This season's Restaurant Wars has more chefs, more restaurants, and more drama than ever.

By Korsha Wilson
December 27, 2018
Michael Hickey/Bravo Media

Nearly every chef dreams of opening their own restaurant someday where they can craft a menu of dishes that speak to their unique perspective. On Top Chef, Restaurant Wars combines the challenges of opening a restaurant with the difficulties that arise when strong personalities work together in the kitchen. And just four episodes into season 16, the cheftestants had to sort it all out a few weeks earlier than usual.

But first, we find the chefs exhausted after their two hour Christmas dessert challenge. Brian Malarkey is feeling bad for sending Kevin Scharpf home. “I’ve been struggling and haven’t been performing to the level that I know that I can,” he says. “I don’t ever want to go back up there again,” he says to his competitors.

The next day in the Top Chef kitchen, the cheftestants are face to face with two of the fiercest women to ever compete on the show: Nina Compton and Karen Akunowicz. Both of them have gone on to win James Beard Awards post their time on Top Chef. “I know exactly what it feels like to be here and it’s very, very stressful,” Nina says to the chefs. “My advice is don’t doubt yourself, don’t doubt your food and don’t doubt who you are,” Karen adds.

Quickfire

This week’s Quickfire is all about a classic element of traditional French fine dining: the amuse bouche. Amuse bouche literally translates to “mouth amuser” and is usually a little bite at the beginning of a meal meant to stoke diners’ appetites. “[It’s] something delicious that starts the meal off right,” Nina explains. The chefs have 30 minutes to create their own versions that fit on a Chinese spoon, ramekin or small plate. Oh and there’s only four of each so they’ll have to make a mad dash to grab the serving utensil that they want.

David is feeling confident because he’s won two Quickfires in a row. He’s making ravioli from scratch which is doable because he only needs a small amount but still tough because pasta dough needs to rest to reach the right consistency. Michelle is making a cured halibut with compressed watermelon inspired by her childhood and the memories of drinking “juice from the bottom of the bowl” of salsa during the summer. “I’ve been placing in the middle but I’m one of the better chefs here,” she says. Adrienne is making a “clean, fresh, bright” lamb tartare while Eric is stepping out of his comfort zone with a curry bisque. Brandon ended up with a small ramekin so he’s making a halibut chowder inspired by coastal California.

Time's up, and the chefs present their dishes in fours, based on the serving vessel they chose. On the bottom are Adrienne’s lamb tartare wrapped in raw bell pepper because it “was really hard to eat”, Kelsey’s “dry” and underwhelming hush puppy, and David’s ravioli because it was “undercooked”. On top are Brandon’s chowder, Eric’s curry bisque and Michelle’s halibut. Michelle pulls out the win and gets immunity for the next elimination challenge!

Michael Hickey/Bravo Media

Elimination Challenge

This week’s guest judge is sommelier and restaurateur, Caroline Styne, who won Restaurateur of the Year at the 2018 James Beard Awards. The chefs look thoroughly confused about why she’s there until Padma explains that they’re about to tackle one of Top Chef’s most famous challenges: Restaurant Wars! That’s right, the challenge that usually happens when the competition has been whittled down to eight chefs is earlier than ever this season and the twelve chefs are splitting into three teams to create their own restaurants. Padma also drops the bombshell that the teams have already been determined. Those vessels for the amuse bouche (the spoon, ramekin and small plate) are also dictating the teams for each restaurant.

Most restaurant openings take a year or so to solidify their vision and open in a space, but as usual the cheftestants will have far less time. “You’ll have two days to conceptualize, design and execute your restaurant,” Padma explains. The chefs will have 30 minutes to menu plan, then will head to Lundy’s Event Space in Lexington, Kentucky where they’ll see the space and meet with designers. Then they’ll head to Whole Foods where each team will get $3,500 to spend on ingredients. The next day they’ll have 6 hours to prep and cook a three-course meal (with two options for each course) before service begins. And with that, they’re off to the races.

Here’s who’s on what team and how they worked together before service:

Orange Team Restaurant: North East
Eric, Eddie, Adrienne, Brian

The Orange Team immediately decides to play up the fact that they’re from the east coast with Adrienne jumping into the expeditor role. “I expedite at three restaurants, I’m used to chaos being part of my life,” she says. Brian feels really confident he can execute a chicken ballotine, a dish where chicken is deboned, stuffed and rolled into a cylinder before being cooked. He’s planning on brining and sous-viding them for dinner service which Eddie says is ambitious since Brian is working front of the house. Adrienne is also being ambitious and taking on two dessert dishes and the expediting role in the kitchen. Decor-wise, the Orange Team works with Bluprint experts to create a palette of warm colors inspired by the fall season in their respective east coast cities. They also plan to incorporate a cool looking skyline motif. The night before the challenge, Brian writes a service manual to show to the servers so everyone is on the same page, but day of he’s behind on his ballotine and can’t greet the servers. Adrienne steps in in the meantime. Eric is behind on his prep and asks Eddie for help. Adrienne jumps in and says that Eric needs to do it and she’s upset at how slow he’s moving.

Michael Hickey/Bravo Media

Grey Team Restaurant: Thistle
Sara, Pablo, Michelle, Brandon

Sara suggests a “vegetable-forward” restaurant which is a very trendy way of saying a menu that highlights local and seasonal produce. She also jumps into the front of house role which rubs some of the chefs the wrong way. “Sara is definitely dominating the conversation,” Pablo says. “It’s not always easy to work with her.” Michelle takes the executive chef role since she has immunity and wants “to take the pressure off of the rest of the team” if things don’t go well. At the design meeting Sara takes the lead again and says the vibe of the space should be earthy and clean. The Bluprint experts come up with a cool idea of playing up the vegetable-focused menu by making the dining room feel like eating inside of a greenhouse. The day of the challenge, Pablo is absolutely frantic as the team preps the dishes. He’s behind on a lot of his prep and won’t ask his teammates for help which frustrates Brandon. Pablo goes into dinner service with the elements of each dish done but no time to taste either one of his completed dishes to see if the components work together. Sara and her front of the house team seem to be on the same page about setup and service.

Michael Hickey/Bravo Media

Teal Team Restaurant: Third Coast
Kelsey, Nini, Justin, David

The teal team gets along swimmingly as they decide on a concept, name, and menu focus within the first few minutes of their menu planning meeting. Their restaurant is called “Third Coast” and focuses on southern, Gulf coast cooking. The Teal Team's meeting with Bluprint experts goes well and everyone decides a bright white, dark wood and brass color scheme makes sense for the color palette for their space. Justin jokes that it should look like “Forrest Gump’s mom’s house 2.0,” a big antebellum style space that makes you feel like you’re in the south. The night before the competition, they’re feeling pretty confident and hold a meeting in a four-person jacuzzi tub with Champagne and cheese. Must be nice. The next day Nini is getting her dessert course ready but is worried about her cocoa nib sorbet because she has to spin it right before dinner service meaning there’s no back up if something goes wrong. Things seem to be going fine, but as the clock winds down the service team seem lost and Nini has jumped back into the kitchen to keep cooking after only explaining the room setup. Kelsey realizes that they know nothing about the menu or steps of service once guests are there so she steps in. By the time Nini heads out of the kitchen to change, Kelsey has been training the servers for service which frustrates Justin and David who are left in the kitchen to continue prepping. Justin interrupts Kelsey’s servers’ meeting and says “Nini needs to get this figured out” before asking Kelsey to come back to the kitchen. She’s going to have to shuck oysters to order because she’s lost so much time being in the front of the house. Uh oh. Maybe they should’ve held off on the congratulatory Champs and cheese until after?

With less than two minutes until the restaurants open, Tom steps into the shared kitchen with a special announcement for the chefs: two chefs instead of one will be going home after this challenge. “Things are still chaos and there’s a double elimination,” Adrienne says. “Holy shit.” Yep.

Michael Hickey/Bravo Media

Whose restaurant will come out on top and who are the two chefs going home? We’ll have to wait until next week to find out!

Episode 5 of ‘Top Chef’ in Kentucky airs Thursday, January 3 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Bravo. ‘Last Chance Kitchen’ streams immediately following the show at BravoTV.com/Last-Chance-Kitchen. Find additional interviews, chef bios, and more at BravoTV.com/TopChef.

Read our Q&A with last week's eliminated chef, Kevin Scharpf here.

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