The temperature, it is rising. After last week’s high-drama fiasco, in which Claudette threw Tanya under the bus and then Tanya succumbed to her bus-induced injuries, everyone’s feeling just a little bit on edge. “There are eight of us left at this point,” Mustache Joe calculates. “Two teams of four. That can mean only one thing: Restaurant Wars.” It is true. As Carrie so astutely puts it, “Ohhhhhh shiiiiiiit.”
As we meet Padma, she stands beside the legendary Bromberg Brothers. Padma explains that it is indeed time Restaurant Wars. The blue-shirted Bromberg brother explains that it is indeed difficult to open a restaurant.
By knife draw, Carrie and Chris become team captains, so they get to assemble the teams. Carrie immediately snaps up Bruce. Chris picks “’Stache.’” Carrie picks Joe Flamm. Chris picks Fatima. Then it’s down to Claudette and Adrienne, and Carrie claims Adrienne, leaving Chris with ray of Gothic sunshine Claudette.
But — ohhhhhh shiiiiiiit — turns out, this is no ordinary Restaurant Wars. This year, each team will have to make three courses with three different options per course. “That’s a total of nine dishes,” says the other Bromberg brother, helping along all the chefs who never learned their multiplication tables. Each team also gets to pick an eliminated not-top chef to help, so Carrie takes Tyler and Chris picks Brother, while everyone else is released back into the wilds of Colorado.
With an hour to plan the menus, both teams huddle up. Chris’s team — henceforth the Red Team — decides their restaurant will be called Common Place and the theme is “unexpected.” In practice, that means Joe will make very surprising oysters with pea foam and Chris will do sweet doughnuts but the twist is that they are also savory. Also, Chris decides Fatima should do front-of-house, he and Joe will be line cooks, and Claudette will be executive chef, which, to be fair, is very thematic. What are the chances this will go well, do you think? I would rank them as “unexpected.”
Across the warehouse, Carrie’s Gray team decides their restaurant is called Conifer, because that’s a tree, but also a group of trees, and they’re going to serve Italian-Mediterranean food inspired by the great seaside region of Colorado. Human teddy bear Joe Flamm wants to be front of house, Bruce agrees to be executive chef, Carrie and Adrienne hop on the line, and no one sighs deeply even once. It is beautiful, watching them work together. It almost makes you believe functional governance is possible.
Then, both teams have a quick consultation with some designers who help to conceptualize a vision. The vision is: “restaurant.” The Reds want a lot of “really natural colors” in an “informal but hospitable environment,” while the Grays want “tree tones.” They’re in luck, because according to the designers, “greenery is the color of the year.” That makes sense. When people ask me my favorite color, I often tell them “greenery.”
After a quick trip to a remarkably well-stocked Whole Foods, it’s time to hit the kitchen for some cooking. The Gray Team is going with a pretty standard menu of the kind of foods sold at restaurants. There’s crudo (gotta have crudo), and a duck thing, and Carrie will make a kale-and-beet salad, because it is 2018 and you’re contractually obligated, while Bruce does polenta and meatballs again, because they are his passion. “The thing about Restaurant Wars is if you can’t execute it, it’s not worth a damn,” says Bruce. Meanwhile, for the Red Team, Mustache Joe is pickling rhubarb in kombucha.
On the Gray Team, Carrie is hard at work on her kale salad. It involves dehydrating beets for something called “beet raisins,” which are beets transmogrified into gummy bears. I don’t know either. “I would never do a kale salad at Restaurant Wars,” Claudette shudders. Probably, she doesn’t know about the beet-raisins.
As night falls at the lodge, the chefs debrief about how their team is better than the other team. “Common Place is all over the place in terms of flavor profiles,” says Bruce. Mustache Joe counters with: “It’s crazy that he’s doing polenta again.”
Soon, it’s morning in Denver, and there are three and a half hours till opening. Chris feels pretty good about his clever appointment of Claudette. “It looks like she’s embracing this challenge,” he observes. “I know that my choice to make her the EC was the right one.” I am trying to think of a time in my life where I have ever made a choice, about anything, and known it was the right one.
Back in the kitchen, Claudette is not impressed with Bruce’s management techniques, which seem to be to manage. Claudette’s philosophy is: “You wipe your own ass, you’re responsible for your own plate.”
Words to live by.
On that note, the restaurants are open for business! The judges’ first stop is Conifer, which is every bit as piney as Joe Flamm hoped it would be. Bruce tries to inspire suspense by talking about how slammed the kitchen is, and how “the only option we have is just to power through this,” but everything is actually great. Joe’s hiramasa crudo was inadequately briny, but Bruce’s polenta meatballs were “kind of ridiculously good,” according to a Bromberg, and Carrie’s kale beet salad is the Platonic ideal of kale-beet salads, especially the beet raisins. “Actually, Joe’s good at tables!” Tom gasps, like it’s shocking, even though it is clear that Joe was born to table.
At Common Place, a man returns his gnudi. The line grows. Fatima contemplates removing diners by force.
Back at Conifer, the hits just keeping coming. Joe Flamm’s roasted duck is “a nice dish,” and Bruce’s lamb sausage orecchiette extravaganza has many “outstanding flavors.” Adrienne’s sea bass is a minor disaster — “this puree thing over here is just god-awful,” Tom says, gravely — but she redeems herself with a triumphant caramelized white chocolate buttermilk cake, so it’s fine. “Let’s go try the other restaurant,” chirps Padma. Yes, let’s!
“Common Place is essentially a place where people who are very different come together with similar food, a thought process, and ideas,” Fatima tries to explain, as Gail squints, willing herself to understand. Here is an abridged list of problems: the garlic chips on Fatima’s tartare are burnt, Joe’s oysters are flavorless, and Claudette’s bone marrow melted into nonexistence. Joe’s ricotta dumplings are oppressively rich. Chris’s beet doughnuts have “zero beet flavor.” Claudette’s ice cream was overspun — Tom may never recover, that’s how grainy it was — and a Bromberg is very confused by her skyr-miso-chickpea-white-chocolate-cherry-pickle extravaganza, served at “at little warmer than room temperature.” Worse yet, Tom did not appreciate the many decorative ferns.
“This isn’t like regular Restaurant Wars, where one team just goes down,” Joe Mustache beams. “It was just like two good services at two good pop-up restaurants!” Poor ’Stache. Who wants to be the one to tell him?
Eight valiant soldiers gather at Judges Table, and the only one who knows what is coming is Fatima. Fatima knows. Fatima always knows. The Gray Team takes it. “Those beet raisins are my new favorite thing,” rasps Gail. “That was the single coolest element of the night,” raves a Bromberg. What have you been doing with your life, all the minutes you have not been eating beet raisins? Anyway, the winner is Joe Flamm, because he was truly a master of hospitality.
The question of the evening is not: Was Common Place bad? It is: What bad element of Common Place was worst? “If I was taking out a friend to your restaurant and they said what kind of food is it, I really wouldn’t know what to tell them,” Padma mews, sadly. Why was the food so bad, the judges wonder? “As executive chef, did you not taste everything?” asks Gail, and Claudette explains that while she was technically executive chef, it’s actually Chris’s team, and she is but his humble executive servant. She never even wanted to be executive chef, executive chef-dom was thrust upon her! Could it be that Claudette is … throwing someone under the bus? Chris chimes in to say it is all his fault, and Fatima pointedly praises his integrity, Claudette, while Tom fantasizes about his retirement from this show. He’ll boat more. Tom loves boats.
In the present, it is time to make a decision, so Claudette must pack her knives (again) and go (again). But even in defeat, Claudette’s Claudette-like spirit cannot be broken. “The judges were wrong. I hope they’re kicking themselves in the ass for this,” she sniffs. “It’s really pathetic, because I know that the flavors I’m bringing and my story is unique. If Top Chef wants a vanilla Top Chef, they’re doing a good job.” On some level, as she vanishes into the Colorado ether, it is hard not to admire her.