They really couldn’t keep Top Chef’s most anticipated challenge – Restaurant Wars – off the menu this season… although they did give us a scare. Padma and the cheftestants exuberantly welcomed the return of the well loved and historically crushing challenge, and in the end, one team – in the words of Simon Cowell – delivered “a knockout”.
I have to admit, this is the challenge I most wish I had been invited to (thanks Bravo) but maybe they were too worried that I would spill the beans. Either way, whoever attended it definitely honored their confidentiality contracts because not a peep was leaked prior to the show’s airing. But I’m getting ahead of myself… let’s start at the beginning.
In a classic move, Tom shows up at the Top Chef house pre-six AM to deliver a warm, friendly wake up call to the contestants. They are off to… Chicago breakfast institution Lou Mitchell’s (565 W. Jackson Blvd, in the west loop) to work the egg station for the morning. Although I’ve never been to the original, I have a Mitchell’s (opened by Lou's brother) near my apartment in Lincoln Park, and it is truly excellent diner breakfast cuisine. If Lou's fluffy, creamy double-yolk eggs are as delicious as this brother's, the chefs have quite a challenge on their hands.
The hallmark of a good line cook is to be fast yet accurate, and to be able to manage multiple orders at once – very different from the careful, artistic cooking that the chefs are used to. And eggs are one of the most difficult foods to cook just right - leave them on an extra few seconds and they turn dry, brown, and rubbery.
Spike boasts of his line cook experience, but fails to deliver when its his turn in "The Hole". Stephanie and Richard struggle too... while calm, collected, methodical Dale and Antonia come out on top. Antonia is crowned the winner – her fifth win! Suddenly someone’s gaining a little more legitimacy.
After the challenge, Tom announces that he’ll be absent for the evening’s challenge, as he’ll be attending a charity event. In a secret-agent style move, he gives a slip of paper with a hand-written address to Antonia and tells the chefs to go there – bidding them good night and good luck. Stephanie, the token local, announces that she’s never heard of the street, so we know that it must be pretty far off the beaten path.
The chefs arrive at an empty warehouse, to find a large, wood-floored empty space, and a beaming Padma. As if we couldn’t guess what was coming next, Padma announces “Restaurant Wars is BACK!”. As the winner of the quickfire challenge Antonia gets to choose her team. Barely flinching, she calls out Blais (BOOM!) and Stephanie (BOOM!). Can I get a DREAM TEAM? Of course this leaves Dale, Lisa and Spike to decide what creative ways they are going to drown each other. It allmost seems unfair.
However, when the chefs start discussing their themes and menus, it does sound like Dale, Lisa and Spike’s asian-flavored Mai Buddha is going to be a formidable competitor. All three have extensive experience and confidence cooking Asian cuisine, and they sound like they have a pretty solid menu. However, as fill-in head judge Anthony Bourdain notes, Asia is a pretty big place, and there’s a lot of cuisine to cover. Are they going to be able to do it all, and do it all well?
Blais, Antonia and Steph start in on their upscale gastropub concept Warehouse Kitchen (real creative name, guys), and their menu looks to be simple yet promising. Looks like the proof will be in the dishes.
It’s time for service and both sides unveil uncharacteristically impressive décor and cohesion of their restaurant concepts, except for Mai Budda, which feels a little like a Prince video. Thanks, Spike. The judges, including guest judge Jose Andres (a spanish chef credited with bringing the "tapas" (small plates) concept to America), stop by Warehouse Kitchen first, where they are treated to a menu of fresh linguine with clams & sausage, goat cheese and beet salad, and gorgonzola cheesecake. They love it – hardly a bad thing to say about any dish. A beaming Stephanie is front-of-house and delivers a pleasant performance.
Next it’s over to Mai Buddha, where the experience is less impressive. Spike has cleaned up and performs well in his role as front-of-house, but the dishes fail to deliver. Lisa's laksa is a pungent smoky mess, as is her mango sticky rice with toasted coconuts, and Dale's butterscotch scallops (which actually look pretty tasty to me, but did not impress the judges). Spike's short ribs (recipe) is one of the only shining moments on Mai Buddha's menu.
As we could have predicted, Warehouse Kitchen delivers the knockout, winning the challenge with flying colors. Which is, to be noted, a feat all on its own - if we can recall how truly flawless they were in their execution compared to all of the Restaurant Wars of seasons past. Good job, team. Stephanie is handed the win for her excellent dishes and her leadership. She gets a trip to Spain! Lucky Steph.
Now it's Mai Buddha's turn on the chopping block and it's not pretty. Dale and Lisa have a supremely ww and unprofessional squabble, which prompts Jose Andres to comment that he can't see either of them working with people in a restaurant. Ouch. By a stroke of luck with his short ribs and front-of-house role, Spike slides by. Finally, despite the fact that Lisa committed the most horrid culinary crimes of the evening, it is executive chef Dale that is asked to go. The cutting of the executive chef is a characteristic move, but goes against the grain of this season's judgements, which seemed to favor those with the best dishes, no matter what the consequences. Lisa survives to see another week. But her days are clearly numbered. No one with that kind of attitude can be a Top Chef!
Next week, it's REALLY going to be the Cenitare challenge, with full on shots of guest judge Rick Tramonto in the previews. This will likely be the last show that was filmed in Chicago, as I suspect that they will fly the top four finalists to Puerto Rico for the finale. Boo hoo! I am still so dissappointed that it seems like neither Grant Achatz or Charlie Trotter or Mindy Segal are going to make an appearance. We better see at least one of them in the caribbean!
Next week: check back for the Top Chef's Guide to Chicago!