“I think it’s gonna be Restaurant Wars.” Sara’s Spidey senses are tingling at the start of this week’s Top Chef: World All-Stars, and the chef’s instincts are spot-on. After all, we only have eight challengers remaining in the competition, which is customarily the time for one of the franchise’s most beloved (for the viewers) and anxiety-inducing (for the players) traditions.
And the All-Stars version is even more highfalutin than usual, especially given the food-geek gasps that erupt from the competitors when they see this week’s guest judge: Clare Smyth, the chef-owner of London’s Core by Clare Smyth and the first and only British female chef to be awarded three Michelin stars. Her appearance is especially moving for Buddha, who worked under Clare for two years at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay: “She really developed me into the person that I am and how I cook.”
So the stress is on for the chefs, who, as in years past, will have 24 hours to open their own restaurants. “But this year, we’re setting the bar even higher than before,” Padma explains. “You won’t be building a restaurant from scratch…we are giving you a restaurant with an existing infrastructure.” Yes, they’re taking over Core. “Oh no! This is huge. It’s a three-Michelin starred restaurant!” Buddha worries. Also a new twist this year is that they’ll have Core’s own front-of-house director helping to run service. “This restaurant is my pride and joy, it’s a culmination of my life’s work, and now it’s yours,” Clare warns.
After grabbing knives, Buddha and Victoire have chosen knives numbered 1 and 2, giving them the opportunity to choose their teams. Victoire grabs Tom, Nicole, and Gabri; and Buddha gets Ali, Amar, and, lastly, Sara. (“Bring it on bitches, you picked me last!” she exclaims.) Each team is tasked with a tasting menu of at least four courses for 50 diners as well as the judges, who will be seated at a chef’s table overlooking the kitchen.
They’ll have a five-hour cook that day and will have one hour and 45 minutes the next day at Core to finalize plates and prep for service. The teams have 30 minutes to conceptualize and create their menus, along with £3,000 to use across both Whole Foods and specialty stores like the fishmonger and the butcher. Along with Restaurant Wars glory, “the team with the winning concept will take home $40,000 courtesy of our friends at MasterCard,” Padma announces. (“No pressure, huh?” Tom jokes.)
Team Buddha is leaning towards British classics with a spin, whereas Team Victoire (which quickly becomes Team Tom) opts for a “roots” angle focusing on the chefs’ various culinary origins. “Now that there’s no front of house, the concept is huge,” Buddha claims.
With themes set, the chefs divide and conquer the markets to pick up all of their ingredients, where several snafus occur. Nicole initially can’t find fresh whole lobster for her shellfish tortellini. (“Pasta’s kind of famous in Top Chef—you kind of stay away,” Tom worries about her dish.) And even more pressing, Tom ends up accidentally leaving an entire basket full of produce at the store, one containing Gabri’s star ingredient, cauliflower. “I definitely bought it, one million percent,” Tom says, but Sara informs them that she saw the rogue basket left behind. “This breaks my heart a little bit,” Tom says of seeing Gabri upset and trying to scramble, replacing it with a roasted onion puree instead.
Team “Root” does service first, with Tom’s “beautifully intense” confit leek with black garlic chestnut purée an early standout. But Nicole’s tortellini with lobster, king prawn and a vermouth beurre blanc takes too long to come out and “is not the most refined tortellini I’ve ever seen,” Clare says. The judges—which include a secret fifth judge, Jimi Famurewa, chief restaurant critic for The Evening Standard, who is hidden among the rest of the guests in the main dining room—also aren’t crazy about Gabri’s “psychedelic” poached sea bream with black huatape, nor Victoire’s African-spiked tiramisu with plantain cream, which “lacked a punch,” says Smyth.
Team “United Kitchen” favors better with the judges panel, who fawn over Buddha’s “full English breakfast” with truffle toast and tomato tea, Amar’s scallop tartare with vadouvan beurre blanc (“Delicious! Delicious!” Clare cries) and Sara’s leek-wrapped cod with slow-cooked potato. There’s some confusion over the sauce on Ali’s lamb loin and Cornish-inspired pasty, so much so that Tom Colicchio goes rogue and silently enters the kitchen to check Ali’s plating/give the poor guy a heart attack.
In the end, Ali has no reason to worry, as United Kitchen is dubbed the winning team of Restaurant Wars, thanks to the strength of their concept as well as their cooking. “I thought you looked great in my kitchen and I loved how you really thought about the restaurant top to bottom,” Clare tells them. As for the individual winner, her mentee Buddha emotionally takes the top spot. “I am screaming on the inside. I just won Restaurant Wars with my mentor in front of me...I couldn’t even come up with this shit in my wildest dreams,” he says.
As for Team Root, there’s some back-and-forth throwing under the bus between Nicole and Tom regarding the service issues, but in the end, Nicole’s pasta is her downfall and she is eliminated, with herself and Victoire in tears and Padma sounding choked up as she’s announcing it. “It doesn’t matter who goes home. You lose a little bit of yourself because it’s a team responsibility,” Tom says.
“This competition has taught me so much: that I am still a good cook, that I still want to cook, I’m very proud of what I’ve done so far and I’ve met some amazing people. I’m sad to say goodbye to everybody,” Nicole says. “But to be on World All-Stars is pretty incredible in and of itself.”
- In discussing Charbel’s exit early on in the episode, Sara relayed a sweet story the departed competitor had told her. “He said he watched Ali on TV and said, ‘That’s what I want to be. I want to go on Top Chef: Middle East,’ and he made it happen.” Ali added that, like him, Charbel had made history as the youngest chef to win that franchise. “We are the change that the world needs,” Ali said.
- Speaking of Ali, we’re all for his bromance with Amar. “They come as a bundle,” Buddha joked of the duo, who have adorably dubbed themselves “Papi and Habibi.”
- Project Runway may get all of the fashion love, but a sartorial shout-out must be made to Gail’s amazing white-and-black tuxedo-inspired dress.
- In another interesting bit of franchise trivia, some Top Chef spinoffs don’t do Restaurant Wars at all, with both Victoire and Tom never having competed in the popular challenge. “Apparently, it’s a huge deal?” Tom said. “A lot of chefs are scared as fuck about it.”