'Top Chef' recap, 'Restaurant Wars'

Here's a question: Why is it called "Restaurant Wars"? There are two restaurants and they battle it out only once. So if anything, it should be called "Restaurants War," right?

Then again, it doesn't matter what it is called, because it's one of the most anticipated challenges for chefs and viewers alike. There are no product placements and no history lessons — just good old-fashioned cooking and service.


But first, let's get caught up. After all, it has been a few weeks.

Last challenge, Katsuji won for making a side dish and Gregory took an uncharacteristic slip, landing on the bottom for making rubbery goose. But the judges weren't going to send him home for that, so hometown girl Stacy took the fall. Yup, Katsuji up and Gregory down -- it was like a bizarro episode of "Top Chef."


With Stacy gone, only eight chefs remain. And they all know what that means.

Next morning, instead of reporting to the "Top Chef" kitchen, they're told by Padma via a note to head over to the Revere Hotel at Boston Commons. Waiting for them is a knife block, Padma and chef Barbara Lynch.

Barbara Lynch is only the second woman to win the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur (after Maguy Le Coze, owner of Le Bernardin.) She owns a slew of restaurants in the Boston area. You know that Chase Sapphire commercial you see every week with Stephanie Cmar eating a delicious plate of pasta at Sportello? Yeah, Barbara owns that restaurant.

Speaking of Chase Sapphire, I spoke too soon about product placements. On top of serving guests and judges, there's also a VIP table of Chase Sapphire card members. Like the judges, these VIPs will get to taste both restaurants' dishes.

Everyone knows the drill. Two teams of four. The challenge is to conjure up a restaurant complete with decor, theme and a cohesive menu in one day. Time to draw knives.

Unlike in previous seasons, the knives aren't marked with team colors. Many of them are blank. There are only two that are marked -- a "First Choice," and "Second Choice."  They land in the hands of Melissa and Katie. Looks like we're picking teams.

Melissa gets first pick and she goes with Doug. It's a surprise move, since Gregory is clearly the most talented chef out of the group thus far.

The other surprise is that Katie spends her second pick on Katsuji, who is not known for his ability to work well with others.


You know what's not a surprise? Keriann gets picked last.

At the end, Grey team consists of Doug, Melissa, Mei and Adam. Orange team is made up of Katie, Gregory, Katsuji and Keriann.

Just like last season, each team must name their executive chef and front-of-the-house person. As we all know, taking on either of these roles in ";Restaurant Wars"; is putting yourself at risk.

They say there's a fine line between bravery and stupidity. Apparently Doug has never heard of that line before; he decides to take the role of executive chef of the Grey Team. Just to make sure Doug hasn't lost his mind, Adam reminds Doug of the gravity of the situation.

"You're on 'Top Chef,' and you're going to be the executive chef of a restaurant in Restaurant Wars."

"*Expletive* it, I'll do it," says Doug.


Meanwhile, Mei says she had wanted to step into that role but decided against it because, "We all know, women are better line cooks."

Hmmm. The guest judge this week is Barbara Lynch, who I'm sure does not share Mei's sentiment.

This show is still called "Top Chef," not "Top Line Cook," right? Since the inception of Restaurant Wars, four of the Restaurant War winners went on to win the whole thing. So this is definitely a measuring stick of whether or not you're cut out to be a "Top Chef."

Everyone on the Grey team thinks Adam should be front-of-the-house. Apparently he's charming? I think it might have more to do with getting his controlling personality out of the kitchen.

Over at the Orange team, Gregory pushes the executive chef responsibility onto Katie. Gregory learned last time the potential consequences of taking risks. So he decides to lay low and just focus on his food. (Read: get by and survive.)

In a gallant display of confidence, Katie whimpers a, "Uhh…(uncomfortable chuckle) I'll do it. Yeah sure."


Then she explains to the camera how she feels good about being the executive chef. Because you know, she teaches culinary school AND owns a pop-up restaurant business, so she's totally qualified to run this joint. It's almost like she's trying to convince herself that she can do it.

The Orange team's other consensus is for Keriann to be front-of-the-house because, as Katsuji so eloquently puts it, "She looks cute in a dress…"

Unlike Beyonce, Katsuji is definitely not a feminist.

Time to come up with the concept/menu.

The Grey team decides to keep it simple and serve things family-style. That's a smart move. The chefs won't get bogged down on plating each individual dish and that'll definitely get the food out faster.

Orange team is all over the place. Katie wants to do something from Sri Lanka, Gregory is going Chinese and Katsuji is once again making Mexican/Japanese food. Talk about a non-cohesive menu. But hey, they think that, by calling the restaurant Magellan, they can give these hodgepodge dishes a theme. As in, "Magellan traveled around the world looking for spices." Yeah, it's a bit of a reach.


Here comes the meaningless montage of the gang spending time at furniture stores and party supply stores to pick out the perfect decor for their restaurant.

It's meaningless because not once has any team lost Restaurant Wars because of ugly decor and no one has ever been sent home because the silverware didn't match the theme. Not once.

However, the Grey team did find some wooden piggy banks and that inspired them to name their restaurant 4 Pigs. See there's four of them and there are four…you get the point.

Also having the word "pig" in your restaurant's name is just so original. (Sarcasm, obviously.)

With all the gathering done, it's time to cook.

Usually during the cooking montage, as each team describes their menu, there's a graphic that lists the dishes. A virtual menu if you will. But not this time.  We got zilch. Guess the graphics department decided to take an extra week off.


For 4 Pigs, Doug is braising pork shoulder with cans of PBR. He's making a basic pork 'n beans dish. Mei's doing brussel sprouts and chicken liver mousse on toast. Melissa is making a scallop dish with some mixed salad and also a wild berry dessert. And Adam is doing a stuffed clam appetizer with ramps and bacon.

I'm going to ride the sarcasm train and say this sounds like a really inspired menu.

Magellan is kinda all over the place. Katie's cooking up some Sri Lankan beets with coconut curry. Gregory's doing two dishes, a haddock with tomatoes and a hoisin glazed pork tenderloin. Stuck on repeat, Katsuji is once again making raw fish with some form of salsa.

As if being front-of-the-house isn't risky enough, Keriann is making dessert. She's doing a vanilla crêpe with banana mousse. And because she has to be on the floor the whole time, she's making her crepe the day before. Because you know, the best crêperies in France always serve day-old crêpes.

Katsuji knows this. He even says he'd have plenty of time to make her crêpes to-order during service, but he's not going to offer. Why? Because he only cares about himself.  He says, "At the end of the day, this is a cooking competition."

Pretty sure looking out for number 1 is the exact opposite of what you want in a "top" chef.


Day of. The teams have four hours to get everything ready for service. One of the biggest challenges is to train the servers on how to run tickets and food back and forth. Much like taxis on "The Amazing Race," servers can make or break a team. And the responsibility of getting them ready is on the two front-of-house positions, Keriann and Adam.

Keriann tells us she got to open her own restaurant on a cruise ship at the age of 22. That sure inspires a lot of confidence, since nobody's ever gotten sick on a cruise ship!

Adam, meanwhile, is outside training the servers when a crisis strikes. One of the major components of his dish, the clam shells, mysteriously disappeared. I'm guessing it's going to be kinda hard to make stuffed clams without the actual shells.

In past seasons when something like this happens, the camera person or producer usually has an idea of what happened. Perhaps it got accidentally thrown out? Perhaps it was sabotage? But this time, it's never explained what actually happened. Adam has to bite the bullet and prep 150 more clam shells.

Guests are arriving. Let's start the war.

Apparently whoever's at the host station at 4 Pigs isn't a "Top Chef" fan. He had no idea who the judges are; when they show up, he asks for Padma's last name to see if they have a reservation.


"No, I promise you we have a reservation here," Padma says, clearly amused by this, "that's the first time I had to fight for a table for a long time." Ah, life must be so good when you're Padma.

While the judges are at 4 Pigs, the Sapphire VIPs head over to Magellan. Frankly, by VIPs they meant previous "Top Chef" winner Kristen Kish and previous contestant Stephanie Cmar.

Things are not looking good at Magellan. It's moments into service and the waiters are walking around looking lost and saying things like, "They've messed up already, man."

Some tables are getting the same dishes two or three times over, while other tables are not getting any food. In the kitchen, it's apparent that Katie is in over her head. There's no sense of command and "chef presence."

Meanwhile, Kerriann is just as lost on the floor. She's trying to give directions to servers who just stare back blankly at her.

On the flip side, 4 Pigs is running smoothly. Tom notes that Adam is doing a great job. People are happy, the dining room's got a good pace going, and the food's not bad either. Out of all the dishes, only Melissa's scallops were over-seasoned. Other than that, there were no real complaints about the food,


Frankly, perhaps it was the editing -- there vwasn't a lot of discussion about the food, period. We're at Restaurant Wars in season 12 of "Top Chef" and there's no commentary from the judges that they're eating family style pork'n beans and stuffed clams?

The difference between the two kitchens is night and day. On one side, Doug's station is cleared of tickets. Things are humming and his servers even have time to stand around and take a drink of water.

Katie, meanwhile, is completely backed-up with tickets. She's crossing things off and waiters are coming back with plates of food and walking back out with the same plate of food. Mass confusion.

At one point, Kerriann's response to a table who hadn't gotten dessert was, "Are you kidding me?" Um, I'm pretty sure that's not how you're supposed to speak to guests.

As she runs back to the kitchen to check on dessert, the judges arrive at Magellan with no one to greet them. Tom steps behind the host's stand and mock greets the rest of the judges. Not a good impression.

To make matters worse, Keriann's dessert is a disaster. Her original plan was to serve it cold, but the crêpe is rubbery and the mousse is hard as a rock. So Katie makes the executive decision to heat everything up so it's at least servable.


Right away, "mean girl Padma" makes an appearance and says that Kerriann is nowhere to be found on the dining room floor. Tom also looks around and sees that very few tables have food on their table. Next thing you know, they're commenting on how Keriann should have been wearing sneakers because she looked uncomfortable walking in heels. It's all falling apart.

Once again the judges' reaction to their food was secondary to the service. Yeah, there were some complaints about Katie's coconut beets, or perhaps a little too much onion on Katsuji's hamachi, but nothing stood out either good or bad. Well, except the dessert.

As Kerriann was walking the dessert to the judges, she noticed that it is being served warm --  instead of cold, like she wanted. I don't know if the temperature would have made a difference, because it looked dry, bland and just kinda sad. Tom compared it to a hockey puck and it was so bad Barbara Lynch jokingly says she's not paying for dinner. Yikes.

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So, in this, one of the more lopsided challenges, it's pretty obvious which was the winning team. Grey team worked together and created a much better dining experience than the Orange team. Adam crushed it as the manager and everything just worked. As the executive chef, Doug is the winner of this season's Restaurant Wars.

The big question now is, who's more to blame on the Orange team? Is it the executive chef who couldn't pull the team together? Or the general manager who couldn't run a smooth service?

Ultimately Kerriann gets sent home, for both being unable to properly prepare the wait staff for service and delivering a terrible dessert. It was pretty obvious she didn't know what she was doing on the floor, and that dessert was going to be bad regardless how it was served.


Even though Katie skated by this week, I'm pretty sure her time is close to being up as well.

Overall, this was a pretty disappointing Restaurant Wars. It seems like the focus this time was not so much about food but more about service. The judges didn't even mention what the Sapphire VIP crew thought about the food. It could easily have been called "Service Wars."

Plus, the fact that chefs like Mei, Katsuji and Gregory are more "playing the game" instead of stepping up and cooking good food really bothers me. They've seen the show enough to know not to volunteer to be either executive chef or general manager. That in itself takes away from the spirit of Restaurant Wars.

Things are going to get a little more interesting next week: an elimination QuickFire, the chance for one of the eliminated chefs to resurrect and the return of Last Chance Kitchen.