Present since season one, Restaurant Wars has become the quintessential Top Chef challenge, the episode that asks chefs to work together in teams to open a restaurant in very little time. It's the signature episode because it's one of the most appropriate pressure cookers the producers can muster—the teams must not only come up with and execute an entire concept from restaurant name to service, but it's one of the times that their ability to collaborate and operate as a full kitchen becomes crucial. The built-in notoriety of Restaurant Wars past only serves to put additional pressure on the returning chefs during this All-Stars season.
The producers seem to have spent some time thinking conceptually about Restaurant Wars as a challenge, and what they're asking the chefs to do. This season, they've refined the concept slightly, coming up with a perfectly apt metaphor on which to hang the elimination challenge: They liken Restaurant Wars to opening a "pop-up" restaurant—one that opens for a brief moment in time. Like Dana Cowin points out, the concept behind a pop-up restaurant is that it can be playful. The whole thing feels spontaneous and fun, part of the chef's whimsy as opposed to a studied, focus grouped venture. It's a temporary establishment where chefs can flex their muscles without too much commitment—for this they bring in guest judge Ludo Lefebvre, who has operated Ludo Bites in L.A., and they encourage the chefs to pull the pop-up into Restaurant Wars.
The arc of the episode couldn't be more perfect. We witness Marcel Vigneron crash and burn, from his pride to be picked out at the top of the quickfire, through a painful restaurant execution, to an even more painful session at judge's table. We watch him realize that he has absolutely no control and eventually give up. I had pegged him as the next to go and am glad to see it happen. Sure, he's the supervillain and therefore useful because he stirs things up, but he's not one of those you love to hate. He's just kind of a douche. But we'll get back to that later. First, the setup.
Bourdain makes a triumphant return and introduces the quickfire sans Padma: The chefs arrive at Eric Ripert's Le Bernadin and must portion fish before the feet of Justo Thomas, the fastest fish fileter there ever was, able to carve up 700 to 1,000 pounds of fish in six hours flat. Thomas can manage two giant fish in eight minutes, so the chefs are allowed 10 minutes to accomplish the same task. From there, the four who manage to impress Thomas (Richard, Mike, Marcel, and Dale) cook with the remnants of the fish (heads, racks, wings, oh my) for a chance at immunity. Dale takes the win, thereby securing a slot as a team leader.
He's asked to appoint the other team leader, and he chooses Marcel—the best thing he could have done for his team and the show. Dale says it was about choosing whom he didn't want to work with, but he chose someone whom no one wanted to work for. Brilliant. The least mature and most incendiary of the lot. From that moment on, the game is decided, and we can sit back and watch Marcel (and, less excitingly, his team) struggle and flail.
It's Marcel, Angelo, Mike, Antonia, and Tiffany against Dale, Blais, Tre, Fabio, and Carla. Mediterranean vs. Bodega fare. Both concepts seems solid enough at the outset, but of course, things fall apart when dissecting exactly what fits into those categories. Also: Why was Carla picked last? I'm surprised to even be asking the question, as quickly as I dismissed her and her hootie-ing during Season 5. But she's really grown on me this season. Perhaps the editing just focuses less on her adding love to her plates and more on her sense of humor and affability, but she's really holding down her own in the challenges and strikes me as a malleable team player.
Looking at that lineup, though, it was easy to see how this was going to play out. From the moment the two teams huddle up, disaster starts to build. I mean for Chrissakes, Marcel's team starts arguing about what he has or hasn't crossed off the list and the meaning of the list itself and whether or not it's a legal document that binds the team to that plan of action. Marcel is an ineffective leader and a poor communicator, sure, but his team's also against him from the get-go. It wasn't just Blais who cringed and hoped to be passed over. The stakes are too high, and the team has no faith. Without a leader, as we've seen before this season, the members turn to an every-chef-for-herself survival strategy that ultimately tanks the team and embarrasses everyone. No one's happy, and no one's transparent enough to explicitly address the problems, so they turn to bickering. Only Angelo attempts to moderate, but he respects (or balks at) Marcel's executive chef status and does as he's told.
Has there ever been a more perfect dichotomy during Restaurant Wars? Dale's team works in silence, seamlessly (with a small interruption of Dale telling the waiters to back off). Fabio manages the front of the house, and it runs like clockwork. Marcel's team stops cooking to fight, Tiffany forcefully guffaws while shmoozing with the diners, and at times, waiters are nowhere to be found.
For the first time, the diners decide Restaurant Wars. This is a smart decision on the producers' part; it makes the war really about the restaurant, putting the decision to everyone equally. The chefs believe the diners are more forgiving, and a few of them certainly are, but the diners also clearly smell the power they hold. They complain, send things back—this crowd could almost rival the dim sum crowd; they're not there to pass between tables and sample. They're there to judge these restaurants against each other. The judges seem nervous about this, and thanks to tricky editing, I was too for a moment—afraid that diners would pick the wrong team. But they didn't, siding in favor of Bodega, with Blais taking home the win. Etch's time before the judges was some of the most bitter in Top Chef history, with the team only briefly holding it together before bringing their bickering public. Marcel, he who could not resist a froth, is sent packing. To ensure we don't miss him, the editors throw in a few more asshole comments before Marcel explains that he's so misunderstood. He didn't really make any mistakes, per se. That's right, Marcel. Keep on keeping on.
- Richard Blais has emerged as my clear favorite this season. His nerdy, neurotic ways can't be beat.
- From Fabio's live tweeting of the episode: WHO DARE ??? i do !!! DESSERT !!! BOOM !!!!!
- Marcel thought things went really well. Antonia: "You… are… on drugs."