Wednesday, August 22, 2007


Sending It Back

Previously on Top Chef: Even previouslier, Sara M. nagged Howie, who expressed his utter disdain. The chefs got dressed up in party clothes to cook for drunks. Brian threw his own party, to CJ's admiration. Sara N. was slow. Tre won because he cooked bacon. Chef Tom blamed both Sara N. and Howie for their team's loss. Howie called Sara "the baby of the house" and she finally told him, "T'hat's enough." Howie was comfortable with being a jerk. Sara got the boot.

Various chefs mourn the departure of Sara N. and designate Howie the pariah of the house. Howie informs us that he's willing to leave for his own screw-ups, but not someone else's. Except that he has been screwing up, so what's his point? Sara M. is a little sad that Sara N. is gone, but she'll deal. That's the sole remaining Sara's approach to everything -- "Gotta cook with my boobs falling out of my dress? Eh, whatever." On the one hand, it's kind of relaxing; on the other hand, doesn't anything matter?

The chefs enter the kitchen to find Padma standing next to Daniel Boulud, who is such a high-powered food god that CJ, Hung and Dale are all called upon for eulogy interviews. The chefs practically stand at attention, awaiting their orders. QuickFire challenge: make an "adventuresome" burger for the product-placed "gourmet" hamburger chain. What, you wonder, does a high-powered food god like Daniel Boulud have to do with the pedestrian hamburger? Howie helpfully explains that he was the creator of the high-end, high-priced, truffle-enhanced hamburger. Chef Boulud reveals that he loves hamburgers, and his famous burger was his marriage of "the best of French cuisine with the best of American casual dining." Padma drops the bomb: the winner no longer receives immunity. Brian interprets this to mean "there's no more hidin'." The chefs have 30 minutes to create. And go!

The racing around the kitchen begins. Hung bangs on some shrimp. Sara is going for something lighter than the usual beef. Brian decides to revisit his winning seafood sausage. Since CJ noticed a lot of fish in the product-placed restaurant's menu, he's going for seafood in a different form. Casey is "surprised" to see all the seafood being used; she's sticking to beef. Tre aims to fill a gap in the product-placed restaurant's menu. Dale is incorporating a fried egg because "in my world, everything is breakfast." Howie is relying on truffle butter. Huh, truffles in a hamburger. However does he come up with an idea like that? Sara calls the roughly-halfway mark and the hustling intensifies. Casey flips a burger and then presses it down into the pan. Since the top side was raw before she flipped it, I suspect she's searing the meat to keep the juices in, not squeezing the juices out. Brian relates his race with the clock. Padma counts down the last few seconds and time's up!

Hey, that's everybody! Chef Boulud is happy with everyone's execution, but thinks some entries were more sandwiches than burgers. In the sandwich category are Sara and Tre, who at least had the "most French execution." Chef Boulud apologizes to each before naming names, because he's a nice guy. In the top are Howie ("satisfying"), CJ ("texture" and "fire"), Dale (good bread choice) and Hung ("I like the fire you put in your work but I also like the fire you put in your food"). And the win goes to: CJ! He's pleased, of course. Padma reminds him that he doesn't have immunity. "Yes, I'm excited about that," he deadpans. However, he will get an advantage.

Elimination challenge: It's Restaurant Wars! A whole two episodes early. Brian is psyched for this one. Chef Boulud reminds them that this is all about the teamwork. Unlike all those other team challenges. Instead of getting immunity, CJ gets to pick his own team. Right off he chooses Tre, and then Brian. There's a pause while he considers his last choice, and finally he goes for Casey. The leftovers all feel the Howie Cloud of Doom hanging over their heads. Hung worries that both Howie and Sara are "hot-headed" -- "Even though you're competing against each other, if you're on a team you have to work together to beat the other team, not each other." Succinctly put.

Padma leads everyone out to the restaurant spaces, which are just blank concrete rooms with wide openings. The teams have 30 minutes to come up with a concept and assign roles: head chef, front of house, design, sous chef. They'll have $700 for food and $2500 for furnishings. Each restaurant will get 30 diners. The spaces conveniently connect to the challenge kitchen, which is a bonus because they don't have to get used to a new workspace. The teams run off to confer.

Howie immediately jumps in with "a French-influenced, American contemporary, like a bistro style." Care to vague that up a little? Dale and Hung are into the bistro thing. Next, Howie suggests a pasta or risotto course. But that would be Italian. Dale determines that the first course is therefore tuna. Of course! Elsewhere, CJ thinks Brian should take front-of-house while Tre is head chef, Casey handles decor and he is the sous chef. Tre explains that he's fine with the head chef job, since he's an executive chef at work. Casey asks about a name and CJ volunteers his sister's name, April. The other team is pondering names as well. Hung likes "Ambrosia" but Dale wants something quirky. They settle on The Garage. Then they settle that Hung and Dale will handle the decor shopping while Sara and Howie are the cooks. Sara nominates herself as head cook and Howie declines to fight over it. Since the competition is "a war of attrition," the team has to move on to the next round, so they have to get along and he'll put aside their "little differences." Like not respecting her enough to let her wash dishes for him. Is this team success angle something he just worked out? Or does he think he's been all "Go, team!" on his previous teams?

It's morning. Tre and CJ are lying in bed. Because there's nothing more dynamic than people lying in bed. Brian has a secret weapon for his front-of-house post: a suit. He buttons it into his chef's jacket on the hanger so he can smuggle it in without the other teams spotting it. Then he'll unleash the suit at the last moment and the other team will be all, "Oh, no! Brian's wearing a suit! We're doomed!" Or something. Tre observes the big mix of personalities over on Team Leftovers; he figures they're toast. No, not the interview of cockiness! Now Tre is doomed! However, Dale confirms that everyone on Team Leftovers is "headstrong," so he's worried.

Shopping. CJ and Tre go for food while Brian and Casey shop for the inedibles. CJ reveals that he wanted "a woman's touch" for the decor, since guys "would have the whole place black or something." Yes, aesthetic sense is a genetic trait; no man has ever had even a smidgen of it. Dale and Hung handle the inedibles for Team Leftovers, leaving Howie and Sara with the food. CJ describes his restaurant as "new American cuisine with a contemporary sort of vibe." Oh, good, more vague. This really makes me appreciate Tiffani's contribution in the first Restaurant Wars -- she had a very specific idea, so it was clear what fit into the concept and what didn't. This "new" "American" "contemporary" thing leaves the menu wide open. I think you often see much more creativity in response to constraints; when you let people do anything, they tend to bland out on you. You can tell Sara is in charge when she and Howie wind up buying lamb instead of pork. Sara interviews that Howie is, of course, "hard-headed" but "you just have to know how to deal with it." And how would that be? She was not entirely successful on her first attempt, so it would be nice to know what she's doing differently this time.

There's a product-placed phone call, and Casey reveals that the phone-calling means they were all "helping each other." At the non-product-placed decor store, Brian lobbies for something tall. He describes their goal as a "nice, modern, clean restaurant." Casey explains her job as keeping Brian calm as he runs around; they seem to mesh as a team. Casey wants to get "smell goods" but Brian vetoes them on the grounds that customers find them offensive. Cut to Dale and Hung enthusiastically purchasing smelly candles -- something floral. When I use smelly candles -- like when I'm waiting for the power to go out during the ice storm -- I go for pine or cinnamon scents, nothing sugary or flowery. But I don't think they're anticipating any power outages at the restaurant. Dale and Hung buy random stuff to suit their restaurant's theme. I don't think the non-product-placed decor store has a lot of stuff suitable for a garage. Dale finds "silver rocks" and Hung comes a-runnin'. The shopping winds down. Brian begs Casey for a Buddha statue as they finish up, so she gives in.

The chefs have 4 hours to get everything ready to go. Casey wonders how their cooks are doing and Brian assures her that they're perfect. Cut to Tre speaking shorthand to CJ. I don't think they're firing on all cylinders, but there are no obvious flashing red lights, either. Tre is busy cutting meat, so he doesn't want to be distracted with talking. Sara runs down their division of labor: Hung will make the first course, Howie the second, Sara the third, and it will be a team effort for dessert. (No, not dessert! The Course of Doom! (Doom! Doom!)) She reveals, "Howie and I were very, very focused for this particular challenge because, you know, we want to win." As opposed to the last time they were paired? Howie reports that he has some dozen years of risotto experience. "I like my risotto because I don't make it like every other chef makes it," he testifies. Tre jogs through the kitchen (far less frenetically than Hung's usual speed) and Sara reports that he did a lot of running around, which is not his usual thing. Tre reveals that he gave CJ the job of prepping artichokes, which took longer than he expected.

Bustle, bustle, bustle. Dale jokingly compares himself to the Queer Eye guys (one of whom he'll be seeing later). Chef Tom wanders through for his look-see. He gets the menu from Team CJ. Over at Team Leftovers, he observes that risotto can be tricky to time properly, but Howie reveals that they're par-cooking. Chef Tom steps outside and reviews. He thinks Team CJ should cook larger portions of meat and carve it table-side, instead of cooking individual portions -- it's showy and it's more efficient to cook. He thinks Team Leftovers has more restaurant experience. He thinks it will come down to leadership.

Hung knocks over a large container of brown liquid. Sara tries to get him to slow down, but he's too busy to listen. With 30 minutes to go, the black-clad servers arrive. Dale recaps this point, emphasizing that the servers have no idea what's going on. Tre gets distracted and leaves his potatoes in the smoker for longer than he intended. Bustle, bustle, bustle. Out front, Brian and Dale hug and the challenge begins.

The judges hit Restaurant April first, and a bunch of people follow, so Brian is immediately busy.

Over at The Garage, Dale schmoozes the clientele. He claims 8 years experience waiting tables -- "You're half prostitute, half performer." He keeps his cool with the customers, but in the back rooms, he claims to turn into "a raging bitch." He gripes at the servers to speed it up. The judges arrive while Dale is busy, so they seat themselves, but he greets them when he comes out. Ted is immediately struck by the scented candle. Chef Tom asks Dale to remove theirs. Another customer takes matters into his own hands, setting the candle on the floor.

Team CJ sits around a table and drinks. Team Leftovers holds a post mortem in the kitchen. Dale is worried about the service; he could get booted without having cooked.

Judges' Table. The chefs settle in the pantry. Howie assures the group that opening a restaurant never goes smoothly; he's has opened lots, so he knows. Padma explains that a blogger was one of the diners; presumably, she'll have some input. I guess you can't count on people to fill out the comment cards anymore. Padma reviews the criteria: concept, decor, food, service. On the decor side, Restaurant April takes the lead with a quiet, tasteful but unscented atmosphere. The smelly candles at The Garage are roundly panned. I notice we've skipped right over the concepts. Both were pretty generic, so I guess there's not much to say. As for food, Hung's tuna tartare is a hit. Everybody hated Howie's risotto and Tre's smoky potatoes. In the service category, Brian got "flustered." The judges ponder.

In the pantry, Dale thinks he at least worked hard. Padma summons Team CJ. Left behind, Hung sighs that at least they did their best. Sara rah-rahs that everybody did great. Team CJ gets the bad news -- they didn't win. However, it doesn't seem that they won, either. Padma reveals the guest blogger twist. Chef Tom admits that it's "harsh" to review a restaurant in its infancy. The judges read blogger comments for the chefs to respond to. Padma reads praise of the decor, and Brian suggests she quit while they're ahead. Ted reads the part about Brian having "a sweating problem." The flaw is not sweat, as Howie has amply demonstrated, it's the flop sweat. Padma defends his hygiene but questions his composure. The judges establish that Brian, like his teammates, has no front-of-the-house experience. Brian claims responsibility for whatever happened with service. Turning to the food, the blogger calls the granita on the oyster amuse bouche a "watermelon slurpee." CJ agrees that if she got a slurpee, that's something no one would want. He then jokes that she's right about Brian sweating. I suspect he's just trying to lighten the mood, but Brian's not feeling any lighter. I don't think comments about sweating constitute throwing someone under the bus; they're not being judged on their regulation of their body temperatures. The smoky potatoes come up, and Tre explains how they got away from him. Chef Boulud likes the idea, but the smoke was "very aggressive." Chef Tom wonders if the cooks are willing to throw Brian under the bus, but they all disagree that his was the fatal flaw; they made mistakes in all aspects of the restaurant. CJ jokes that it's hard to talk about imperfect restaurants with Chef Boulud on the judging panel.

Team Leftovers marches in to receive their spankings. Sara states that she jumped for the head chef spot, but they all came up with the menu. Padma reads blogger comments about the smelly candles. Dale takes the blame for it, confessing to a "weak sense of smell." Hung doesn't confess anything. Dale also took the lead in the decor, with Hung's assistance. He explains the choice of black tablecloths -- the white plates would "pop" against the background. Unfortunately, they made the blogger think of Billy Idol. I don't know why; he hasn't been culturally relevant for a while. I think black tablecloths can work, but a pure black-and-white color scheme needs a deft hand. Chef Tom points out that these decisions "add to the overall aesthetic of the restaurant." Padma asks Hung how he feels about his dish; Hung is quite pleased with it, of course, and so are the judges. Chef Tom cavils that there was a bit too much white asparagus, so Hung doesn't get too pleased with himself. Like everyone else, the blogger pans Howie's risotto with it's "sticky and gummy" texture. Howie reveals that he finished the risotto with "Parmesan cheese, a touch of heavy cream and black truffle butter." It's like black truffle butter is the new diver sea scallops. Chef Tom is adamant that risotto doesn't need cream for its texture. Howie brings up his risotto experience again, but Chef Tom ain't havin' it. Howie protests that risotto "tightens up" when it sits around; he burned his tongue tasting all the risotto before serving and none of it was gummy. In other words, it's the servers' fault for being slow. Not Howie's fault for cooking it in big ol' batches. Ted asks if they considered "seasonality" in their menu planning and Sara confesses concern about the menu's heaviness. She figured a couple of lighter courses leading into the heavier lamb shank would work. Ted mounts his recent hobbyhorse about the chefs looking out for themselves instead of the team; both Howie and Sara produced heavy food. Howie protests that he doesn't care about seasonality; if there's something braised on the menu, he's eating it. Padma fingers Sara as the head chef, and Sara cheerfully assumes responsibility for the menu.

The chefs go away. The judges ponder. Ted thinks Brian "lost it." Padma is surprised that a chef would admit to lacking a sense of smell. Chef Tom agrees he lacks a sense of smell, and also "a lack of taste when it came to the design." Poor Dale sighs that he felt beat up on. The other big blooper is Howie's risotto. The judges are not impressed with Howie's risotto resume. But Chef Tom thinks Tre's smoky potatoes were worse. Ted recognizes that Team CJ had bad service, but he preferred their restaurant. Chef Tom expects better out of this group. He has a solution. Padma checks that Chef Boulud is on board with their decision.

Dale sees how he could get booted. Howie commends him and Brian for stepping up and taking a risk. So then Padma summons Brian and Dale to the table. "Damn skippy," Dale sighs. They shake hands and head out. Chef Tom tells Dale that they had some problems with the food -- like he had anything to do with that -- and they didn't see any relationship between the decor and the menu. Brian's team had less problematic food, but the service dragged them down, and that was Brian's bailiwick. Padma boots -- nobody! The teams get to open their restaurants again the next day, and Chef Tom warns them that the judges expect a much better showing. Chef Boulud has a copy of his book for everyone, because he's nice that way. Dale and Brian break the good news to their teams and there is much rejoicing. Sara recaps the resolution, because we're probably still numb from shock and having trouble absorbing it. Tre is a little bummed, but happy to see another day. Dale thinks his team is well-positioned for the second attempt. Brian is thrilled.

Right decision? This wasn't a cop-out. Given the production schedule, this "twist" had to be planned, or at least allowed for. And I think it's an interesting approach. We all know that opening a restaurant in one day is an absurd proposition; this just recognizes what we all know. And I think it will be interesting to see how the teams adjust. So I'm okay with the twist.

And I'm still fond of the challenge, despite the impossibilities. I'd rather have it among the final six, though, and concentrate on concept and menu. While decor is important to a restaurant's success, it's silly to have chefs judged on something that's really outside their experience. Chefs at least interact with the service staff, and anyone who competes for the title of Top Chef should have some ideas about how service works (or should work). But decor? Not their thing. So, how to factor decor into the restaurant without having chefs trying to cultivate their inner Martha Stewarts? I think they should get restaurant spaces that are already decorated. Then they have to come up with concepts and menus that suit those spaces. Not only does this get them off the decorating hook, but I think it will encourage a little more specificity in their concepts, which will guide the design of the menu.

But what if they hadn't gotten a mulligan? Hung was clearly safe, and would probably have taken the win, with the only dish that received universal praise. Casey stepped up when Brian flaked out and performed smoothly, so she would be safe. CJ didn't get any bad press, so he's under the radar. Dale claimed the smelly candle decision, but gave a stellar performance tableside. I think he deserved to move on. Sara was probably safe, since the menu might have worked if Howie's risotto hadn't been so heavy. I think the judges are no longer expecting anyone to be able to control him. Brian failed in his role, but he was at least attempting something new. And he does look nice in a suit. So I think it would come down to Howie and Dale. Howie picked a tricky dish and executed it badly. Tre's mistake was not over-smoking the potatoes, but serving them. Mash them with something bland to dilute the heavy smoke flavor or throw them out and come up with a substitute, but don't serve something you know is bad. It's like Tim Gunn's famous "Make it work" -- find a way to fix the problem, but don't send crap down the runway or out on a plate. So there's a real possibility that Tre could have gotten the boot. Naturally, I'd prefer to see Howie go, but he has a knack for failing slightly less than someone else.


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