Top Chef Seattle Recap: David Rees on Restaurant Wars and Understanding Coconut Flavors

Time for Restaurant Wars
Time for Restaurant Wars Photo: David Moir/Bravo

Mark my words: This week’s installment of Restaurant Wars will be remembered as one of the most controversial battles in Top Chef history. Not since Napoleon lost the tussle at Waterloo have we been so whiplashed, gobsmacked, and just plain ol’ cornhusked by a military outcome. Read on for the gory details … if you dare!

On the eve of Restaurant Wars, the chefs sit on the hotel patio and smoke like French Legionnaires. Kristen is dragging on a Marlboro menthol, which — for a chef — is like a pianist smashing her hands with a hammer for fun. Brooke is optimistic for Kristen’s team — the theme is French Cuisine With a Twist, and they’ve all trained with French chefs at some point. On the other hand, Kristen has never opened a restaurant in her life! (Maybe that’s the twist?)Over on the men’s side of the battlefield, Josh and Stefan are a little nervous about General Sheldon’s concept of contemporary Filipino cuisine: How will they trick Americans into eating this space-food that doesn’t even use herbs? Not to mention Josh and Stefan have basically no experience with Filipino food! They sweat in their trench.

Mark my words, friends: This Restaurant War is about to get ugly.

On the first morning of Restaurant Wars, the chefs hop in their Toyota Avalons and use the built-in Bing search engine to look at nude photographs of me (JOKE) — but, seriously, they do use Bing to get to their destination, which is just another example of the great synergy between Toyota and Bing, who are revolutionizing the way we drive and the way we love, so get down to your local Toyota dealership and ask about leasing a great-tasting Toyota Bing.

Once they arrive at the Restaurant War venue, our friends realize they must build their kitchens in the courtyard! Has there ever been a Restaurant War like this before? Brooke and Josie go napkin shopping on behalf of Kristen. In a cutaway, Brooke implies that Josie is low-class and has no taste — which might be true, but Brooke delivers the opinion with such a classically unappealing Waspy mean-girl smirk that I find myself wishing hot death to rain down on her before the conclusion of our unholy Restaurant War.

Sheldon goes shopping and stocks up on dried mung beans. His food will have “lots of sour notes,” as will the results of this Restaurant War, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. (I can’t wait to tell you what happens at the end of this episode! Keep reading!)

Kristen is laying out her kitchen’s counters: “Every dish is gonna come through me.” She wants all the plates to have her hands on them before they’re sent to the dining room. Lizzie starts roasting chicken so she can make stock tomorrow morning, the Day of Battle. (Sheldon starts browning chicken wings, too.) Now, here’s something interesting: Josie told Kristen she was going to get a jump on roasting chickens for her boulibase(?), but then made a private decision not to — and neglected to tell anyone! Kristen is a little miffed: Is she going into a Restaurant War with unreliable soldiers? Josie says of her change of plan: “It doesn’t really matter; I feel confident that I can get it done tomorrow,” which is a strange thing to say given that her dishes have been coming out late all season. Josie, now reveling in the sun-dappled avenues of her own delusion, continues: “That’s just how I cook; I don’t rush things.” If I were Kristen, I would lock Josie in the brig immediately.

That night, Josie confides to the enemy (i.e., Josh and Stefan) that Kristen wants to plate everything all at once without putting any food on the plate ahead of time. (I don’t understand what this means.) Josie implies that she’s better qualified to run a restaurant than Kristen, who — let’s remember — has only won the last 5,000 challenges and amassed a personal fortune with her cash winnings and huge heaping piles of Toyota Avalons. Josh and Stefan seem to ignore Josie, until she leaves and Josh murmurs: “If they cook a fish to order they’re gonna go down so hard.” I can’t speak to Josh’s statement because I don’t know anything about cooking fish because fish is bullshit, but I do know that Josie’s confession re: Kristen’s strategy violates Article XVI of the Geneva Conventions Pertaining to Restaurant Wars. Let’s just say the producers are not tripping over themselves to present Josie in a positive light. Soon they’ll be accusing her of ripping babies out of incubators.

(My notes: “If I had to pick two people to work in my restaurant, I’d pick Lizzie and Stefan. They seem battle-hardened.”)

Here’s my military analysis of Restaurant War thus far: Even though the men are understaffed by one, they’re much calmer than the women. Sheldon seems to be a more confident General than Kristen. Then again, he doesn’t have to deal with the chaos that trails in Josie’s wake. I will add: Sheldon’s food is looking super foreign and unfamiliar to me. I’ve eaten French food before (not bragging, just saying), so the ladies’ stuff isn’t interesting to me, since most French food tastes the same — like butter and cream. I suppose I’m rooting for the men of Team Urbano because they’re actually learning something new from Sheldon and not just making the same ol’ fancy food we’ve all come to loathe over the years.

Speaking of loathing: It turns out that Josie’s stock isn’t ready when Kristen expected it; the wheels are starting to fall off Atelier Kwan. Josie offers a bunch of mumbo jumbo about patience and layering broth and whatnot. I’ve heard enough from this delinquent debutante — I want to shake the screen: “Josie! Just have shit done by the time you say it’ll be done!” Josie hasn’t even added the gelatin to the boullebase(?)! Kristen, barely keeping the top of her head attached, tells Josie to use cream and soy milk instead. I’m not sure what’s more of a turn-off: The fact that they were planning to use gelatin in their sauce, or the fact that they’re replacing it with soy milk. When did French cooking lose its way? Are they really putting pudding pops in their beef sauces these days?

Finally, the battle is joined: The guests pour into the fake restaurants. Padma clomps in wearing huge heels; her gait is that of a tasered horse, and if her dress were any shorter it’d be a belt, and that’s basically how Padma’s rocking it this week. Danny Meyer and Emeril are impressed with how the restaurants look.

Back in Kristen’s kitchen, Josie’s ham-handedness (or is it deliberate sabotage?) comes to full flower as the beoulibbase(?) falls apart. Josie never tested the broth; it’s supposed to be frothy, but it’s flat. Kristen just about throws a conniption fit, understandably; Josie in turn complains about Kristen’s “attitude,” the fact that she’s “rolling [her] eyes,” etc. (I will say this: If the producers aren’t manipulating footage to make Josie look spoiled and incompetent, then she truly might be the worst chef on this show, if not the world — and I’m including myself.) I’m on Kristens’ side. But then Josie insists that this catastrophe wouldn’t be happening if they had plated ahead of time like she wanted. And all of a sudden I’m on Josie’s side! Kristen or Josie, Josie or Kirsten — which one knows what they’re doing, and which one is the idiot? I’m worried I don’t know enough about food to judge. Meanwhile the diners are fidgeting in their seats, wondering where their boullibeise(?) is.

Finally, the bedeviled dish arrives. Gail, to Tom: “You have some sort of foamy substance on your fish that I didn’t seem to get.” Boom — just like that, I know Kristen’s team is going to lose. Tom winces in frustration and announces, “I can’t do anything with this … something happened back there [in the kitchen].” Sure enough, Kristen is overwhelmed in the kitchen, and Brooke doesn’t seem proud to be serving the dishes — she’s basically like, “Okay, so our next plate is a bunch of soggy garbage, whatever.”

(Meanwhile, the diners are loving Sheldon’s restaurant. They don’t want to leave. Stefan starts bribing people with cognac in order to get them to vacate.)

The judges think Kristen’s reinterpretation of beef bourguignon wasn’t radical enough. Meanwhile, the sticky stuff on Brooke’s cheese course is too sticky. The dessert, a deconstructed macaron by Kristen, is confusing. Gail is especially disappointed because she would like to be reincarnated as a macaron (NOT A JOKE). Danny Meyer says, “I think the almond flavor is terrific and I understand the coconut flavor,” and I’m envious because I’ve never met a coconut flavor I’ve understood.

Let’s take our leave of Atelier Kwan’s nightmarish hellscape and turn our attention, Matthew Brady-like, to Urbano. Stefan’s contribution to the menu is Kilawen, a raw-fish dish with chile and white soy sauces. This is the hundredth raw-fish dish we’ve seen this season, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that raw fish doesn’t look good on TV. But Emeril, who can’t see the dish on TV, loves it. In fact, everyone loves it! Apparently its component flavors are fighting each other in all the right ways as they struggle for taste-bud dominance.

Josh makes a newfangled Balut: poached egg, duck confit, and foie gras mousse. Gail and Danny think Stefan didn’t adequately contextualize this reinvention of the “infamous Filipino egg,” which traditionally comes with a dead bird inside — feathers and all. No matter: This dish is still a testament to bird torture as far as I can tell.

The next dish comes to the judges’ table, but Stefan doesn’t notice, so he doesn’t stop by to introduce the dish. The judges smile darkly and shake their heads: They’ve finally found something to criticize about Sheldon’s restaurant! So what is this dish that arrives, ninjalike, shrouded in darkness and mystery? I’ll tell you: It’s Sheldon’s take on Miki, featuring prawns, a tapioca roll, and achoite. When Padma calls out Stefan for not introducing the dish, his response is so perfunctory that he’s accused of making them all “feel like idiots.” Emeril delivers the bombshell judgment: “The way [Stefan] made us feel is worse than the bouliiabse(?).”

But Sheldon keeps sending out good dishes and impressing the judges; his adobo (pork belly with mung bean puree and pea shoots salad) is the best dish of the day, according to Tom. Danny loves it, too: Finally, the famous Filipino sour taste they’ve been waiting for!

Josh’s dessert looks extremely futuristic and pastel, like it was made out of old episodes of Miami Vice. Stefan’s ginger tea and chocolate blob looks par for the course. But enough about Urbano’s food: The judges hate Stefan’s service. They almost want to send him home. Something must be wrong with my mind, because I’ve loved Stefan this entire episode as he hustles, manhandles, and cajoles diners to get the hell out of Sheldon’s restaurant. Danny Meyer says you go to a restaurant the first time for the food, but you keep going back for the service. I think he’s confused restaurants with New Jersey gas stations. Who gives a hoot about service at a restaurant? Just bring me my calories and get out of my face, is what I say.

At Judges’ Table, Atelier Kwan is celebrated for the beef, but not the bourgenoin. Where was the acidic wine blast? Emeril praises Brooke’s front-of-the-room confidence. Lizzie’s charactureiere(?) soup was a hit, too. And then, the War Within Restaurant Wars: What was the deal with the billubaese(?). Why was the sauce so flat? And so measly? And so sometimes-foamy-and-sometimes-not-foamy? And where was the gelatin? Josie throws Kristen under the bus, saying she followed her boss’s lead even though she thought it was the wrong idea. Kristen takes the blame for “most” of the shortcomings. (At one point, Josie starts crying, which is suspicious.)

As for Sheldon’s team, Urbano’s service is carpet-bombed with criticism. Emeril: “I was blown away with disappointment.” Stefan snaps back: “I’m a chef, not a server.” Stefan, you have captured my heart. Sheldon served the best dish of the night, and so Urbano wins unanimously! The three dudes are very relieved. I love Sheldon and now I want him to win the whole show. Oh, and by the way, he gets the keys to a brand-new Toyota Avalon with a Bing search engine!

As to Kristen and Josie, the judges seem honestly flummoxed. Gail wants to boot Josie, who (she thinks) has been skating by for weeks. Padma thinks Kristen should go home because she was in charge of the Restaurant War. Emeril is torn. Tom rubs his eyes.

Then something shocking happens: They send Kristen home! Boom! What did I tell you? This is controversial! Get ready for total war! Get ready for rioting in the streets! The other chefs smolder with rage toward Josie, who announces that she’s an easy target. My prediction: Kristen will win Last Chance Kitchen and come back and cut Josie’s head off! Seriously, who would hire Josie over Kristen in a real restaurant? Even I know Kristen would be a better person to work with, and I have no interest in restaurants, food, or people!

Meanwhile Tom Colicchio’s Twitter feed gets defensive:

Please go to Bravotv.com to read my blog on why Kristen was eliminated— Tom Colicchio (@tomcolicchio) January 17, 2013

Take some personal responsibility and stay off social media if you haven’t watched the episode yet— Tom Colicchio (@tomcolicchio) January 17, 2013

Top Chef Seattle Recap: David Rees on Restaurant Wars and Understanding