a common Filipino street food, but this isn’t. Stefan plops it down with a cursory “The infamous egg balut” and waltzes off, leaving them to ponder his meaning. Gail finds it strange that Stefan would just assume they know all about the infamous egg from the Philipines – Danny: “He let his chef down” – but loves the dish. Padma says it’s executed beautifully, but Tom’s not as enthusiastic: “There’s nothing remotely tasty about this dish.”

Miki” – Prawns, Tapioca Roll with Achiote (Sheldon): Stefan isn’t even around to explain this dish. Tom loves the tapioca. Padma finally gets Stefan’s attention, at which point he sneers at them for not knowing it’s Filipino chicken noodle soup but doesn’t explain it, in that way the insecure have of establishing their superiority by making you feel like it’s your fault for asking. The judges are taken aback. “I feel like I was just scolded,” says Tom. Gail: “We were made to feel like idiots” (The therapist voice inside me says: You are the only one who can make you feel like anything”). Emeril: “The way he made us feel is worse than the bouillabaisse” which is my first inkling of how bad the bouillabaisse was.

Adobo” – Pork Bely with Mung Bean Puree and Pea Shoot Salad (Sheldon): After some practice in the kitchen, Stefan finally stops saying “Adobe.” Danny loves the sour flavors and can’t stop eating it; Tom calls it the best dish he’s had all day.

Halo-Halo” – Coconut Sorbet, Avocado Mousse, Carmelized Banana (Josh): Gail’s happy; she appreciates the timing required to get it right, and Emeril loves that the coconut isn’t too sweet.

Overall, they did very much the same thing Kristen’s team did – presented classic dishes in a very different way – but I’m thinking most of the dishes were closer to the original models. The balut was the most different, but balut probably isn’t like beef Bourguignon or macarons with an immediate expectation of a particular thing, even for the judges’ world-wide palates. So it was much more successful. The dark spot was the service, and Tom invokes something he learned from Danny: “You go for the food, but you return for the hospitality.” Nobody’s sure they’d return to Sheldon’s restaurant, in spite of the excellent food.

But we all know, nobody’s going home for bad service when there’s a bad dish, and a flawed concept, on the other side.

Judges’ Table

Everyone’s invited.

Atelier Kwan

Gail explains that the components of the beef stew were cooked beautifully, but it didn’t have the acid or wine of Bourguignon; Tom tells them he liked the dish, but by calling it Bourguignon they set them up for something that didn’t happen. “Hindsight’s a bitch,” says Kristen. “Yeah, she’s not very nice,” agrees Gail. Everyone knows where this is headed. You can tell; there’s a pall in the room. Emeril compliments Brooke’s service and Lizzie’s charcuterie.

Then the crux of the matter: Josie and the bouillabaisse. Gail says it had enormous flavor but she got no broth, and no one else got enough broth (or, more accurately, sauce). Josie, who keeps squawking about her background as a team player on a professional sports team, plants both hands firmly on Kristen’s back to push her under that damn bus: Kristen helped her plate, she would’ve served it with more broth but it wasn’t her concept. “Bite my tongue, bite my tongue” whispers Kristen. She has incredible self-control. She doesn’t explain the gelatin didn’t get in because Josie kept saying she’d do this and do that and simply wasn’t done in time to add it; she just admits she told her to leave out the gelatin and add cream instead. Josie, giving one final shove like every good teammate does, and says she would’ve stuck to the original idea. Gail tries to find a way to make it right: it’s her dish, she’s on the line, there has to be some level of collaboration, not just doing what she’s told when she thinks it’s wrong. Tom chimes in with the insight of the night: “Or maybe you were hoping that was the case.”

I don’t think Josie’s anywhere near the level of any of the chefs in this competition, in terms of cooking skills, personality, or character, but I just don’t see her being that conniving. I don’t think she’s up to it. But he alternative is staggering incompetence beyond even what I’d supposed – what was she doing when she said she was roasting the bones the first time? The second time? Yes, she’s shown over and over that she’s unable to keep to a timeline, but that was a concrete task, was it really that far beyond her?

Urbano

Tom liked the concept since it’s not a common one, but they were all blown away with disappointment at how Stefan handled the room from start to finish. “Yes, it’s poor service,” says Stefan. “I’m a chef, not a server.” And again, I’m stunned at the lack of pride. Doesn’t anyone feel like they need to do a good job because they need to do a good job? Or is it ok because Stefan knows very well he’s not going home for front of house, especially when Tom praises his Kilawen. Sheldon gets major props for the best dish of the night, his adobo. Padma asks Josh if he ever had balut before; he hadn’t, and Tom says it didn’t read Filipino at all, but it was good for what it was.

Urbano wins, to no one’s surprise. I’m very happy for Sheldon; he’s a sweetie, he had a good idea, and he did a good job. But in my heart I say goodbye to Kristen; there’s no other way this can play out. And I’m kind of sorry that Sheldon’s win, which is cause for delight and celebration, is overshadowed by the loss to come. But that’s the world of Top Chef: it’s never who wins, but who loses, that’s talked about the next day.

The Cut

Right off the top, Lizzie and Brooke are safe; their dishes were good to great, and Brooke carried FOH very well. Tom asks what happened to the bouillabaisse sauce. Kristen is silent. Josie: “I didn’t know where anything was.” Because everyone else was totally familiar with the kitchen, right? Kristen is the model of everything I’d like to ever be under duress: “I take responsibility. It was my dish and I saw it last.” The hell with TV shows, this is honor. The most she’ll say: “I made some execution errors and so did some other people.” I wanna be like Kristen when I grow up (just in case it isn’t clear, I’ve got 30 years on her).

Back in the Stew Room, Josie says something about being an easy target. Oh, don’t go looking for sympathy. Yes, you’re an easy target because you’ve shown grand incompetence throughout. You’re the reason I’m hoping Kuniko continues to hold on via Save-A-Chef. Now you’re the reason Kristen’s going to Last Chance Kitchen to run into the buzzsaw that is CJ. You’ve served raw turkey, you’ve been unable to keep up with live service twice, and now you’re unable to roast bones when that’s all you have to do. Lizzie got her bones roasted, what’s your excuse? Don’t you dare play the “pity me” card. Look at Kristen: that’s how someone with class handles it.

The judges do their discussion. Tom talks about the issue of execution, but also of concept: it wasn’t clear to diners that the dishes were going to be spins on the originals, so expectations were set up and not met. That’s a major flaw, and that’s what really puts the nail in Kristen’s coffin, I think. They also think she overreached for the time and setup; she had a lovely concept in her head but couldn’t get it out to the others. Gail, bless her, takes the other approach: Why let Josie get away without accepting responsibility? “We’ve been down this road before, she keeps skating through.” Which is true. Padma, on the other hand, points out it’s Kristen’s ultimate responsibility. Tom looks miserable. I feel miserable.

Kristen’s out. Now everyone’s miserable. Judging from the Twitterverse, no one is ever going to watch TC again. Except, of course, for next time. It was the only thing they could do and still claim some shred of integrity. To be Top Chef instead of the Lifetime Project Runway. Except: what’s Josie still doing there in the first place? She should’ve been out two weeks ago, and last week. Could it be drama? I’m betting there’s gonna be some drama in the overnight at Olive 8. And I almost (almost) feel sorry for Josie, who is now replacing the combined ogres of Ilan, Heather, and Sarah (whose name I actually had to look up) as Most Hated Contestant Ever. It’s a TV show, people, chill. Kristen won $45,000, she’s earned tremendous admiration, and even if she never gets beyond CJ, that’s still a good run.

Tom notes that Josie looks more shocked than Kristen. Stefan’s pretty shocked, too. “I love you,” Kristen says to him as they hug. Really? Really???

Kristen: “I understand people want to save their own asses, I get it, but I’m going home with my integrity, without backstabbing. I did too much with the complexity of the menu, and I’m really irritated that things couldn’t be perfect.”

Josie: “Most of the chefs think I took a low road.” Y’think?

Which one do you want to be when you grow up? Which one do you want your kids to be?

[Addendum: On that awful post-show I never remember the name of with that Bravo guy who seems to think he’s the outrageous and gay Johnny Carson but isn’t, Kristen and Padma talk on the phone, and there’s love all around. Padma makes it clear she’d rather eat Kristen’s food, but felt there was no other way to go. Which doesn’t quite answer the question of why Josie was still there in the first place, given her performance last week and the week before, because that’s all about the drama.]

Next Week:

I missed this on the first airing (I just wasn’t paying attention), but it seems Josh makes bacon sushi and Brooke can’t fry chicken. Tom’s name for the new Wolfgang Puck chain of fried chicken restaurants: Wolfgang Cluck. Not that funny, Tom. You can do better. Can’t you?

Last Chance Kitchen

Kristen vs. CJ:

Tom tells them, “You’re probably two of the best chefs here.” So… what are they doing in LCK? It’s pretty much an admission that Top Chef isn’t about who’s the best chef. Tom even mutters to the Peanut Gallery during the cooking: “Kristen’s made some good dishes but she hasn’t done that well in the Quickfires,” (he’s right; she’s only won once, with her E7 foil-baked cake) just to ratchet up the tension a little more.

They get to make their own challenge: they alternately determine four factors of the challenge: time, protein, technique, and cuisine, from a set of choices, then both have to execute a dish meeting the same four factors. That’s a pretty good concept.

CJ: Time (30 minutes) since he’s been doing well at these 30-minute things.
Kristen: Red Snapper (for Redemption Bouillabaisse)
CJ: Smoking Gun (figuring he’s more familiar with it than Kristen)
Kristen: French (what else)

Kristen wants another chance at bouillabaisse. Interesting, even when it’s not explicitly part of the challenge, it ends up being “fix what you did wrong.” We learn something about Kristen: like Stephanie Izard, she swears. A lot. “MF-ing” seems to be her curse of choice (though technically I think it’s an obscenity, not a curse). She has to scale the MF-ing fish. She doesn’t know how the MF-ing smoke gun works (“Oh, it’s like lighting a bong” – I love you, Kristen). It’d be hilarious to watch if my fingernails weren’t digging into my palms. Tom comes over to check out her progress: she says, “Hi Gotta Go” and runs off for something, so Tom moves over to CJ’s table only to have him pull the same thing (CJ knows a good schtick when he sees it), then when she returns: “Sorry, no disrespect.” Damn, she’s good, she’s super-focused but manages to acknowledge politeness at the same time. She worries she’s put too much saffron into her Bouillabaisse of Snapper, Crème Fraiche, Smoked Butter, Shaved Fennel and French breakfast radishes. I had no idea there was such a thing as a French breakfast radish (I’m not a radish person) but there is; leave it to the French to eat radishes for breakfast and create a specific cultivar for that purpose. Tom verifies there’s too much saffron, and of course the fumet isn’t as developed as it would be with a longer time limit (which makes it a less-than-wise choice, perhaps, for a dish to make in 30 minutes), but it’s a redemption of the bouillabaisse.

CJ doesn’t care for straight French food (insert your ideas for gay French food here) so he always looks for a creative outlet, seeing as the people who created Western cuisine aren’t up to his standards. He smokes cream for pureed potatoes, which surprises Tom. He picked the Smoking Gun because he gambled Kristen wouldn’t be familiar with it, and he’s tickled that he was right. He makes Brown Butter Snapper with Creamed Morels, Smoked Pureed Potatoes with Herbs de Provence, and Ratatouille with Squash, Onion, Tomato Juice and Garlic. Tom was dubious about the potato puree, but it was smooth and rich, the fish was nicely cooked, and the brown butter added the French touch. Overall, the dish was a little dry.

Kristen wins. I’m not sure if she really wins, or if Tom just decides she wins because he’d rather look at her than CJ and there’s no way he’s letting her slip through the cracks.

Crossing fingers she keeps it up. Just wait ’til Josie comes through LCK.

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