Top Chef Recap: It’s Time for Restaurant Wars

You knew it was coming.
You knew it was coming. Photo: Dale Berman/Bravo

As this week’s episode begins, there are eight chefs left. “So what do you think is going on today?” asks Phillip, who apparently did not get the memo. (Phillip is always getting left off of memos). “When you’re down to eight people on Top Chef,” Amar explains patiently, “you do Restaurant Wars.” Amar, of course, is correct. So hang on to your color-coded apron strings, folks, because the battle is on.

Upon arriving at the site of their rumble, the chefs are greeted by Padma and guest judge and restaurateur Bill Chait, who confirm what we have come to suspect: It’s Restaurant Wars. The chefs have long prepared for this moment, and they immediately launch into a rendition of their original song-and-dance number, “Restaurant Wars.” It goes like this: “Restaurant Wars/ Get ready for that/ Restaurant Wars/ We’re yelling to that/ Restaurant Waaaaaars!” At least I think those are the lyrics; it is surprisingly hard to tell. Padma, whose dress is distinguished by the very large hole in the middle of it, is delighted. “But unfortunately,” she says, glumly, “this is not Restaurant Wars.” She pauses. “Just kidding!” Get it? It is Restaurant Wars! Padma will be here all week. Tip your waitress.

And with that, it’s time to pick the teams. By knife draw, Karen and Amar get to do the honors, and everyone else lines up nervously, like televised middle-school gym. Amar’s first pick is Kwame; Karen’s first pick is Marjorie. Amar scoops up Jeremy (“Shake and bake, baby!” affirms Jeremy), presumably because somebody’s got to make the crudo. Karen then calls for her old beefsteak pal Carl. This leaves Phillip and Isaac left and Amar weighing his options: Isaac is the better chef, but Phillip is dying to do front of house — a thankless role that Amar has no interest in. Ultimately, Amar’s desire to avoid serving as general manager outweighs his desire to avoid Phillip, which means Isaac defaults to Team Karen. “Just like in kickball!” Isaac jokes, sadly.

But there’s no time for wallowing, because Padma has an announcement. “This year, we’re making Restaurant Wars bigger and better than ever,” she chirps. For the first time, the teams will be serving both lunch and dinner. “Twenty-four hours for two services is insane,” confirms Jeremy. “I’ve been watching this for 12 other seasons, and dinner alone has made catastrophes happen. To illustrate this point, we are treated to a montage of past chefs screaming at each other. And there’s one final twist! “Everyone on your team must take a turn being either the executive chef or front of the house,” Padma explains, grinning impishly. Phillip, beaming like a beaver, has never been happier.

As the chefs plot out their restaurant concepts, high-kicks Karen takes a moment to assess the competition. “The other team has a lot of big personalities, a lot of big egos,” she observes. “I wonder if they’ll be able to really work as a team.” This is a technique some film scholars call “foreshadowing.”

Across the room, the egos are brainstorming. “What’s the concept?” asks Phillip. “Modern American!” the egos chorus. “What’s the name?” asks Phillip, suggesting it should be “something that doesn’t have an actual meaning.” While “District 16” is correctly vetoed for sounding like an alien movie, Phillip’s suggestion, “District L.A.” is pleasingly vacuous. “Let’s go with it,” shrugs Jeremy, blandly. “I’m not excited about working with Phillip,” sighs Kwame, bleakly.

Back on Gray Team turf, Karen & Co. are debating the difference between “fine” dining and “refined” dining. “I think we want to show off a lot of technique,” says Carl, fantasizing about all the terrines he will make. “I use all the technique in the world, but I’d still call myself rustic,” counters Isaac. “I think Isaac just doesn’t have as much refinement as some of us,” offers Marjorie, noting that she, for one, does not want any “clunky” food on the menu. Carl is going to make so many terrines. To go with them, Marjorie offers to do a bread service using her classic dough with butter, Parmesan, and herbs. “I think that’s baller,” coos Karen. “I could make cornbread!” Isaac interjects to no one. By the time Carl suggests they name the joint “Palate,” Isaac has given up on group discussion entirely. Palate it is!

When the teams arrive at their respective shopping destinations, tensions are already running high. At the restaurant supply showroom, Kwame and Phillip are fighting over glassware. “We’re not doing mason jars,” says Kwame, who thinks mason jars are “so ten years ago, Brooklyn.” Meanwhile, in actual Brooklyn, at that exact moment, I look down at my own hand. It is holding a mason jar. Well played, Kwame.

Across town, Marjorie is on the verge of a nervous breakdown at Whole Foods. “Do you wanna cry yet?” she asks Amar, who does not. Oh Marjorie, you should have asked me! I always want to cry.

Tom: Never not suspicious of the chefs' intentions.
Tom: Never not suspicious of the chefs’ intentions. Photo: Dale Berman/Bravo

It is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit that the chefs manage to finish their shopping and get back to the kitchen without any significant breakdowns. “Yeah, Team Gray!” cheers ray-of-sunshine Carl, laboring over his increasingly worrying terrine. “That tortellini looks beautiful,” cheers Marjorie, who at some point plans to make a beet salad. Speaking of plans: Jeremy is hard at work prepping his dinner course, a delicate California artichoke risotto, while Phillip is blending the key ingredients for his legendary strawberry-and-Champagne salad. “I’ve gotten nothing but fantastic feedback about this,” he brags. Another thing he’d gotten nothing but fantastic feedback about was the gummy cream-potato sauce that almost got him eliminated, but the great thing about Phillip is that he is not a man who dwells on the past.

Before turning in for the night at the trusty Hotel Roosevelt, the chefs unwind with a bedtime story, which is Phillip explaining the incredibly intricate plating instructions for his storied Champagne salad. The arugula is to stand up on end, atop a pile of pickled cucumber noodles, and is to be finished with crumbled pistachios and the blood of 40 virgins. Can we simplify? asks Kwame, who is responsible for actually plating this masterpiece. Kwame, I think we all know the answer to that.

From a safe distance, Isaac takes a moment to revel in his luck. “I’m actually really glad we have two high-powered ladies on our team,” he says. So what if those high-powered ladies mostly don’t listen to him? “They’re both egoless and attitude-less. We’ll let those bros take themselves down.” Amen.

This looks about right.
This looks about right. Photo: Dale Berman/Bravo

Preparing for battle the morning of the restaurant rumble, the bros get pumped. “I’m excited about our team!” says Kwame, mustering enthusiasm he surely does not feel. “We just hope those egos don’t get involved,” repeats Jeremy, establishing what is known as “a theme.” Jeremy will be acting as executive chef for the Orange Team, and Kwame will be managing front of house. For the Gray Team, Isaac is on executive-chef duty, and Marjorie is helming front of house. “I like control,” she says, boldly, “and I think the lunch GM will really set the tone for the entire day.” Forget the election — the real feminist victory of 2016 will be if Marjorie wins this thing.

The judges’ first stop: District L.A. Bill Chait arrives wearing a mock turtleneck. To counter his neck coverage, Padma arrives essentially topless.

Back in the kitchen, Jeremy makes the executive call to get the judges’ food out as soon as possible, bypassing all other orders. “I don’t think that’s a great idea,” intones Phillip, in ominous voice-over. But Jeremy didn’t get where he is today living by other people’s rules, and so the judges are served. Kicking off the meal is Jeremy’s asparagus salad with crispy egg and truffle vinaigrette, as well as Kwame’s corn-and-sage velouté with pancetta. Both are hits. “This asparagus-and-egg dish is something I would totally order for lunch!” raves Padma, dishing out the highest praise she can think of. Tom agrees. Tom also observes that almost no one else in the restaurant has food. Before he can think about this too hard, however, the mains are rolled out: roasted salmon with undercooked ratatouille by Phillip, and yet another sous-vide chicken breast from Amar. “We’ve seen this, what, three times now from Amar?” Tom mutters. Probably other diners in the restaurant would enjoy it more, but they cannot, because no one is serving them.

Over at Palate, Marjorie, struggling to turn tables, has taken to bribing people out of their seats with free sparkling wine. This is the kind of innovative leadership America needs. Unfortunately, this means that when the judges arrive, Marjorie is absent from the host stand. Also unfortunate: the entire first course. While it may seem that Tom enjoyed Carl’s terrine because he devoured it, he actually did not care for it one bit, not in a house, not with a mouse. Marjorie’s beet salad was better, but bafflingly unambitious. “If you’ve got one dish,” wonders Padma, “is this what you’re going to serve us?” Back at District L.A., the line continues to grow.

But what Palate lacked in appetizers, it makes up for in mains. Bill says Karen’s Asian-marinated flank-steak salad has “the most guts” of any dish they’ve tried thus far, which is the most animated we’ve seen him. Padma agrees — she could definitely eat this for lunch. Isaac’s tomato-and-shellfish stew with braised fennel is deemed “solid”; at the very least, it is more intriguing than either offering at District. In the end, the judges agree: District had better apps, Palate won for mains, and both restaurants were generally dull. “I’m really looking forward to seeing what the dinner menus have for us,” purrs Padma, optimistically.

And so lunch service comes to a close. Or at least, it is supposed to come to a close. One problem with focusing on a single table and ignoring all the other tables, the Orange Team is learning, is that the longer you take to serve someone, the longer it is before they’re done eating. And so: Thanks to their singular devotion to the judges’ table, the Orange Team now has an entire restaurant full of hangry diners who should have been served an hour ago, but they’re out of time. “Fuck me, dude,” mumbles Jeremy.

But before that can actually happen, the television screen merely says, ominously: “To be continued … ”

See you then.

Top Chef Recap: It’s Time for Restaurant Wars