Top Chef: “Restaurant Wars”
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Top Chef: “Restaurant Wars”

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Top Chef

"Restaurant Wars"

Season 11, Episode 9

Girl, that was intense.

I don’t think that there has been another episode of Top Chef this season that has been nearly as riveting as that episode—both in terms of anticipating who would go home and in terms of sheer anxiety over the fate of both teams’ restaurants, as they had to build the whole thing from scratch. What’s funny is that it was clear right from the start that Fin, the purple team’s restaurant, was going to win by a mile, but Found’s disastrous showing was so catastrophic that it was almost painful to watch, an incredibly nerve-racking meltdown.

I assume it’s very expensive and stressful, but I wish we got restaurant wars every week. I feel like I learned much more about the contestants this week than I have in the several leading up to it. Because more than their cooking, the forced teamwork and co-working management makes their flaws and strengths come through for the camera.

Justin is a jackass; I wish he’d gotten eliminated. I couldn’t stand to hear his voice by the end of the episode. Especially compared to Nick’s incredibly effective leadership, Justin was a disaster, a power-hungry narcissist who wants the credit and the glory and so can’t admit they actually suck at being a leader. There are a thousand Justins in the world, ultimately. A ton of people who are going to crack under the pressure and get defensive and yell at their team and throw their GMs under the bus. I know that he was edited to be worse than he was—there’s a brief moment where he thinks he’s going to be sent home in which he’s really respectful of Sara in a way he wasn’t for the rest of the episode—but he was in charge, and I’m not convinced it would have been any better if Sara had been on top of her game.

Which, by the way, she definitely wasn’t. I think she exhibited a lot more grace under pressure than Justin did, though, with the exception of getting defensive with the judges during their critique (why? Why would you do that? That is the worst time to get defensive, worst!). And her dish got messed up, arguably, because of Justin’s poor supervision of the kitchen. I didn’t follow how Sara’s instructions to the servers ended up with tickets Justin didn’t like, either, which made it a lot harder to sympathize with him when he started yelling at everyone. Justin did not facilitate a kitchen with great communication—that bogged them down literally right from the start, when they still hadn’t formed their menu, but were bickering about what the table china should look like. And then Justin starts yelling at them for not talking about it? Fishy. Poor leadership. His job is to run the show.

Anyway, in case you hadn’t noticed, I don’t like Justin (as he is edited to appear on the show) very much! But Sara certainly messed up, a lot. Whatever she told them either a) was totally wrong or b) was totally ineffective. And she knew it, too. She had the right instincts in a lot of ways, but she couldn’t hold it together.

This episode really came down to leadership styles. For Justin and Nick, definitely. But also for Travis and Sara, who ran their serving staffs in very different ways. I don't have a lot of expertise in this industry, but I have waited tables in my day, and it was very interesting to see Travis’ joking, amicable attitude with the servers and compare that with Sara’s very rigid strategy. Restaurant management skews towards fascism. Managers learn to be total monsters, because that’s what’s most effective. Sara was in that mindset, ordering them around and even calling them sort of stupid when they didn’t know the table numbers. Travis’ approach was really different, and fun to see. As lightweight as I think he is in the kitchen, he very much understands what the servers need to accomplish. And that logistical understanding is probably more important for a restauranteur than how to perfectly braise rabbit.

Can I also say that I have a total contestant-crush on Nick? He’s just really capable, guys. He’s a damn fine cook, but more than that, he has vision, and he knows how to run a kitchen. It was actually really fun to watch him lay out his logistics; in his kitchen, it looked like someone was always doing something productive, and everyone knew what everyone else was doing, and why.

But most importantly: Nick was confident. He knew he could accomplish what he wanted to. Justin's bluster was a lot of smoke and mirrors covering up the fact that he didn't really know what he was doing. And honestly, that frustrates me more than Sara’s botched serving, because it’s so deluded. What might have happened on the green team if Nina or Shirley had been the executive chef? It’s too bad we won’t find out.

But honestly? If an episode of show has me this worked up, and is this engaging—keep it coming, Top Chef.

Stray observations:

  • “Gays belong in the front of the house! Duh!”
  • I have to say, I thought both restaurant names were pretty dumb.
  • Viewers tonight learned a lot about Chase Sapphire Preferred Card members.
  • Gail, on Sara’s abysmal dessert: “It’s like a big greasy cookie!”

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