In these trying times, there is one thing we can all be grateful for, which is that we are not in the Charleston Top Chef house. Last week, Jamie dramatically sacrificed his immunity and was eliminated with dignity, leaving almost-loser Emily to soldier on in disgrace. “I just look like a jerk,” sighs Emily, throwing herself upon her twin bunk to weep. Oh, it is good to be back!
This week it’s time for Restaurant Wars. Arriving at the site of this battle (a restaurant), the chefs are met by none other than Daniel Humm and Will Guidara, who run Eleven Madison Park, where I plan to eat regularly upon becoming a different, wealthier person.
John has been dreaming of this moment for years. The first time he was on Top Chef, he missed Restaurant Wars by one challenge, and it has been the white whale he’s chased ever since. Sheldon, on the other hand, actually won Restaurant Wars once before, but, like, he’s not going to brag about it. “I had some luck on this challenge,” he grins bashfully. Ah, Padma remembers it well, especially the cocktails.
Back in the present, Padma explains how its going to go: In teams of four, the chefs will take the same space and create “distinct and unique dining experiences,” which due to the limits of space and time must take place on different days. By knife draw, it is determined that Shirley and Katsuji will get the distinct and unique experience of picking their teams. Katsuji takes Sheldon, because he is a champion. Shirley picks Brooke, because she’ll make the best partner. Katsuji picks Casey. Shirley makes the only reasonable decision and takes Sylva, which leaves Katsuji in existential crisis: will he pick sad villain Emily, or John, his arch nemesis. The answer is: John! “John is a very difficult guy, but he’s a hundred times better choice than Emily,” he announces, with a confidence I do not feel. In response, Emily joins Team Shirley. Just to really ensure that Katsuji gets all possible advantages, he gets to decide who goes first (not him).
“Check your ego, work together, and create something that feels cohesive and that makes sense,” warns Daniel Humm, meaningfully. It is almost like he can see into the future.
Embracing the spirit of teamwork, John suggests that Casey do front-of-house. “I like a woman in the front of the house, I really do,” he declares. “I’m not being sexist.” (Generally speaking, anytime you have to clarify that you aren’t being sexist, you’ve probably said or done something fairly sexist.)
Sheldon mumbles something about how he’s comfortable being executive chef, given that he has literally won Restaurant Wars, so naturally Katsuji ignores him and gives the role to pioneering-feminist John. Katsuji himself insists on making a baffling three different dishes. Since the restaurant theme is Low Country, they christen it Southern Belle, after the most famous strip club in Charleston.
Meanwhile, Shirley’s team quickly and effortlessly decides to be a seafood restaurant called Latitude: Inspired by the Sea. (Get it? It is inspired by the sea.) Taking a more traditional tack, Shirley appoints herself executive chef, Brooke accepts front of house, and Sylva and Emily agree to take the cooking. Onward to silverware selection and shopping! Exciting times!
Emily tries to pitch Shirley on her squid-ink pasta with smoky tomato and chorizo, but Shirley gracefully suggests it would be better without the tomato and chorizo, which makes Emily sad until she decides maybe she can do squid-ink pasta with shrimp butter and panko instead, and, in a testament to Shirley’s leadership, everyone is happy.
Having returned to home base, Team Shirley, now known as the Red Team, starts prepping: Brooke makes cold-cured king salmon with seasoned almond milk, Emily’s on buttermilk cake in addition to her squid-ink fiesta, Sylva handles pan-roasted halibut plus assorted support duties, and Shirley, chipper as ever, makes both a broth-y snapper and panna cotta. “I feel like I’m always a great cheerleader when it comes to team challenges!” she chirps.
The rumbles begin: Katsuji’s Blue Team embarks upon the contentious processes of going to the grocery store, where John and Sheldon can find neither lump crab meat nor beef tongue. The rumbles continue: Whole Foods is also out of okra.
Casey roasts strawberries and explains that she had to abandon a restaurant she started and it was like a death. Katsuji makes three dishes and explains that he was once an undocumented immigrant, working for below-minimum wage, and was almost deported during culinary school. “They told me, you know what, there’s two choices, either we call the police and deport you, or we keep it as a secret,” he says, and so they kept it a secret, on the one condition that Katsuji go on to become the best chef he could be.
In other news, Shirley is having panna cotta issues.
Dinner time! “Everything sounds good,” Tom muses as he inspects the menu at my new favorite restaurant, Latitude: Inspired by the Sea. “It’s always a question of how it’s executed.” Brooke’s salmon with kohlrabi has lots of “textures!” per Tom; Emily’s squid-ink pasta lacks both texture and flavor; Will Guidara announces that Shirley’s snapper is “reasonably well cooked;” and Gail cannot get enough of Sylva’s halibut. Will points out that Brooke is doing an amazing job on the floor, and Tom, like a softball dad, grins proudly.
A panna cotta update: It is still a disaster. Predictably, everyone hates it, except Tom, who really hates it. In a surprise twist, though, the judges love Emily’s buttermilk cake with miso-butterscotch sauce.
On the whole, Tom says the food was generally exceptional, and Daniel Humm raves that he definitely has had worse food at other points in his lifetime.
As Blue Team marches into the kitchen, John muses, “It’s all about great food, great flavors, great friends, great execution.” Katsuji gets right to work because he has assigned himself all of the dishes and now must simultaneously grill tomatoes, braise tongue, and burn meringue, all while yelling at everyone.
“It’s very chaotic and the time is ticking down,” observes John, who is transferring his crab cheese into tiny bowls. Bowls crash. Bottles spill. Tom, Daniel Humm, and Will Guidara are alarmed, and also confused as to why Katsuji is making quite so many dishes, but luckily, John is there to explain how he generously agreed to be executive chef so that Katsuji could achieve his three-course dreams. “I’d do that for him,” he announces, magnanimously, before diving into a fight about tomatoes.
And with that, Southern Belle is begrudgingly open for business! Sheldon has very real concerns about John’s arrangement of the kitchen. Casey is stressed and miserable. To best capture the mood, Padma is wearing a mostly topless bridesmaids dress. “The place feels great!” rasps Gail. That is also what the people on the Titanic thought.
Back in the kitchen, John’s “amazing organizational system” has fallen into total chaos. This means no one is getting any food, which means Casey has to go investigate, and no one is seating the guests, which means diners are piling up, and still, nobody has fed the judges. It is like watching a Rube Goldberg machine, but a defective one.
Here is a short list of things that are bad: Katsuji’s trio of sweet-potato tamales (“Why are we sharing small plates??” bellows Tom); John’s slimy crab cheese; Sheldon’s mushy squash stew with cod and flowers (“weird”); and the service, which is absent. “All I can say is dessert better be the most amazing dessert in the world right now,” threatens Tom. It is not, though Casey’s strawberry sorbet was 100 percent fine, in that it tasted like strawberry and was plausibly southern.
The judgement is clear: The Red Team takes it. But while the judges loved almost everything, there can be only one winner, and that winner is Brooke, who not only managed the dining room but also had the best dish of the challenge. “I will remember this forever,” beams Brooke. My concern is that I will also remember this forever.
So will the Blue Team, because it is a dramatic postmortem: Daniel Humm tells John the expediting system was his fault, as the leader, and John says he takes responsibility, though will defend his fishy pimento crab dip to the death. Katsuji theatrically claims that he opted to cook because he wanted to give the gift of leadership to John, but Tom points out that actually he just wanted to cook all the dishes (true). Katsuji accuses John of not helping (false). John argues that he did help (true). The judges rub their eyes and wish for a swift death.
When the ax finally falls, it falls without mercy: Katsuji is done, having tried to be a star, when he should have been a leader. Shirley nods emphatically. Whatever, Katsuji has no regrets, and in a way, isn’t that all any of us can ever hope for?