Monday, September 10, 2007
Try, Try Again
Previously on Top Chef: Restaurant Wars! CJ appointed Tre executive chef; Sara nominated herself over Howie, who recognized (or said he did) the need to get along. Tre ran around. Dale snapped at servers. The judges lacked silverware. Brian melted down. Dale fretted. Tre got too smoky. Ted didn't want a big, heavy meal but Howie was into the heavy. Sara took ownership. The judges punted. Do-over!
Miami. Dale, Casey and Brian get some sun on the balcony. Brian's reading a red paperback, so the chefs are not completely bookless during their stay in the palatial penthouse. Brian recaps the second chance twist while chefs do morning things. Tre reports that they're almost five weeks into the competition, and it's starting to drag on some people. A win would give him the energy to sail through to the end. CJ reports that he's competitive. You'd think that would be kind of a requirement for a professional athlete. Also, he discovered he had cancer at 29 and never thought it would get him, so presumably he's an optimist, too.
Hung finds a couple of letters under the door, one for each team. They open them to discover comments from "that blog lady," as Dale calls her. Brian recaps some of the comments for Team April. Howie is stumped by the complaint that the oysters were a "disaster." He just can't compute how that could be. Sara and Hung are on the side of learning from the criticism.
QuickFire challenge. Padma and Chef Tom await the chefs. Padma lays out the rules for the Elimination challenge -- they open the restaurants again, but they have to provide at least two options for each course (although it seems they only have to prepare three courses instead of four). Chef Tom announces that one team will be assisted by "a sommelier that I know" who is opening a restaurant in Florida. Okay, three guesses who that is. Casey does her know-it-all thing, defining what a sommelier is for those who missed Season 1. The sommelier team also gets more money in the wine budget. So now they have a wine budget. To see who wins all the extras, it's the mis-en-place relay race. Padma steps on Casey's know-it-all toes and defines "mis-en-place" as the prep work that takes place before service begins. (I've also seen it spelled "mise en place" but the European sites leave off the extra "e" so I'm going with that.) Sara and Hung exchange a quiet low five. Howie interviews that Hung will be an asset to Team Leftovers. So does Hung.
The challenge: person one shucks 15 oysters, person two finely dices 5 onions, person three breaks down 4 chickens, person four separates 3 eggs and beats the whites stiff enough to hang upside-down. The teams get two minutes to divvy up the tasks. Casey reviews Team April's thinking: Brian competes in shucking competitions; Tre is good at dismembering chickens; she volunteered for the onion chopping, since it's not "brain science." Dale frets because his oyster shucking and his knife skills are both sub-par. Howie is worried that he's not very fast, but Dale pats him on the back. Howie interviews that he's most worried about his own performance.
- Oysters: Chef Tom blows a whistle and they're off. Howie is sure "Mr. Malarkey" can handle some oysters. Howie starts getting his oysters open and setting them out. Brian, however, is batching. He pops open all the oysters, then slashes all the "abductor" muscles in sequence, exploiting the power of repetitive motion. Howie knows he's losing, but he just has to stay close enough to give the rest of the team a shot. Brian calls for a check and Chef Tom blows the whistle.
- Onions: Casey starts to work. She's using a serrated slicing knife instead of the usual curved chef's knife. (Apparently she hadn't sharpened her knives yet, and serrated blades cut better when dull. But if your knives haven't been sharpened, why would you volunteer for a chopping task?) Brian recaps that he beat Howie by about 5 oysters (or 1/3 the total). Howie finishes and Chef Tom pipes in Sara. Hung helpfully cleans off the cutting board for her. Sara is using the standard chef's knife on her onions. She's going for speed over refinement. Dale provides color commentary: Casey is "organized" and "methodical" with "great cuts" but Sara just "goes to town." Casey's not moving that slowly, but she's having to saw through the onions instead of using the rocking motion that exploits the curved blade of the chef's knife. Brian desperately wants a "tap-out rule." Hung is practically in physical pain, watching Casey slog away. Sara remembers cooking her first meal at the age of three or four -- I hope it was toast or something like that -- so she has "good knife skills." Once Sara has a bowlful of onions, she gets a check from Chef Tom, and he pipes in Hung.
- Chickens: Hung tears into his chickens. Meanwhile, Casey keeps chopping. Sara gleefully recounts Hung's chicken expertise. Even Chef Tom is blown away. But he has breath enough to pipe in Dale.
- Eggs: Casey continues to dice onions. Tre looks longingly at the chickens. Dale starts separating. Chef Tom has had enough of the onion drama and pipes in Tre, who dives in. Sara interviews that they smelled victory, so Dale put the beat down on the egg whites. He flips the bowl over, the whites stay in the bowl for five seconds, and the contest is over.
Team Leftovers celebrates. Casey apologizes to Tre. Dale is thrilled that the "Bad News Bear" whupped the "Dream Team." CJ is bummed. Chef Tom reveals they're all getting more help. "Renowned restaurant and interior designer" Christopher Ciccone will assist with the restaurant designs.
Night falls. The chefs head back to their restaurant spaces to meet the designer. Team Leftovers is discussing changes to the menu when Christopher Ciccone arrives. Or, as Dale says, "the ass<bleep> from the night before." He doesn't think being Madonna's brother is sufficienct compensation for the attitude. Christopher lays out his issues with The Garage: the name didn't fit the room and the presentation wasn't appetizing. Sara wants to hear solutions. Christopher recommends white table linens and big artwork for a graphic look. Dale allows that he appreciates Christopher's help with a "modern modern" look. Howie's like, yeah, help is good.
Over at Restaurant April, Brian also recognizes "the guy last night that really kind of gave us a headache," even though we didn't get to see that. But then, it would have given away the critic twist. Brian thinks his recommendations are "simple, clean, elegant." Which is what they were going for, so that works out. Christopher wants to stencil a quote about food around the walls.
Back at the palatial penthouse, Tre is working out on the balcony when Team Leftovers comes out to revise the menu, so he stretches things out a little longer to eavesdrop. Of course, he's pretty hard to miss, so if they didn't mind him hearing, they would have moved. Dale proposes a rabbit dish with cold gnocchi. Tre interviews that he thought they were making the menu heavy again. Like beef tenderloin is so light and airy.
Inside, Team April rallies around the breakfast bar. Tre debriefs them on his spy session. CJ is feeling good because the other team needs to revamp their heavy menu while they just need to "tweak" things. Casey describes Tre as the kind of chef who "envisions everything from start to finish." So now they just have to settle on a dessert. Since they have three coursese with two choices, they only need one dessert. Tre opts for an apple bread pudding. "I can do bread pudding in my sleep," he claims. No, not the infallible recipe! That never works! Casey offers to help him with it. She interviews that they rely on each other "like brother and sister." They're both from Dallas and both have the same work-your-way-up cooking background. Tre informs us that he spent 14 years climbing the chef ladder.
It's a bright, sunshiny day. The cooks head out to spend $800 in 45 minutes at the usual grocery store. It occurs to me that they really haven't ventured out to other food venues. Season 2 shopped around a lot more. In a product-placed phone call, Dale and Sara agree that they should have a different wine for each dish. Howie outlines the division of labor -- Hung and Dale are wine shopping while he and Sara hit the grocery store. At the meat counter, Howie discovers they're running low on rabbit, so he switches to poussin, which is a young game bird. Team April is keeping their beef tenderloin dish since Tre thinks "all the errors could be easily corrected." He runs through some of their new dishes.
Team Leftovers hits the wine store with $500 to spend. And here's the sommelier to help them spend it -- yes, it's Stephen! And he's off! Dale and Hung learn more than they probably ever wanted to know about Stephen's wine choices. Hung doesn't mind Stephen's manner because "he knows his stuff." Which he's more than happy to demonstrate. Brian and Casey are stuck spending their $300 all by their lonesomes. Casey explains that they each had wines they liked, so they just relied on each other. They execute some precision shopping, coming in at $299.
Back to the restaurants. Brian and Dale start setting up tables. Brian's Buddha statue is now out front and center at Restaurant April. Dale approves of the new decor at The Garage even though it looks "like Valentine's Day threw up all over it." Brian really likes the new wicker chairs. So yes, it does help to consult a professional.
Work also begins in the kitchen. But before they really get down to it, Padma brings in the judges for introductions. The guest judge is Geoffrey Zakarian of New York. Tre points out that the guest judge is both knowledgeable about food and "anal about it being done a certain way." So we can expect a lot of picky comments? How delightful. Also judging are Ted (hi, Ted!) and Chef Tom.
The chefs get to work. Casey outlines the division of labor on Team April: Brian is out front getting the servers straightened out, Tre is executive chef with 4(!) dishes, CJ has a salad. No mention of what Casey is doing. She figures they just need to do again what they did before. Only, I daresay, better. Because if they were so good last time out, why didn't they win? Tre figures he needs to get his hands into everything. Casey has lots of line experience and CJ doesn't, but a chef has to trust his sous chefs.
While working on something smooth and very green, Dale makes a one-handed phone call to Christopher. He forgot to mention -- the team decided to change the restaurant's name to "Quatre." Dale relays Christopher's objections: "No one can read French and no one will understand and it's not a pretty word." But Dale doesn't care, "when he opens his own restaurant, he can name it what he wants." So Quatre it is. Dale instructs Howie on dealing with the boiling poussin. He explains that he's having more input into the menu this time around, and goes over some of the dishes. Hung bring Sara over to look at something that's "tender" but Sara relays that Dale wants them "crispy." Hung asks who wants them crispy, Dale or Sara? Sara starts to say Dale, but then tells Hung to do them over because she wants them crispy. Howie bangs the "we need to get along" drum some more.
Chef Tom summons the chefs. He's not here for a walk-through. Instead, he'll be watching what happens in the kitchen all evening. Well, finally! If they're going to judge the chefs on their teamwork, they should observe the teamwork. Hung figures this will keep them all on their toes.
Customers arrive. Brian and Dale get busy. Dale interviews that his team has put a lot of trust in him to run things well out front, "and if it means I have to be a big ass<bleep> in doing so, I will have so much fun doing that." It's good to enjoy your work. Sara tells her team that all meals should be judges' meals, so they should all be perfect. She interviews that Chef Tom's presence made them all step up their game. CJ is feeling good because the team is well-organized. Dale observes that Tre, Casey and CJ all have similar styles and mesh well together. Sara gets an order for vegetarian food. Hung starts rattling away but Sara just shushes him. Dale figures Team Leftovers is taking a bigger risk, since they are essentially starting over.
The three roving judges arrive at the newly-christened Quatre, where they are greeted by Stephen and Dale. Stephen is wearing a dark suit, pink shirt and plaid tie. Dale is wearing jeans and a polo shirt. Ted thinks Dale looks like a Denny's server. No, they wear company logos and polyester pants, I believe. Surprise guests! Sara N. and Joey drop in on Quatre while Lia and Camille visit Restaurant April. Dale and Brian greet their erstwhile competitors enthusiastically. Brian informs his cooks, who whoop it up in welcome. Dale warns his team that one table has VIPs. Sara corrects him that all tables are VIP, but then he explains that Joey and Sara N. are visiting. She smiles in delight. Dale goes on to inform Hung, who has to be reminded who Sara and Joey are. Don't distract the man while he's cooking.
Quatre serves the judges:
- First course: tuna tartare with egg vinaigrette and niÁoise olive
(Hung) or braised poussin with mint gnocchi, sweet pea purÈe, carrots and
hazelnuts (Dale). Chef Geoffrey complains that tuna tartare is a clichÈ.
The guests enjoy both dishes.
Back in the kitchen, Sara and Howie examine some lamb chops. Sara agrees that they're too rare. Howie thinks they just need to rest a bit longer, since the temperature was close, but Sara decides that actual heat will be required to bring them up to snuff. Sara explains that she's not serving anything up to her standards.
- Second course: braised halibut with grapes & braised leeks served
with grape sauce (Sara) or lamb with white bean purÈe, fried shallots
& haricots verts (Howie). Chef Geoffrey thinks the halibut dish is
"smart" and Ted approves of the crisp texture. As for his own lamb dish,
he admires the seasoning. Joey pegs the lamb as "a Howie dish." He points
to the meat and vegetables -- "undercooked, undercooked." I guess they're
no longer the pals they once were.
Stephen burbles to the customers about the wine. Dale says he has a reputation as an "ostentatious chatterbox." Yep, that would cover it. Stephen burbles some more. Sara N. silently wonders if he will go away soon so she can start attending to her food and drink. Dale tells Stephen, "I really don't like over-service. But everything else is fantastic." Stephen drops his head, like an android processing a difficult paradox of human behavior.
- Third course: panna cotta with berries (Hung) or crÍpe with orange & Grand Marnier sauce served with whipped cream (team). Some customers enjoy the crÍpe.
The judges head over to Restaurant April. Tre explains that he decided to be mellow and competent, rather than yelling and being bossy.
- First course: seared sea scallop on corn & black truffle custard (Tre) or wild King salmon cured in beet juice, sugar, salt, toasted fennel & coriander seed served with macadamia nut pesto & grapefruit (Tre). Customers like the scallop and Ted remembers it fondly from his previous visit. However, the salmon produces winces of distaste. Ted thinks it's horrible. Chef Geoffrey calls it "a car wreck in Times Square" as Ted gulps his wine. Chef Tom gets to eat in the kitchen.
- Second course: chilled carrot & ginger soup with sake & rice wine vinegar (Casey) or lobster salad with arugula & caramelized cauliflower (CJ). The soup is a hit but guests think the lobster is salty.
- Third course: monkfish with mascarpone whipped potatoes & beurre blanc (Casey) or seared beef tenderloin crusted in wild mushrooms & Gorgonzola served with smoked potatoes. Guests think the monkfish is pretty, but Padma thinks the fish is overcooked. Chef Geoffrey finds both dishes forgettable.
- Dessert: Granny Smith apple & brioche bread pudding with cinnamon & brandy crÍme Anglaise. Tre pours out the sauce tableside, which mades Ted happy. Unfortunately, the dish makes him unhappy, with undercooked apples and a lack of anything custard-like. Guests pan the bread pudding, and Brian warns Tre that it "took some lumps." Or had some lumps, from the looks of it. (Confession: I've never eaten bread pudding, so I have no idea what it's supposed to look like.)
Dale thinks Team Leftovers made a "miraculous" improvement over their first opening. Given the customer comments, they certainly did better. In the pantry, Dale confides that this should be a tough decision. Brian doesn't expect much criticism since "everything was on" as Tre and Casey exchange a high five. Howie figures they just didn't have "the right game plan" last time but Dale figures getting "bitch-slapped" by the judges did the trick. Sara praises Hung for his eagerness to contribute. It's a happy bunch.
Judges' Table. Chef Geoffrey approves of the food at Quatre. Ted and Chef Tom both liked the new poussin dish, and Chef Tom thinks the halibut topped the other team's monkfish. Ted loved the lamb, but Chef Tom cavils about the "chunky" purÈe. Ted gripes about Dale's casual clothes again. Chef Geoffrey felt Restaurant April had "a real honesty." I have no idea what that means. Everyone likes the repeated scallop dish. Ted mentions that Tre changed the menu wording, but I can't tell you what was different this time around. The salmon is roundly panned by Ted, who has gotten mighty cranky of late. Chef Tom thinks it had "one too many ingredients." Chef Geoffrey agrees with the guests that the lobster was pretty but salty; Chef Tom says CJ couldn't make the ingredients "sing." The bread pudding is also panned. Chef Tom reveals that he noticed Tre not peeling the apples and wondered what was up with that. Ted coos over his tableside service, and Chef Geoffrey thinks Tre was "good on the floor," which is good in a chef.
Padma summons Team Leftovers. They celebrate when Padma finally breaks the good news. Sara volunteers that she had "a really good time working with them." Chef Tom compliments them for listening to criticism and bouncing back from a bad opening. And the win goes to Sara, who promptly gives credit to her team for their support. Chef Tom appreciates her decisiveness, but he also gives kudos to the whole team.
Team April applauds Sara's win and then they file in to get the bad news. Padma starts with Brian, whom we never really saw working. Chef Tom thinks he wasn't diligent enough. Tre steps up for the first course dishes and Padma asks about the salmon. He thinks the pesto was a little strong. Chef Geoffrey wouldn't have served it; it was "dreadful." Chef Tom wonders why he piled on all those ingredients -- "Sometimes less is more." Tre brings up the scallop, which does get praised. CJ explains how he composed the lobster salad. Chef Tom thinks it didn't quite come together, plus it was salty. Chef Tom didn't care for the monkfish and Casey admits it was overcooked. Chef Geoffrey belabors the point. Tre tries to disclaim any bread pudding expertise. He should have tried modesty during the menu planning. Ted thinks bread pudding is an easy dish. Chef Tom wonders if anyone else could have done better. CJ confesses he knows how to make bread pudding, but he didn't step on Tre because it was his dish. Left unsaid is that Tre was executive chef because CJ appointed him; it's hard to turn around and criticize him after making that decision. Chef Geoffrey wonders why CJ wasn't supporting his executive chef. Did he taste the bread pudding? This is, of course, a trick question. If you didn't taste it, you're not contributing to the team. If you did taste it, then you're at fault for not speaking up. CJ tries to take the middle course, offering the mild criticism that it was "a little boring." Chef Geoffrey wants to know why CJ didn't look out for his executive chef. Short version? The team dynamic pretty much ruled out questioning Tre. Chef Tom wonders how CJ's handpicked team could fail. CJ stutters that he thought they did well. Chef Tom argues that the other team learned from the criticism and improved, but this team didn't.
The chefs go away while the judges debate. "Was it rough?" Sara asks when they get back to the pantry. Casey summarizes the critique: Team April's original opening was better, while Team Leftovers really learned from the criticism. Chef Tom thinks "overconfidence" was Team April's fatal flaw. They didn't have the "focus" he expects. Chef Geoffrey and Ted blame the leadership. Ted didn't see Brian or Tre really taking a lead, while CJ and Casey both "abdicated" leadership. Padma starts with Tre. Ted likes him, but hates the salmon dish. Chef Tom feels it was his role to "set the tone." CJ wasn't busy; maybe Tre did too much. Chef Geoffrey thinks chefs need a team, and Tre didn't get the support he needed. Ted speculates that CJ appointed Tre head chef because he didn't want the responsibility. I think it's clear he didn't -- because he didn't have much experience in the role, while Tre did. It was a perfectly logical choice. Ted also thinks Brian suffers in comparison to the very busy and effective Dale. As for Casey, she was responsible for the unfortunate monkfish.
The chefs return. Chef Tom spanks them for not improving. Casey missed on the monkfish, Brian wasn't attentive enough, CJ didn't carry much of a load, and Tre messed up the salmon and the dessert. Tre gets the boot. He figured he was on the chopping block. Brian eulogizes him as "one of the best chefs." CJ grumps that it "sucks" but Tre "took it as a man." Tre endorses the judges' reasoning -- even if CJ slacked off, the executive chef should lead the team. He won't make the same mistakes when he has his own restaurant.
Right winner? Team Leftovers came out with all cylinders firing, and clearly had the best restaurant of the night. Dale did yeoman's work out front, but I think Sara was the most responsible for the victory. There were three key turning points in their performance:
- The decision to pay attention to the criticism -- Sara and Hung both urged the team to accept the criticism and work from it. We saw Sara's constructive attitude again when dealing with their restaurant designer; while he seemed to dwell on their mistakes, she quickly redirected the discussion to solutions. Instead of dwelling on their failures, they went into the challenge with a sense of can-do positivity.
- The QuickFire challenge -- This is when they really became a team. Before, they were just a bunch of people who had to work together, but this gave them an appreciation for and trust in their teammates.
- Sara's leadership in the kitchen -- That, kids, is how it's done. She was clearly the boss in that kitchen. She wasn't mean, but she was firm and decisive. She was also aspirational. If you want a high-performing team, you need to give them a clear and motivating goal. By declaring that all plates had to be judge-level quality, she gave her team something to shoot for that was within their reach. It didn't hurt to have Chef Tom watching, though; I'm sure that also helped elevate everyone's game. Sara's leadership also gave her teammates the freedom to step back and follow -- if something went wrong, it was clear who was to blame.
Right loser? Team April didn't seem to learn anything from their previous failure. In fact, they didn't even seem to realize they had failed. As far as they were concerned, they just needed a few little tweaks. Where Team Leftovers had the humility to learn from their mistakes, Team April considered themselves the pre-ordained winners. Even the QuickFire loss didn't shake that confidence. Tre's laidback leadership style didn't kill them. If you have a team that's functioning well, you don't need to ride them; you just let them run. The problem was, Tre's team wasn't functioning all that well. Their goal was to win the challenge. It's a nice goal, but you can't tell from what you're doing if you're winning or not. If you have a goal of making every plate perfect, you know where you stand as you work. Tre didn't have to boss his team to win, but he did have to motivate them to achieve and check their performance against his expectations. Casey and CJ couldn't take over quality control without upsetting the whole team dynamic. Tre was the anointed one who would lead them to Howie's promised land -- they all bought into his leadership. And he failed to get them to the promised land, so he went down. Shocking, yes, but deserved. I'm going to miss his calm, serious approach, but I'm sure he'll be fine.
Labels: Top Chef