Top Chef: Seattle Recap
By David Mumpower
January 22, 2013

I'm gonna pick one of you, and I'm gonna pick wrong.

Previously on Top Chef, Restaurant Wars was stretched into a pair of episodes. No, there was not a To Be Continued… designation at the end of the episode. Instead, all of the remaining cheftestants participated in an individual Elimination Challenge. The winning players demonstrated their skill by crafting a meal that will become the basis for both menus of Restaurant Wars.

The duo that finished above the competition was Kristen and Sheldon. The latter gentleman honors his grandfather as well as his ancestral heritage by creating a restaurant concept entitled Urbano. The theme is modern Filipino with an island twist. Kristen never listed a name for concept but the classical French flavors wowed the judges. Both of them earned $10,000 and the right to captain their teams at Restaurant Wars.

Somehow, all of the above feels irrelevant when faced with the larger truth here. Josie somehow remains alive in the competition. Far and away the worst of the three remaining players, the Floridian has become the cockroach in Top Chef Kitchen. In nine elimination challenges thus far, Josie has finished in the bottom group five times. Arguably more amazing is that Josie has never earned placement in the top group of any Elimination challenge. She has finished in the middle group or lower 100% of the time.

Why is Josie’s track record of failure important? As captains of Restaurant Wars, Kristen and Sheldon were rewarded with the ability to pick their teams schoolyard style. Kristen selected first in choosing her buddy Brooke while Sheldon selected the third best performer of the Restaurant Wars preliminary event, Joshua. Kristen studied the remaining options and picked Lizzie, leaving Sheldon with the obvious choice, Stefan. This is the moment where I believe Restaurant Wars became much more interesting.

Kristen had two options. She could choose Micah, the player likely to be eliminated by the judges in the episode. He had delivered an ill-considered plate of raw fish that demonstrated none of his culinary creativity. The other participants recognized that he was probably headed to Last Chance Kitchen. The other option for Kristen was to select Josie. The brash, unhurried chef would in all likelihood survive Judges Table, thereby giving Kristen’s team a player advantage.

In last week’s recap, these were my two quotes on the subject. “Would a player be better served with an additional chef if said chef is Josie? I say no.” “Personally, I would rather have fewer players and no Josie.” My opinion has not changed any over the course of the past week.

Josie is an albatross, plain and simple. Throughout the season, the other cheftestants have watched in horror as Josie’s lines have backed up during the plating process. Josie does not possess any quality resembling time management skills. During Restaurant Wars, the only larger crisis than falling behind on service preparations is presuming that they will be done, then later discovering a chef could not meet their stated goals. We have seen this time and time again during the history of Top Chef.

Who is oftentimes eliminated for such a mistake? Hint: it is never the sucky chef who has been hanging on for several episodes. Instead, the fall guy is frequently the executive chef whose tasting menu loses. Here is a quick Top Chef history lesson to reinforce the point. Marcel from season 8, Kenny from season 7, Radhika from season 5 and Dale from season 4 all suffered this fate. Yes, four out of the last six executive chefs on losing Restaurant Wars teams were eliminated.

Sheldon and Kristen were rewarded with a lot of money last week, which is great for them. Still, the reality is that based upon Top Chef trending, the safest players in the competition are the ones who were not eliminated (sorry, Micah) but are not the executive chefs. Unless Josie really spits the bit, a definite possibility, two of the best three remaining players are in danger of going home. I am of the opinion that Sheldon is better positioned because Kristen bit the bullet by having Josie on her team.

As the episode begins, I remember the other aspect of Josie’s presence that is problematic. She has a dominant personality. She is also not cursed with self-awareness. Josie’s natural tendency is to assume command in any situation. She struggles in taking orders from other chefs. Such behavior directly caused Bart’s elimination three episodes ago. Eliza almost suffered a similar fate in the fifth episode of Top Chef: Seattle. Josie’s erratic behavior is not only a detriment to herself but those surrounding her.

Right on cue, Josie presses Kristen for details of the impending meal service. Kristen has chosen to do a classic French menu; Josie wonders why Kristen is not adding any demonstration of her Korean heritage in the meal. Brooke touches upon another problem Kristen faces. As the youngest player this season, Kristen has less experience running a kitchen full of combustible personalities. How well she controls Josie while guiding Lizzie and Brooke will go a long way in determining the team’s overall reception.

Stefan, a non-factor all season, demonstrates that Restaurant Wars as a concept meshes well with his skill set. His cooking skill may be a bit rusty but his entrepreneur experience is invaluable. He understands how to create a menu better than any other remaining players. Not only does Stefan quiz Sheldon on the concept but, more importantly, he asks the right questions to enhance the product. The chemistry of the men’s team is exceptional.

A mere 32 hours before Restaurant Wars meals are expected, the chefs arrive at the cooking location. Confused looks are exchanged as none of the seven participants can find the kitchen. Those cheeky Top Chef producers are taking the Restaurant Wars concept to its logical extreme. The kitchen will be outdoors…and it does not exist yet. Everything in both restaurants is being built from scratch. Top Chef is to stress as McDonald’s is to Happy Meals.

Only five minutes into the episode, Kristen is already sick of Josie. I’m not even joking. Rather than be stuck in a car with someone whose personality is described as “complete opposites” to her own, Kristen sticks her with Brooke. I’m sure that was a whispered apology for this move. It’s the equivalent of forcing a friend to go out on a double date with your latest crush’s best friend, Rapey Homicidio.

Josie requires all of one second to become annoying. At the rental store where they are choosing store decorations, Josie selects the splashiest (read: ugliest) place settings possible. Brooke politely points out that a classic French restaurant should be designed with understated elegance rather than loud colors. Josie immediately pouts because she does not get her way. I am not saying this to be mean but rather as a simple statement of fact. In a lot of ways, Josie is a four-year-old.

During the next statement, Stefan refutes a preconceived notion you may have. Not all Europeans are gay. In his particular case, he simply happens to be good at “flowers and pebbles and little vases and stuff." Do not let his interior design skill fool you. If you are a woman, he will still flirt with you in the creepiest way possible. Remember that time he sniffed Kristen’s feet? I think we all learned a valuable lesson about inappropriate reality television editing that day.

Filipino foods are soulful. Sheldon explains the why of this and while I know you expect me to be sardonic about this, his sincerity prevents me from doing so. He is proud of his heritage and so he is driven to create a meal that embodies his familial love. The primary concern is that Stefan and Joshua have never served Filipino food before. If Sheldon cannot relay his instructions properly, this team has a chance to go down in flames to an epic degree.

Good news, Top Chef obsessives! Kristen’s restaurant has a name. It’s Atelier Kwan. No, I don’t know what it means. I presume it’s something like Hot Model Who Can Cook But Who Inexplicably Flirts with Ugly Bald Guys. The news is not positive at the grocery store despite Josie’s absence. There is an issue with the number of rabbits available. Lizzie believes there will be enough to serve 120 people but I think the rabbits should have been allowed to breed more first.

Josie is not the only forceful personality involved in this challenge. Stefan also assumes command in a lot of instances. He chooses a lot of the rental furniture for the event. Sheldon stands to the side and appears displeased by some of the selections. In a monologue, he states that he is carefully choosing his battles with Stefan. If Josie and Stefan had been on the same team, the other players may have chosen to eliminate themselves rather than put up with this much ego.

When they return from the stores, Kristen explains her plan to Josie. The top player this season has a daring plan to prepare all the dishes a la minute. The lack of advance prep work could lead to crushing delays during the dinner service. Josie questions this decision and, God help me, I agree with her.

Josie is not done being a problem child, either. Kristen asks her to start roasting some of the bones for the bouillabaisse. Josie walks away, claiming that she will start at that point. Hours later, Lizzie has finished her preparations early to give Josie time to prep her dish as well. Josie announces that she has decided that she will wait until the following day.

The ordinarily mild-mannered Kristen is apoplectic over this revelation. At no point did Josie discuss the decision. Instead, she provided empty promises while internally determining that she had no interest in performing the task. I am not at all shocked by this turn of events. The situation merely reinforces all of my standing opinions about Josie. And her dish is probably going to be a disaster.

The question is whether Josie will be held accountable for yet another instance of lackluster time management or if Kristen will be blamed for not whipping Josie into action. I mean this literally, by the way. Kristen should be handed a whip and encouraged to use it at any moment where Josie fails to follow orders.

“That’s just how I cook. I don’t rush things.” – Josie, describing her cooking style, which is the antithesis of fast food.

As the two teams spend the evening contemplating their current situations, the rest of Kristen’s team speaks up. All three of the other women worry over the decision not to pre-plate anything. Josie sees this as the perfect opportunity to impose her will on Kristen. Impressively, Kristen stands her ground, confident in her ability to manage the kitchen effectively. She does appear a bit teary-eyed by the exchange. Josie slinks off to grouse to the men about the situation. Interestingly, Joshua and Stefan agree that a la minute is a bad idea.

During the afternoon preparations, both teams demonstrate excellent communication and chemistry. Ingredients are tasted for flavor enhancement and all suggestions for improvement are given their due consideration. At this point, I expect this to be one of the most triumphant Restaurant Wars competitions to date.

I do worry about a quote from Kristen, though. “My concept, my food. If something goes wrong, I’ll take responsibility for it. But I don’t want anybody else fucking it up for me.” The immediate edit shows Josie falling behind with her broth stock. Kristen feels that the process should take 45 minutes. Josie claims that she still needs another hour from the current moment.

People who have long tracked reality show programming recognize that this is probably an instance of foreshadowing. Something about that broth is crucial to the episode’s outcome. I’m getting a sinking feeling about Atelier Kwan. The cause for concern increases when Josie suddenly announces that she needs the gelatin. Kristen was under the impression that this ingredient had already been completed. Instead, Josie is only now ready to start. Panicked, Kristen decides to use cream instead of gelatin. That entire dish is a mess now. If the team loses, someone is going home for this dish.

The judges arrive. Restaurant Wars is officially underway. Brooke handles front of the house for Atelier Kwan while Stefan counters for Urbano. Both of them are experienced with opening restaurants so the service presumably will be better than normal. Danny Meyer, Gail Simmons, Emeril Lagasse, Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi dine at Atelier Kwan first. They quickly note the elegant nature of the design. Score this round for Brooke’s sensibility over Josie’s audacity.

The first dish of Restaurant Wars was created by Lizzie. It is a charcuterie of rabbit, pickled turnips & yellow beets in chicken & rabbit broth. The refinements are readily apparent on the dish itself. The judges are euphoric over the start to their evening. The rabbit scarcity proved to be no detriment whatsoever to the flavor of the dish.

The second dish goes less well. When Kristen fires the dish, disaster strikes. A simple query of, “Did we test this?” is met with a stoic of reply of, “No, not yet.” Kristen reaches her breaking point at this moment. Josie is not her employee. She is a fellow Top Chef contestant who still has a chance of winning the competition (technically). The lackadaisical behavior on display for the past two days has led to a dish so poor in technique that Kristen fears that the sauce may explode. “The bouillabaisse is a fucking mess. I would prefer one of the dishwashers in place of Josie.” The brutal part of this insult is that it is comes from the heart. And the dishwasher could not have done any worse.

Remember when I said that service would not be a problem? Several of the customers as well as the judges notice the delay in the delivery of the second dish. Josie’s meal is a bouillabaisse of halibut, Dungeness crab and bay scallops with shellfish broth. The judges compliment the crab but note that the scallops and halibut are both cooked poorly. Worst of all, there is no consistency with regards to the broth. Tom innately recognizes that “something happened back there." You have no idea, Tom.

The next plate goes only marginally better. Kristen’s beef bourguignon features a braised short rib, garlic puree, mushroom & carrots. Tom immediately asks, “Where’s the sauce?” Not understanding, Gail tries to show him. His point is that in claiming to reinterpret the dish, the women did not do enough to differentiate it from the regular version. The lack of daring leaves the judges disappointed.

The rest of the women’s dishes are quite good. Brooke produces a baked gougère, St. Agur blue cheese, roasted radish & stone fruit compote. Danny Meyer complains that he may lose a molar trying to bite into the food but the judges agree that the flavors all work well.

The dessert is Kristen’s almond cake macaroon with coconut custard & caramel buttercream with praline added for the crunch. The chief complaint about this dish is that it is not a macaroon. This is recurring theme during the entire menu. Some of the descriptions misled the judges regarding the expected flavors of the dishes. On the plus side, everyone agrees that the charcuterie is so delicious that the women may yet win thanks to that dish. They need the men to make a lot of mistakes, though.

Next, Urbano’s service makes Atelier Kwan look above reproach. At some point during the evening, Stefan develops an attitude about the process. A line of 20+ people waits for tables to open. Stefan does everything he can to convince guests to leave upon completion of their meals. These customers are here for the Top Chef experience, however. They are in no hurry to leave. He grows frenzied as the chaos increases. Stefan is always kind of a jerk. Seeing him in full-on uber-jerk mode is unsettling.

Worst of all, Stefan’s behavior carries over to Judges Table. He fails to describe an entire dish to the people who will ultimately decide whether he is eliminated this evening. When they quiz him on the next dish, Stefan’s response is so icy that Tom remarks, “Why do I feel like we were just scolded?” Gail states that Stefan has just made the worst mistake possible by making customers feel unwelcome. Emeril reinforces this opinion by stating that Stefan’s behavior is “worse than that bouillabaisse." You’re still in this, ladies of Atelier Kwan!

Alas, such optimism fades quickly. While Stefan may have demonstrated the customer service skills of Best Buy, the plates are consistently exceptional. Stefan’s dish is a kilawen featuring yellowtail with cilantro, spicy chili & white soy sauces. He’s clearly best as a chef, not a server.

Josh serves a traditional dish called balut. It is a poached egg, duck confit & foie gras mousse. Apparently, these are cooked just before the egg is ready to hatch, which sounds fairly monstrous when the words are typed. As the women previously had a recurring criticism, this dish begins one for the men. Many of the dishes lack Filipino flavors. I presume that the causality is that Joshua and Stefan have not cooked Filipino food before. They didn’t want to go all-in without any experience.

The next dish receives no introduction whatsoever. Stefan hilariously walks past them as they attempt to deduce the flavors. Someone determines that it is a variation of miki featuring prawns and a tapioca roll with achiote. This is the closest thing to a miss out of the men’s dishes although the focus of the judges’ conversation is Stefan’s behavior. If the men lose, he goes home. There is no debate on this. It is the danger of being the terrible performer on a three-player team.

Sheldon’s next course is an adobo of pork belly with mung bean puree & pea shoots salad. Tom describes it as “the best tasting dish I’ve had all day”. Restaurant Wars ends with a pair of desserts. Josh offers halo-halo. It is a series of dessert flavors including coconut sorbet, avocado mousse, banana & shredded coconut. Stefan finishes with a dark chocolate with macadamia nuts, ginger & peppermint oil. Both of them are well received.

The men of Urbano are not completely in the clear. The first comment the judges make after the meal ends is that they are not sure they would return to this restaurant because of the service. Tom and Danny Meyer built a restaurant business together. They are sensitive to the treatment of customers. Stefan fundamentally failed in this regard, an issue that they believe deserves more priority than the food.

After a bit of contemplation, however, cooler heads prevail. Urbano is selected as the winner of Restaurant Wars. Sheldon is rewarded with a Toyota Avalon as the overall winner for the challenge. Padma pointedly tells Stefan, “Stefan, you are very lucky.” Truer words have never been spoken on the show.

The focus of Judges Table is understandably the issue of individual performance versus overall leadership. The judges clearly loved Lizzie and Brooke’s dishes. Either of them would have been a solid choice for overall winner if the women’s team had emerged victorious. Neither of them will be going home tonight. Yes, there is now a 50/50 chance that Kristen, the best player this season, will be eliminated because of Josie’s mistakes.

An intense conversation occurs as Tom tries to intuit what occurred with the broth. Josie throws the bus into bus into fifth gear and runs over Kristen as hard as she can. Repeatedly. The entire debate identifies the core issue that BOP’s Top Chef recappers have always mentioned with Restaurant Wars. The judging system in place seems to punish those who attempt too much while absolving those who take on too little responsibility.

Josie notes that Kristen helped her plate the broth. Ergo, the fault should be at the very least shared if not directed toward Kristen. She then mentions that she didn’t select the concept or the menu. Josie goes on to mention that she would have stuck to the original idea of the bouillabaisse. She specifically fails to mention why this occurred. Kristen’s leadership is the issue, not Josie’s sloth, right?

With each instance wherein Josie attempts to hide from accountability, Kristen steps up and embraces it. This is the personality trait that the best of us like Kristen possess while the worst of us like Josie make weak excuses. Tom does everything he can to key upon the right question to reveal the truth. Kristen refuses to take the bait again and again. She eventually mutters “Bite my tongue. Bite my tongue.”

Eventually, Kristen’s reticence to call out her teammate undoes her. In the biggest shock since the second episode of Top Chef All-Stars, Kristen is eliminated instead of Josie. The outrage factor on this decision is high and rightfully so. Colicchio himself acknowledges that he botched it.

The problem with the show’s format is that the judges are not made privy to the details of cooking preparation. Tom repeatedly attempted to ask Kristen why the broth dish failed. Only in the aftermath of the vote did he recognize what he should have asked. The correct question was, “Kristen, if Josie worked for you, would you have fired her for this performance?” As polite as Kristen may be, the honest answer to that question would have been “YES!”

Josie failed because that is what Josie has done all season. At least she is consistent. Now Kristen joins Bart in the “Unluckily teamed With Josie” portion of the Loser’s Bracket. The good news for Kristen is that she did what seven others had tried but failed to do. She defeated CJ at Last Chance Kitchen, so she is still alive in the competition. I for one am really looking forward to the next episode when Josie is eliminated and has to face the vindictive Kristen.