Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Top Chef: “Restaurant Wars”

Image for article titled Top Chef: “Restaurant Wars”

Last week's setup for Restaurant Wars prepped me for what I thought was sure to be an excellent rendition of the classic Top Chef challenge. I can always skip the infighting that happens at the start of these challenges, when the pushier chefs steamroll others into submission. Picking team captains from a restaurant pitch seemed like a good step forward—everyone had a fighting chance to put their ideas forward and sell the judges on their concepts and archetypal dishes. Winners Sheldon and Kristen got to choose their teammates and apparently accidentally chose along gender lines—a nice shift of power from the arbitrary please-draw-knives team selections. This all puts ownership of the challenge back on the chefs, which seemed brilliant until the last few minutes of tonight's episode, which resulted in one of the most disappointing eliminations of the season.

That's part of the beauty of Restaurant Wars, though. It takes the basic conceit of Top Chef—cooking well under often artificial constraints and with ridiculous time limits—and pushes it to its absolute extreme. By choosing a single executive chef to run the show, the challenge becomes necessarily personal. This typically works well for Top Chef—dip into the chefs hopes and dreams a little and it inspires them to stretch harder than they might otherwise. The problem, though, with this particular setup for Restaurant Wars, is that it creates only one person with a serious stake in the vision. Everyone else, as Josie puts it, becomes a soldier.

There are many things wrong with Josie. She's an ass, for one. She wears a headband all the fucking time, and that headband has her name on it, for two. But she's not wrong in this episode, and that's what kills me. I was so psyched for this installment of Restaurant Wars because I thought the setup would give the restaurants a clear direction and that we'd get to see more of the execution. What I didn't see coming was that it would suck any serious investment out of other team members and turn them into employees*. Or that Kristen would play the role of a noble ship captain, hanging on to the helm while her ship sinks, biting her tongue even though one of her asshole crew members ignited some dynamite in the hold and was like, "Your ship, your problem!"

That's only a slight exaggeration. Kristen is a tragic hero, but here's the thing: Now ain't the time, Kristen! Reality TV is no place for nobility. Josie knows this, and it's not because she's been on Top Chef before. It's because she's playing meaner, but also smarter. The judges were practically begging Kristen for a reason to send Josie home. They were almost shouting, "Please tell us why we should send her home!" But Kristen nobly (and stupidly) took all of the responsibility, putting the onus on the judges to do the right thing. The judges, though, didn't and couldn't have all of the information. If I've ever wanted to hit a trap-door button and see Padma disappear down a chute, it was tonight. She laid all of the responsibility on Kristen, when we've seen the opposite happen at judge's table a million times. "You're responsible for your own dish" is one of the mantras of judge's table. So here too the challenge's conceit comes back to bite; Kristen takes the fall for the dish, simply because she was in charge of the restaurant as a whole. (And she wasn't willing to let the blame fall elsewhere.) To be fair, I think Tom was mostly right when he said this vision existed only in Kristen's head. It's a hard thing to judge from the way the episode was cut, though—we didn't see a lot of direction from Sheldon on the finer points of Filipino cuisine, but that doesn't mean he didn't provide it. Stefan and Josh admittedly had little experience with it.

That's perhaps where Kristen's classic-French-with-a-twist concept fails, too. Everyone on her team had experience with classic French cooking, and therefore had a point of reference from which they could agree or disagree. Since Josie had experience cooking bouillabaisse, she had her own ideas about how long the stock should simmer, or how it should be plated. She doubted Kristen's leadership decisions from the offset, even bitching about Kristen to the other team, and then proceeded to half-assedly execute, sure that things were bound to fail… thereby causing them to fail.

Stray observations

  • * Lucky for Kristen and Sheldon, most everyone seems like they'd be excellent employees. The teams played hard in the kitchen, where it counted, and Stefan's assholery had nothing to do with Sheldon. His assholery and general skeeziness exists everywhere, all the time, independent of anyone else.(I'm still grossed out by his overuse of "sloppy seconds" last week and his comments about Carla's butt.) Brooke deserves serious credit for handling the front of the house like a pro and containing the disastrous Josie-Kristen fire to the kitchen. Josh and Stefan threw their full weight into prep and started service in great shape; Lizzie managed to deliver arguably the best dish of the night, a hot-soup version of charcuterie.
  • Last night I dreamed about leeches covering my feet and sucking the life out of me. They were all named Josie.
  • From the judge's comments, I was expecting Urbano to end up on the bottom. It almost sounded like a tossup, with the deciding factor falling to the food instead of the service. As much as I was disappointed at the elimination, I was glad to see Sheldon really step it up this episode. Judging from the menu, I'd eat at Urbano in a heartbeat.
  • The grade here doesn't reflect my feelings about who was eliminated—only how this episode stands up to the rest of the season. And while I felt like the challenge backfired a bit, it largely left the chefs alone to self-destruct. I don't think the judge's were wrong to eliminate Kristen. I think she did herself in.