The judges take their seats and await the make-or-break dishes from Season 15's Restaurant Wars.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

The time-honored challenge brings all the drama we were hoping for this season.

Carolyn Lipka
January 26, 2018

Well Top Chef fans, we’ve arrived at restaurant week! Which chefs will take home the gold and which will fall on their sword? Only time (and this episode) will tell. We open with the chefs still reeling from Tanya’s elimination. Everyone is worried about working with Claudette who, as of episode 7, has shown a track record of throwing her teammates under the bus. The chefs know what’s coming, as the tradition on Top Chef to do restaurant wars when the group whittles down to eight. 

The chefs walk into an empty restaurant space with Padma waiting to introduce Eric and Bruce Bromberg of the Blue Ribbon restaurant group who announce that it is time for Restaurant Wars! The cheftestants draw knives to see who will be the team captains. Carrie and Chris draw captain knives with Carrie picking first. Surprisingly, her first choice is Bruce! Considering he’s been in the bottom second most out of this group it’s a bit of a shocker for first pick. Chris’s first pick is Mustache Joe because he wants someone who can be creative and rise to the occasion.

Carrie’s next pick is Joe Flamm, an extremely strong choice, someone who’s proven to have a mastery of protein cookery and has a ton of experience opening up restaurants. Chris’ next pick is Fatima because she’s never been in the bottom. (Everyone who reads these recaps knows how I feel about Fatima—she’s just the best—so I think she’s a strong second pick). The last two standing are Adrienne, who’s been in the bottom pretty consistently, and Claudette, who just threw a well-liked contestant under the bus in front of the judges and all the other contestants. We all know where this is going. Adrienne joins Carrie and Chris gets Claudette. 

Padma then announces the twist to this year’s Restaurant Wars. The chefs must offer a three-course meal with three options per course for a total of nine dishes. That’s a ton of work and the chefs are dismayed by the task ahead until Padma announces that they’re going to get a little help. She brings in the eliminated chefs, of which each team gets to pick one to act as a line cook on their teams. Carrie chooses Tyler, reuniting the bears (who also reunited this past week at the James Beard House) and Chris chooses Brother because of his style of cooking, both strong chefs who were eliminated too soon. The chefs have two days to design, conceptualize and execute a restaurant of their own making. They take the first hour to menu plan.

Chris’s red team tries to find something all these chefs have in common culinarily, which is difficult for the Amish-Soul food chef, pasta maestro, Mexican food queen, and Pakistani-born contestant. Fatima is stressed about working with Claudette because she says she’s not exactly a team player and Mustache really pushes for them to choose a specific ethnic flavor profile to streamline the menu. The tension on the team is palpable as all of these chefs are familiar with the “unharmonious Restaurant Wars team going down in flames” trope, but none of them want to compromise their food. They decide on calling their restaurant “Common Place” to give each chef the freedom to cook their own food on a menu that will hopefully come together. Chris suggests that Claudette take the reins of executive chef and Fatima takes on the responsibility of front of the house. Everyone agrees, and it’s not a bad idea since past seasons have proven that as a line cook you’re basically guaranteed a spot in the next round.

Meanwhile, on the grey team, Carrie wants her team to do a Colorado-centric menu (big shocker there) and Bruce immediately says he wants to do a meatball and polenta that Tom mentioned at judges table a couple weeks back when he was almost eliminated. Carrie offers the name “Conifer” harkening to the abundance of those trees in Colorado.

The chefs meet with the interior designers and everyone wants a plant-heavy sleek dining room. The confessional gets pretty tense as Claudette throws shade at Adrienne and Carrie for being weak chefs and everyone is apprehensive about this challenge, which traditionally has brought the drama for Top Chef. Brother is apprehensive about his team’s menu, noting that it doesn’t feel thought through, but keeps his opinion to himself because of his line cook position. Tom does his run-thru and seems shocked that Joe Flamm is front of the house, but unsurprised that Bruce took on the executive chef role on team Conifer because of his experience expediting at his own restaurants. When Tom makes his way over to team Common Place, he questions the choice of putting Claudette in charge when Chris was the team captain. Perhaps in a sign of things to come, Chris says “if anything goes wrong I take full responsibility,” attempting to assuage the allegation that he’s avoiding the risks of leadership to avoid responsibility.

Over on Conifer, Carrie’s lemon curd for her dessert dish is messed up and she’s not sure why and Bruce and Joe are butting heads on the organization of the reservations. Bruce is afraid of overbooking in the first turn of service and backing up the kitchen but Joe feels confident in his booking system. Adrienne’s watching their competition like a hawk and is terrified that the cohesion of the grey team will give them the edge, saying “they’re gonna smoke us.” Carrie redoes her lemon curd from scratch and it turns out great. Crisis averted.

Everyone gets off to a bumpy start. The Conifer team gets slammed with orders, right off the bat, and Bruce feels like they’re in the weeds as soon as the doors open.  Adrienne is stressed that the plates she’s using are too hot and cooking the sauce on the plate. The Common Place team has a gnudi sent back because it’s too cold. Fatima is struggling to train and control her inexperienced waitstaff and is hyper-focused on picking up their slack. 

The judges start at Conifer. Gail immediately shades the menu for their “obligatory kale salad” but the Blue Ribbon brothers love the décor and ambiance. The grey team’s first course comes out: Joe Flamm’s hiramasa crudo, diced cucumber, pickled green almonds and neonata oil, Carrie’s local kale salad with beets three ways (raisined, roasted and pickled) and Bruce’s braised pork meatball with polenta, amatriciana sauce, Parmigiano Reggiano and house giardiniera finished with a toasted bread. The judges love the salad and meatball—Padma finds the salad to be perfectly seasoned and the raisined beets to be a revelation. The Blue Ribbon brothers said the flavor of Bruce’s dish was “ridiculously good” but Tom accurately pointed out that it’s very “safe food.” Joe’s fish was good, but everyone agreed that the oil was flavorless and it needed another element to bring it all together. Everyone is pleasantly surprised by Joe’s acumen for front of the house—he’s hitting every table, every glass is filled and he’s comfortable interacting with patrons.

The second course arrives shortly thereafter. The grey team offers Joe’s roasted duck breast atop a corn puree with roasted apricots and duck jus, Bruce’s red pepper orecchiette with lamb sausage, fava beans, pea and fava shoots and Adrienne’s Colorado bass with wheat berries, port reduction, chive oil and pickled cauliflower. Adrienne’s plate unfortunately cooked and dried out her sauces and Tom called the pickled cauliflower “god-awful,” questioning the decision to put it on the plate. Everyone likes the flavor in Bruce’s dish (again, this guy can’t go wrong with rustic Italian) and everyone loves the duck.

Finally, dessert. Carrie’s lemon curd, sugar cookie and mint gelee is a deconstructed take on the classic lemon bar, Bruce’s apple upside-down cake with apricot, and apple butter bourbon glaze and Adrienne’s caramelized white chocolate buttermilk cake with crème Fraiche ice cream round out the meal. Everyone likes the lemon bar and Adrienne’s cake but Bruce’s rustic dessert fails to impress beyond pleasant flavors because of the lackluster presentation. Ultimately the judges felt that service went well and didn’t feel like this was the first day Conifer was open, a rare compliment in Restaurant Wars. 

The judges head over to the red team’s Common Place just as Fatima finds herself pushing people to leave so she can turn over tables quickly. They arrive and note that there seems to be a huge wait and Tom chides the large number of high-tops. He’s also hypercritical of the décor, but Padma seems to like the plants and Gail thinks their menu is significantly more ambitious. Fatima comes over to greet the judges and bring their first course: Mustache’s shigoku oysters with spring pea foam and kombucha pickled rhubarb, Fatima’s top round tartare with three pepper aioli and sweet potato chips and another dish from Mustache, a chicken purse with charred spring onion in chicken broth. Tom won’t even finish Fatima’s dish because he can see that the chip and garlic are burnt and he doesn’t want that flavor in his mouth and finds that the tartare “needs more of everything.” Mustache’s dishes also do not fare well with the judges: Gail thinks his oyster is completely flavorless and the judges agree the dough for the chicken purse wasn’t steamed long enough so the pasta was tough, making for an unpleasant dish. Honestly, it’s pretty shocking to see Mustache mess up pasta.

Meanwhile in the kitchen, Bruce comments that he’s noticing that Claudette isn’t tasting any of the dishes before they go out, and not exactly taking on the role of executive chef in all that it entails. The second course comes out shortly thereafter: Mustache’s ricotta dumplings with mushrooms, charred broccoli and broccoli flowers, Chris’s braised pork shoulder and cheek with amaranth, quinoa, millet grain cake and a horseradish cream and Claudette’s absolutely stunning (looking) bone marrow with blue prawns, avocado puree, tomatillos, chili peppers and peanuts. The gorgeous presentation of Claudette’s dish couldn’t save its taste, as the judges note that the bones were cooked down too far and the marrow essentially disappeared. Tom thinks Chris’s dish is too salty but Padma loves the greens and everyone finds the flavors delicious. Mustache’s third dish fares better than his first two, but Gail notes that she was looking for a counterpoint to the richness of the gnudi.

Finally, it’s time for dessert. Chris made a beet donut with chocolate cream ganache and a beet fennel chutney and Claudette made two desserts: a sundae with financier, berry sauce with smoked and toasted almonds, and a skyr with miso chickpeas, white chocolate caramelized crumble and pickled cherries. Gail liked the flavor of the sundae but found the ice cream to be overspun and all the judges had temperature issues with the skyr. Tom found the beet donut to be woefully bereft of beet flavor and not as successful as it could have been.

With that, season 15’s Restaurant Wars have come to a close and the cheftestants head to judges table. It’s pretty painful to watch Mustache talk about how nobody crashed and burned and how it’s going to be a close race interspersed with negative comments the judges are making about his dishes, and we all can tell what’s looming around the corner. Team Conifer takes home the win with a surprise forty thousand dollar prize split between the team. Joe Flamm takes home his first elimination challenge win for the delicious duck dish and his outstanding service. The dehydrated beets also got a special mention from Gail and Padma for really elevating the otherwise commonplace kale salad. 

Speaking of, the Common Place is then called to face the judges panel and their high hopes for a close race are put to bed. The judges are harsh about the lack of cohesion in the menu concept and the execution of the dishes. Claudette immediately begins to throw people under the bus, claiming that her sole duty as executive chef was to expedite and that everyone should be responsible for the success or failure of their own dishes. For some reason, Chris attempts to fall on his sword and says he takes full responsibility for the failures of the team because he appointed everyone’s role. Fatima jumps in, standing up for Chris and his integrity because she knows, along with the judges it seems, that the role of the executive chef includes tasting the dishes and streamlining the kitchen. Even though two of Mustache’s dishes were failures, Claudette was the one who was asked to pack her knives for the second time in the competition. She storms off before the judges even finish telling her to “say your goodbyes.”

Despite Chris' attempts to take the blame, Claudette is sent packing once again.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

The chefs essentially shrug it off and turn their backs on Claudette once again, heading towards the stew room. The fiery chef leaves us with a few thoughts, saying “the judges were wrong. I hope they’re kicking themselves in the ass for this. It’s really pathetic. If Top Chef wants a vanilla Top Chef they’re doing a good job.” Yikes.

Last Chance Comments

  • “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face and I feel like that’s Restaurant Wars.”—Joe Flamm
  • This week in Top Chef looks: Bruce wears a “Porcetta Bout It” shirt! Chris wears full body overalls (finally some of his amish heritage comes thru)! Fatima wears a full-length floral dress with a slit and a choker! Padma somehow sells me LEATHER PEPLUM and does an iconic cream jumpsuit blue eyeliner combo that inspired me to try blue eyeliner! Unsurprisingly, it was not my best look.
  • Well Claudette your time back in the competition was short but I have no doubt Tom’s love of your cuisine and experience in LCK will serve you well in your fight to once again rejoin the competition. 
  • Anyone else have a brief panic attack that Fatima was going to be eliminated because she only did one mediocre dish? I’m sorry that was your first time at the bottom, babe. We all have to lose our virginity sometime. 
  • Bruce Facetiming with his newborn son was so touching. 
  • Mustache’s most humanizing moment: singing in the kitchen
  • Mustache’s least humanizing moment: when he called himself a “proud plant father.” (But that photo of him was priceless).
  • Will Bruce ever cook fish? Will he ever make a dish without a heavy starch? Tune in next week to find out. (I’m willing to bet the answer is no.) Why go on Top Chef if you aren’t going to challenge yourself to do something new? Then again, when Tom says “make your food” it’s probably a good idea to make your food.
  • Chris’s commitment to his integrity reminds me of Jamie’s shocking move from last season to give up his immunity and go home during Restaurant Wars instead of Emily who CLEARLY deserved to pack her knives. It was a controversial decision that all the chefs advised him against but he stuck to his guns and went down with the ship. Honorable, if not exactly the smartest game-playing move. 
  • This is the fourth time this season that Carrie has messed up colossally on a first pass at a dish. She’s usually able to fix her mistake by the second or third time she makes the dish but if she ever gets eliminated I worry about her ability to succeed in Last Chance Kitchen.
  • I was just as surprised as Tom to see how good Joe Flamm was at front of the house. I just had a particularly terrible experience at a restaurant in Los Angeles that made me question whether service is something “hot” new restaurants deliberately eschew. Joe gives me hope!

Last Chance Kitchen

This week Tanya goes up against Brother for a shot to get back into the competition. In a reference to the challenge that sent her home, the chefs have to cook a dish for the round Tanya wished she could have been assigned: the speed round. Tom lets them chose how much time they have to cook the dish—Tom initially says they’ll have fifteen minutes to make whatever dish they want. Brother essentially negotiates him down to ten minutes (!!) to cook a dish from scratch and Tanya reluctantly agrees. Time is called and the chefs are forced to think on the fly. Brother is doing a variation of a seared fish dish he does in his restaurant and takes the time to filet and bone the fish. Tanya originally wanted shrimp but was forced to rethink her approach when there are no shrimp in the pantry and grabs the salmon steak. After noticing her salmon is undercooked when she initially goes to plate it, she immediately throws it back in the pan until the last couple seconds to ensure it’s cooked through. Meanwhile, Brother is regretting bringing the challenge down to ten minutes and pulls the slightly burnt chorizo from his plate at the last second. The ten minutes go by quickly and the chef’s dishes are complete. Tom tastes Tanya’s blackened salmon steak with a romesco sauce and arugula salad first. Brother’s competing dish is a seared trout with chorizo vinaigrette and cauliflower puree. Tom is impressed with what the chefs were able to accomplish in ten minutes but ultimately chooses Brother for the win because of a raw onion flavor that overpowered the back end of Tanya’s sauce. Even though she was once again asked to pack her knives, Tanya felt better about the way she left the competition in LCK, proving once again the concurrent reality show allows the chefs to leave on a better note. 

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