'Top Chef' All-Stars Los Angeles Recap: Episode 8—'Restaurant Wars'
It’s here! It’s here! It’s officially time for Restaurant Wars! After last week’s pitch competition the chefs will be opening up two restaurants in 48 hours to serve the dining public and get one step closer to determining who is Top Chef.
But first, the chefs are relaxing at home and talking about the day. Gregory is having flashbacks to Restaurant Wars on his season of Top Chef Boston and his team’s disastrous service that landed them on the bottom. He’s feeling a bit more confident going into it this time. “I am definitely looking for some redemption this time around with my Haitian concept ‘Kann,’” he says. Will he be able to pull off a win this time?
The next morning in the Top Chef kitchen, the chefs are ready to go into battle. They're greeted by Padma Lakshmi and Stepanie Izard and told the winning concepts from last week, Gregory’s Kann and Kevin’s The Country Captain, will open next door to one another in downtown Los Angeles' Row DTLA. “But first you’re going to need some teammates,” Stephanie says. Kevin and Gregory will be picking from their fellow cheftestants to build out their restaurant teams and they draw knives to see who gets to pick first. Kevin picks Bryan V. and Gregory goes with Malarkey, shocking everyone including Malarkey himself. Melissa would’ve been the obvious choice since she has so many wins under her belt, but Gregory says he picked Malarkey first because he wants him to run the front of the house. Smart. Kevin rounds out his team with Melissa and Karen. Gregory picks Lee Anne and Stephanie to finish.
Padma lays out the ground rules: they have 48 hours to make their restaurants come to life with no restrictions on how many dishes they need to make. They’ll plan their menus, set up their kitchens, and then will pick decor at Bright Event Rentals in Los Angeles before serving 100 guests including the judges in four hours of service. “We all know that this is an incredibly difficult challenge but it’s also the one that we look forward to every season,” Stephanie says to the chefs. “So you really have to bring everything you’ve got to your restaurants.” Oh, and the winning team will win $40,000 thanks to OpenTable which is also supplying each restaurant with reservation software.
With that, the chefs are off to start planning and shopping. During the car ride, Gregory’s team discusses how they’re the underdogs while Kevin’s team is already choosing who will do what. Karen takes on the front of the house role which is a historically risky position to take on given the split focus between cooking a dish and managing the decorating and waitstaff, but could pay off if she nails it. Gregory decides the menu for Kann will be six dishes that adhere to his Haitian theme, so this will be a collaborative effort, but not a collaborative menu. Kevin has a very clear idea of what he wants to serve and how he wants to serve it but also wants each of his teammates to have a say which is a difficult balance to hit. He and his team are going for twelve dishes total for their menu which is a lot.
Once the cheftestants get to their restaurant locations they start discussing decor ideas and realize they have a lot of space to fill. “As people enter the space I want them to immediately feel like they’ve been whisked away to the Caribbean,” Gregory says of his concept Kann. He’s decided not to make the oxtail that won him the pitch challenge which is an interesting choice since the judges will definitely be expecting it. Kevin’s Country Captain is southern, inspired by the “plantation south” and his grandmother so he wants to go with florals on the walls.
Later, the teams split up to purchase specialty items like meat and seafood at Belcampo and Santa Monica Seafood and the decor. The chefs even get to go to the Hedley & Bennett factory to pick out custom aprons, a really cool detail to throw into the mix. While shopping for table settings, Brian M. buys the same plates as Kevin and Karen and they're not too happy about being copied. Lee Anne apologizes for the group but Malarkey just kind of watches this go down without saying anything. Karen and Kevin are pissed but move on because they’ve got a restaurant to open in a day.
The next day, the cheftestants get to start prepping their dishes. Gregory seems to have everything under control as he, Brian M. and Stephanie start cooking pork, plantains and chicken for service. “He’s already explained that he’s not adjusting so that we can put our own individual touches on cuisines we don’t understand,” Stephanie says of Gregory. It’s a wise move since Gregory is cooking from a specific experience point as a Haitian-American and the other chefs don’t have references for the cuisine. Kann’s menu is ambitious in terms of the amount of food, but the progression is super focused: Haitian griot (twice-cooked pork), salt cod fritters, whole roasted fish, pineapple upside-down cake with rum raisin ice cream. Kevin’s team is putting together twelve dishes and he’s told Karen, Bryan V. and Melissa to put their own spin on things which can be tricky because it might not feel cohesive. As prep time winds down, Karen seems a bit flustered because she still has to figure out setting up the dining room. Brian M. jumps straight into building Kaan’s dining room which is great except it leaves Stephanie and Gregory to prep all of the dishes since Lee Anne is still flower shopping. “To be representing someone’s culture that is so integral to who they are as a person is a lot of responsibility,” Stephanie says. At Country Captain, Bryan V. feels like having so many dishes on the menu might “overexpose” the group and give the judges a lot to scrutinize.
The next morning, it's time to get ready for service and the cheftestants have two hours to prep. Everyone seems to be scrambling to get things done. Karen has to abandon her two dishes and head to the dining room to train the staff before opening while Malarkey is hamming it up for his crew in Kann. In the back of the house, the Kann team seems to have things under control, even putting samples of the dishes for the front of the house team to taste. Kevin’s team doesn’t have time to do a full line up which spells trouble since their menu is so intricate.
Time runs out as the doors open for both Kann and The Country Captain and guest start filling into the dining room, including Food & Wine editor in chief, Hunter Lewis (hey, Hunter!). Padma is joined for her judges’ reservation by Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, Stephanie Izard, Kevin Boehm, and Rob Katz of Boka Group.
Here’s a rundown of how things went in both back and front of house, the experience the judges had, and the dishes that were served at each restaurant:
Kann (Haitian Wood-Fired Cuisine)
Team: Gregory Gourdet, Stephanie Cmar, Brian Malarkey, Lee Anne Wong
- Chicken thighs stewed with smoked peppers, rice & ‘sos pwa’ kidney bean sauce (Gregory)
- Roasted red snapper marinated in scotch bonnets & cilantro with Caribbean root vegetables (Brian M.)
As service starts, Brian M. seems to be having a great time in the dining room while Lee Anne is losing her cool at expo. She snaps at the servers over misfired tickets and even snatches a pen and a menu from a server at one point. Stephanie decides she’s going to step into expo to diffuse the situation. Lee Anne is a little miffed but moves over to salad station to push out the first round of orders. The judges arrive and are seated promptly with no issues but are a little disappointed to see that the oxtail is not on the menu for the evening. “If he gives us something else and it’s not as good as the oxtail we might feel let down a bit,” Padma says. Gail comments on the tropical and airy decor of the space. Malarkey is holding it down as the general manager, but things are a bit slow in the kitchen because Gregory wants to make sure he’s tasting everything and seeing each plate that leaves the kitchen. Tom comments on how a lot of the tables don’t have food. His fears are allayed when the first course arrives to rave reviews from all of the judges with the salt cod patties as the star. Tom says he loves that Gregory is “giving food from his heart and not trying to ‘chef it up.’” Things are looking good until Tom realizes that about fifty-five minutes into their ninety-minute meal they’ve only had their first course. In the kitchen, the whole fish is taking a really long time to cook so Gregory delivers it personally to the table where they press him on not making the oxtail that won the pitch. He says he wanted to show them “versatility” and scurries back to the kitchen to continue cooking. As the judges dig into the second course of stewed chicken and fried fish they realize they don’t miss the oxtail at all. “When I dove into these chicken thighs I got that same umami,” Kevin Boehm says. Lee Anne’s rum raisin ice cream and pineapple upside-down cake is a bit too sweet for the judges but they still like it. Overall the judges seem pretty pleased with Kann with Tom saying it “feels like a restaurant” and that he would make a return visit.
The Country Captain (Family-style Southern Restaurant)
Team: Kevin Gillespie, Bryan Voltaggio, Melissa King, Karen Akunowicz
First Course Canapes:
- Chicken liver mousse with persimmon on brioche (Melissa)
- Dungeness Crab with egg yolk pudding (Bryan V.)
- Smoked trout puff with caviar (Bryan V.)
- “Country Captain” chicken thighs braised in curry, currants, and almonds with roasted chicken breast and yellow rice (Kevin)
- Beef tallow fried potatoes with raclette bechamel (Melissa)
- “Dilly beans” pickled field peas (Bryan V.)
- Creamed corn with shrimp (Bryan V.)
- Cucumber pickles (Bryan V.)
- Madeira glazed mushrooms (Karen)
- Sweet and spicy red pepper relish (Karen)
- Warm banana pudding (Kevin)
Karen seems to be a little frazzled as she manages the dining room, even dropping canapes on the way to a table but she still manages to put guests in a great mood. In the kitchen, things are moving along for Kevin, Melissa, and Bryan V. until Kevin loses track of tickets when the tables order entrees. “It’s becoming overwhelming for all of us,” Melissa says. Orders are backed up and people aren’t leaving their tables which creates a long line of people at the host stand waiting to get seated. To make matters worse, Karen knocks a glass of wine over on a table of four as she drops off their entrees. Yikes. As if on cue, the judges arrive and are greeted by a wall of diners waiting to be seated which Karen tells the kitchen is “the entire second turn of the dining room”. Once the judges are seated they’re confused by the decor they’re seeing in the dining room. They expected southern touches but instead the menus look like “Miami Vice,” says Stephanie. Melissa’s chicken liver mousse canape is a standout of the canapes but the whole course ultimately falls flat because they don’t feel “Southern,” says Tom. As they’re eating, the judges notice that tables aren’t being bussed and the front of the house team is really struggling. As they receive the second course, Padma wonders if there are too many dishes on the menu. That being said, Gail and Stephanie really like Melissa’s potatoes and Bryan V.’s dilly beans but all of the judges agree that the star of the show, the Country Captain, is not nearly as good as it needs to be. “The problem of building an entire restaurant concept around one dish is that dish better damn well be spectacular,” Kevin Boehm says. Karen’s mushrooms also fail to hit the mark and Tom describes them as “just not good”. It’s time for dessert. The verdict on Kevin’s banana pudding inspired by his grandmother’s recipe? “I guess it’s one of those things where you grow up with it and you love it,” Tom says. Ouch. No one at the judges' table is feeling the grandmotherly vibes from the atmosphere or the food at The Country Captain.
Tom commends both teams on their work as they stand before him at Judges’ Table. But there can only be one winner. Stephanie Izard announces it's Kann because she feels that Gregory, Stephanie C., Lee Anne, and Brian M. came together to create “one cohesive menu.” The judges rave about the salt cod patties, the bit of added crunch in the salad, the perfectly roasted whole fish, and black beans that were cooked down to a sauce-like consistency. But the biggest compliment of all comes when Tom says eating at Kann made him want to go to Haiti and Stephanie says it made her want to run back to her restaurant and start cooking because the meal was so “inspirational.”
And so that means the Country Captain team (Kevin, Karen, Melissa, and Bryan) is on the bottom and someone in this group is up for elimination. Gail asks Kevin if the team discussed cutting down the menu from twelve dishes and he says they actually discussed doing more. Melissa mentions that she wanted to do less but followed Kevin’s lead. Kevin agrees with the judges that the version of braised chicken that he served at the restaurant was not as good as the version that he served during the pitch challenge. Tom tells Karen that her mushrooms were bad which she takes offense to and calls out the rest of her team for not executing properly since she had to be in the dining room. Melissa apologizes, but it’s super awkward. Tom cuts straight to the chase and says to Kevin, “This is your concept, something that’s really close to you, how do we not send you home right now?” Oof. Kevin looks the judges straight in the eyes and says he takes responsibility for everything that happened, so Padma tells him to pack his knives and go. Kevin looked like a front runner in this competition so it’s shocking to see him out, but it felt like he did the right thing by offering up himself to go home.
What an episode! Kevin’s elimination is proof that it’s anyone’s game and even front runners can go home for a bad cook. But, like Karen last week, he still has another shot in Last Chance Kitchen.