This is an incredible season, a spirited gathering of the franchise’s best and brightest that’s unwittingly come to represent everything noble and rapturous about cooking in a time when restaurants the world over continue to crater like overcooked soufflés. Gregory’s honoring and elevating humble Haitian staples for American audiences. Kevin’s plumbing the depths of his childhood, proudly owning his shortcomings while nevertheless knowing he did his grandmother proud. And Malarkey, well, he’s out here auditioning for a barbershop quartet while telling you to “enjoy your Haitian experience.”
Brian Malarkey is a very successful restauranteur and chef. He is very talented. He’s done much, much better in this competition than I ever thought he would. And, last week, his concept was nearly a winner. (Yes, him saying he wants to “entice the millennial” is deep cringe, but investors know a marketable concept when they see one.) So, why does he always seem like he’s about to offer me some pizza shooters, shrimp poppers, or extreme fajitas?
Top Chef’s always had actors in its midst—Spike peacocked for the cameras in his first season, while Marcel began cultivating a character in his later ones—but it’s hard to remember a contestant who felt as consistently full of shit as Malarkey, who reacts to every twist, comment, or mishap as if he were in a Looney Tunes short written by Tennessee Williams. Not everything is The Taste, my man. You’re not playing to the daytime audience anymore.
Thankfully, Lee Anne showed us how they all cope with his presence:
All of this is to say:
Anyways, had to get that off my chest. What time is it, Tom?
And not just any Top Chef—it’s Restaurant Wars! And I loved the way we ramped up for this one, with each chef offering their own pitch for the restaurant they’d like to develop. It’s an approach that makes more sense for an all-stars season than a traditional one, as these chefs have, by and large, graduated from the line and are in business for themselves. As we saw, veterans like Malarkey and Bryan Voltaggio can fart out functional concepts in their sleep, while a young chef like Eric is ready for the challenge, but not quite there in terms of execution. Even so, it was fascinating to see how the African dishes Eric’s been dishing out since Top Chef: Kentucky are slowly coalescing into a concept in his head.
It’s similarly exciting to watch Gregory and Kevin, the winners of last week’s challenge, develop and refine their own restaurants. Gregory’s is Kann, a Haitian-inspired, family-style restaurant centered on the kinds of wood-fired dishes he grew up eating. Kevin’s, meanwhile, is the Country Captain, which he describes as being influenced by the plantation South and filled with the kinds of dishes rarely cooked outside of people’s homes. The centerpiece is the namesake dish, a chicken dish braised in curry, currants, and almonds. They’re cooking for 100 diners and are responsible for both the food and the aesthetic; the winning team gets to split a $40,000 prize courtesy of OpenTable, a service that, as is Top Chef’s wont, is given even more promotion in this episode than it probably paid for.
- Kann: Gregory, Stephanie, Malarkey, and Lee Anne
- Country Captain: Kevin, Karen, Melissa, and Bryan
Me when Padma saucily asked why Gregory chose Malarkey first:
Now, there are two types of Restaurant Wars episodes. There are the tight ones, where both teams either slay or fail (usually fail), and there are the blowouts, where no amount of editing can make it seem competitive. This was one of the latter. For as incredible as Kevin’s dishes sound—smoked trout puff! fried potatoes in raclette!—the team was a mess from the get-go, with Kevin losing his cool at Malarkey over table settings and his team consistently warning him that there were too many dishes on the menu. Kann, meanwhile, clearly benefitted from the years of development that Gregory’s already put into the idea, something he isn’t afraid to own in his confessionals. The judges would go on to praise his menu for its clarity and cohesiveness, and the only drama the cameras could drum up involved Lee Anne being mean to waiters, which, while very scary, is small potatoes compared to the Country Captain’s woes.
Kevin, who packed his menu with a whopping 12 dishes, never seemed to get out of the weeds, despite having two of the best chefs in the competition backing him. Karen, meanwhile, was a mess running the house; there’s spilled food, spilled wine, weird high-fives, and diners who won’t leave their tables (probably because they just ate 12 courses and shit their pants). And, perhaps most tragically, Kevin couldn’t replicate the Country Captain he made in the previous challenge, due to the scale, the lack of time, and a different brand of curry powder.
What’s especially interesting is that Gregory, either shrewdly or inadvertently, avoided the pitfall of having to replicate what he made for the judges. He chose to make an entirely new batch of dishes, and was visibly annoyed when Padma and co. lamented the lack of oxtail on the menu, saying he didn’t want to make the same thing two challenges in a row. But that’s bullshit; part of the challenge of Restaurant Wars is showing that you can replicate an ambitious dish on a bigger, more pressurized scale. Nevertheless, it served him well, as the chicken thighs he made were every bit as good as the oxtail. (I still think he chickened out, no pun intended.) Of course, everything on the menu was great. His red snapper surpassed the one he made the previous week, while the salt cod patties he tasked Stephanie with making were untouchable. The only criticism was that Lee Anne’s pineapple upside-down cake was a little sweet. Tom says that, unlike most Restaurant Wars restaurants, Kann actually felt like a restaurant.
Tom, post-salt cod patties:
Kevin’s dishes, meanwhile, missed more than they hit. Melissa’s potatoes and Bryan’s dilly beans get some love, but Bryan’s shrimp and grits gets blasted for being incongruous while Karen’s mushrooms are deemed more or less inedible. Based on her poor front-of-house performance and bad dish, I thought for sure she’d be going home.
I was surprised (in a good way), then, when Tom basically told Kevin that this one was on him. “Kevin, how do we not send you home right now?” Tom asked, and it’s clear that Kevin would’ve said it if Tom hadn’t. That, in itself, is a kind of compliment; the concept was so beholden to Kevin and his vision of food that to pass the buck would be disingenuous, despite Kevin having been one of the top performers this season. “The captain did go down with the ship today,” says Kevin.
Now walk the plank, son.
- Anyone else notice everybody calling Gregory “Greg” all of a sudden? Knock it off. It’s Gregory.
- It’s always scary to me when the chefs unload on the servers. I understand they’re stressed and presentation matters, but we spend so much time getting to know them as humans that these moments when we see them as bosses can be kinda terrifying. Let me just say, then, that I’d much rather work for Stephanie than Lee Anne.
- Similarly, Malarkey, I would scream a little, too, if an angry Kevin said “You can laugh all you fucking want about it” to me.
- I’ve heard of Reservoir Dogs, but Reservoir Chefs?
- Kevin’s poopy bananas are still turning my stomach.
- Don’t worry, everybody, Stephanie’s got the plant:
- I can’t believe Kevin went home before Malarkey.
- Next time on Top Chef: The chefs go to summer camp, the wine moms swoon over Bryan, and Malarkey is feeling betrayed!
- I’ll be back for the finale, which takes place in Europe this year! See you then.