Restaurant Wars has long been the big signature Top Chef episode every season, and also the only one pre-finale that’s repeated without much variation. And based on tonight, as well as past years, the producers obviously know a good thing when they’ve got it: The conflict between the chefs’ desire to open a restaurant and the sheer impossibility of doing it well under these time-restricted, budget-tight circumstances inevitably leads to chaos and disaster. The battle usually boils down to which team fucked up the least, leaving the judges to figure out which individual fuck-up is the most meaningful. This is not easily done.
But more on Restaurant Wars in a second. There’s other, more relevant business to talk about, like Hosea and Leah sitting in a tree, etc. etc. Not terribly excited about Top Chef breaking out the hook-up cam, which seems to me the first step toward the night-vision surveillance of The Real World. (Though I haven’t watched The Real World in years. I assume it’s just a lot of blurred out pornography at this point, right?) I’ve always found it strange that people with boyfriends or girlfriends in the outside world would choose to “flirt” in full view of the many cameras following them around. But then, the heart has its reasons, I suppose.
Tonight’s episode didn’t need the tacked-on drama, though, because the actual cooking part provided plenty of suspense on its own. I thought it was a good idea to connect the Quickfire Challenge to the Elimination Challenge by having the chefs whip up a dish that would best express the concept of the restaurant they’d like to open. The two winners of the challenge—and I should be putting “winners” in quotation marks—got to run their restaurant, choose their team, and basically be held responsible for all the mishaps that occured under their watch. (Kinda like being elected President, come to think of it.) With her pan-seared cod, Radhika wins the Quickfire overall and Leah gets the second spot with her tempura dish, but in picking their teammates, they both make the mistake of putting the personal over the professional.
Why is Stefan the last guy picked here? I get that nobody likes him and nobody wants to work with him, but isn’t winning the competition an important factor to consider, too? Again and again—and especially tonight—Stefan has shown himself to be several notches above the rest in terms of consistency, sophistication, diversity, and skill. Yes, he’s obnoxious and intractable, and I think other chefs have their confidence shaken by his boorishness, but I also believe a good Executive Chef knows how to rein in strong personalities and stand his/her ground. Leah and Radhika were both guilty of wilting under pressure, and a lot of that stems from their unwillingness to pick Stefan over, say, the overmatched likes of Carla. (Besides, this is Obamaland now. Let’s at least pretend we’re living in a meritocracy, folks.)
The concepts for both restaurants seemed solid enough, though I think the Mediterranean theme of Radhika’s Sahana (Sanskrit for “underseasoned”) was a little better defined than the vague “Asian influence” of Leah’s Sunset Lounge. If you’ll recall, last season’s Restaurant Wars was so lopsided that the producers could do nothing to hide the winners and losers, but the suspense was heightened this hour because neither team could do much of anything right. Without getting too deep into Toby Young’s Elvis Presley metaphor, Sahana started strong before turning into fat Elvis by the end of the meal, when the judges were left without the eating utensils necessary to fork their way through Carla’s, shall we say, “deconstructed” frozen yogurt. And for their part, the Sunset Lounge team had enough strong work from the ever-charming Fabio at the front of the house and Stefan at dessert to overcome Leah’s raw cod disaster.
Leah owes her survival mostly to Stefan, who in playground baseball terms somehow wound up the last-picked, cross-eyed über-nerd the other kids tuck away in left field. So the final decision came down to Carla and Radhika: Who goes home? The chef who can’t pull off a single dessert or the leader who doesn’t lead? I suspect there will be a lot of controversy over Radhika’s dismissal, because she’s obviously the more talented of the two and—oh by the way—won her chance to go home by dominating the Quickfire. Sparing Carla the ax also confirms that the show really does try to judge on an episode-by-episode basis, because she’s adding those two desserts to a fairly dismal body of work. (And those comments about “sending out some love” give me the heebie-jeebies. She knows Like Water For Chocolate isn’t a documentary, right?)
Though I’d have ultimately dumped Carla, I’m not up in arms about Radhika going home instead. She really did look listless at the front of the house, and her failure to assert herself at every turn—in the menu preparation, in getting muscled out of the kitchen, in failing to demand cohesiveness and a high standard from her team—doesn’t peg her as a future Executive Chef. She also goes away with the lesson that Stefan could have been making those desserts for her.
• Line of the night (and maybe season) goes to the ever-lovable Fabio, enthusing about his own charm as host: “We can serve monkey ass in an empty clam shell, and we still gonna win this one.”
• Liked the guest judge tonight, Steven Starr. It was a smart move to bring a restaurateur, rather than a chef, on board for tonight’s episode, and Starr’s critiques were sharp and concise without lapsing into Toby Young-isms.
• Of course Fabio has a “Team Fabio” t-shirt that he wears. I’m reminded of a Christmas gift I got once from a kid who had a crush on my younger sister and worked with his family in a textile sweatshop they’d set up in their garage. “The Movies” it said on one side. On the other, “Scott.” I confess to never wearing it, but I’d pay good money to have it in my possession again.
• Not sure if Hosea and Leah smooching on the couch was enough to warrant the wah-wah porn music, but it was a fun touch.
• Jeff’s magic trick is probably the best use of those DVR-killers the show has come up with to date.