Chef Tell: Restaurant Wars, WTF?

Ah, yes. The Top Chef fan's most beloved and anticipated episode: restaurant wars.

But first, there was the tag team cook-off -- which, personally, I adore without restraint. It's stressful, it's frantic and it's a guaranteed opportunity for me to shout near simultaneous cheers and jeers at the television. And how!

The chefs walked in to see red and blue aprons stacked on the tables and were asked to draw knives to battle out who would represent the Democrats and Republicans. Just kidding... Everyone knows there aren't any Republicans in the service industry. Anyway, Amanda drew a blank knife and Kevin and Ed drew "pick first" and "pick second," respectively. The teams were as follows: Blue: Kevin, Kenny, Kelly, Amanda, and Red: Ed, Tiffany (first picked by Ed because, hello, he adores her), Angelo (irritated because he was picked after Tiff), Alex (picked last, as expected).

The cook-off, as seen in past seasons, allows the teams to use the pantry items, but only the first chef has the clearest vision for the dish. That chef conceives the dish, selects ingredients and does as much prep as possible in their 10 minutes...silently, while the other chefs are blindfolded. It is key for the first chef, and, truthfully, subsequent chefs, to lay out the station with enough clues to guide their team through the preparation. 

Our Tiffany Derry and Kenny were the first up, and man, were they impressive. She chose a red snapper and left the head on so Alex could tell what fish it was. She heated sautee pans so they wouldn't have to wait for them to heat. Kenny had a beautifully organized station of shrimp and pasta with a mustard sauce.

Amanda took Kenny's cues perfectly. Alex, however, decided to season the shrimp with salt with 30 minutes and two other chefs left to work. Salt, being essentially invisible, is a bit of a problem in this situation where clues played a big part. Also, FYI, no one likes Alex. 

Both teams finished with the Blue team's dish looking exactly as it was planned. Red Angelo was foiled by the salt issue and had to counter with cilantro. The Reds didn't appear to be all that pleased. Also, they were pissed at Alex.

Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, was the guest judge. Not sure if that was because of the red and blue aspect or if it's because she's a self-proclaimed "foodie" (her word, not mine) or if Bravo really wanted to highlight for SNL fans just how good Kristen Wiig's impression of her is, but she was there to taste some tag-team cuisine.

Pelosi loved the Blues' shrimp, saying it reminded her of San Francisco, and complimented them on the near-impossible feat of achieving al dente angel hair. She thought the Reds' dish was wholesome and...salty. Team Blue won $10,000 to split and everyone on Team Red hates Alex.

But on to the restaurants...

For the first time, or, rather, FINALLY, the challenge did not include the chefs purchasing dinnerware and decor for their restaurants. (I found this fairly awesome, because, in real life, decorators and designers usually do that while chefs work on the food.) Instead, the teams would just take over an already furnished restaurant, Redwood

Unfortunately, the teams were to stay as is, so the Reds had stick with Alex. Teams were required to prepare a three-course meal with two options per course, and each chef had to prepare at least one dish. 

Much to the Blue Team's dismay, the Reds decided to put Alex in the front of house and not really have him as a key participant in the menu. They thought this unfair. They thought this against the rules. However, Alex did participate in prep and some fairly minute execution of "his" dish...which he would later mis-identify when serving the judges. Kelly was nominated as front of house for the Blues and would also prepare a cold soup and a dessert.

Sidenote: Angelo's hair is looking less and less coifed to perfection. The stress is getting to him, the gel is not. 

Angelo took on the role of executive chef for Team Red, as did Kenny for Team Blue. In prep, the Blues were owning. They were organized, calm and communicated well. Tiffany noted this as her team was running around like freaks and correcting all the horrific butchering that Alex was doing to their proteins. Yes, he fucked up the one job he had during prep day.

Angelo announced that the Reds' restaurant name was Evoo, because, apparently, he's Rachael Ray and is obsessed with extra-virgin olive oil. He claimed it was because he wanted to connote the Mediterranean essence of the food, but I know he's a Rayder. You can just tell. I imagine he's concerned with the Nutrish of his delish food, and he's probably a fan of yum-o midnight sammies, as well. Urp.

The Blues went with 2121 (the address of the Top Chef house), which was inoffensive and didn't make Tom roll his eyes.

The teams got four hours to prep before service and Angelo was angry with Alex approximately one minute in. As he was shouty and aggro and ordering no one to speak, T-Derr was quietly reworking her fish that Alex had prepped. He had left scales and bones all over and in that shit. Nice work, Alex. Team Blue, by contrast, was comfy, cool and confident...except Amanda, who couldn't figure out the wood-burning grill.

Kelly and Alex departed the kitchen to work with the house staff and they had very different approaches. Kelly was an amiable supervisor while Alex barked at the staff in the most condescending way possible. All across America, servers were surely flipping off their TVs and cursing him to hell. As a former restaurant employee, I know I was. It was just gross.

The Blues also served their staff the menu so as to make them familiar with and excited about it. Nice work. Alex decided to forego that step as he felt he had described it so well they would know it regardless. Then he insulted a server's wine key. The servers hate Alex.

When the judges -- Tom, Padma, Gail and former New York Times food critic Frank Bruni, not Eric Ripert -- arrived, Alex was busy. When he did come to their table he fumbled his words and generally screwed up the vibe. He was nervous and awkward and a bit of a smart ass: When Tom asked why something was described as a "summer salad" he responded that it "sounds better than 'micro greens.'" He also jacked up the timing of the judges' dishes. The judges probably don't like Alex.

The response was like this: Angelo's squash soup: good. Tiffany's crudo: salty. Ed's fish: loved. Tiffany's fish: good. "Alex"'s lamb chop (which he called pork at first): all right.  Ed and Angelo's rib eye: didn't love it. Alex's service: meh...especially when Alex didn't tell them goodbye on their way out.

The Blues fared a bit better with Kelly. Though nervous, she presented well and was attentive. 

The judges' response to Team Blue was this: Kenny's beet salad: no bueno. Kelly's corn soup: flavorless and thin. Kevin's halibut: loved it. Amanda's NY strip: nah. Kelly's ganache tart: good. Kenny's cheese course: awful. Kelly's service: pretty good...especially since she sent them off.

At Judges' Table, they discussed Alex's flawed service and complimented Tiffany, Ed and Angelo. Team Red wins! And Ed wins a big bottle of wine and a vineyard trip! And when asked, Angelo told the judges that Alex came up with the lamb dish but that he and Ed executed know, just so that's clear.

The Blues were called in to lose and then sent out for knife-packing deliberation, but not before they all told the judges that they thought the other team sucked at communicating, Alex did not follow the rules of the challenge and was worthless, and they hated him and he should be sent home. OK, maybe not the hating part, but if you saw their eyes, oh, you'd say the same. With the criticisms of the judges and Bruni, it seemed Amanda would go home.

In the Stew Room, Kevin and Kenny began shouting that it was all BS and Alex should be going home. It was team against team with pointy fingers and hand waves abounding. Angelo knew they were mostly right...and that his hair didn't look its best.

But Alex didn't get sent home. A chef from the losing team was to be sent home and a chef from the losing team was indeed sent home. And it was the one who claimed two suck-ass dishes and the title of executive chef: Kenny. Now, maybe it was because he was executing it up and couldn't focus on his dishes, but I don't think so. He's been in the not-top many times and I guess it caught up to him. I wish it had been Amanda -- partly because of the way she wears her headband and partly because she was warned her steaks were coming out overcooked but claimed she was surprised the judges found her steak overcooked -- but then, she did only dick over one dish. 

Oh, and I can't stand Alex.

Next week: cooking at/for the CIA, Wylie Dufresne, and -- yes, I saw him, that silver-haired god -- Eric Ripert! HE LIVES!

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Merritt Martin
Contact: Merritt Martin

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