Top Chef Recap
By David Mumpower
December 10, 2013

We are guessing that Padma and her are not Facebook friends.

Previously on Top Chef, Brian confirmed his long held suspicion. His was the hippest tang in the competition. Conversely, Carrie disappointed the legendary Dr. John. As he lamented the quality of her work, Carrie laughed at the complaint that her hot sauce was too hot. On the plus side, she can honestly state on her OK Cupid bio that she has been described as “Trinidad-ily hot” on national television. Of course, the brutal reality for all of these chefs is that their tang is nowhere near as hip as mine. NASA wants to bottle my hip tang and ship up to the International Space Station.

Also, Louis was eliminated from the competition for crafting popcorn. Apparently, the judges expect more from the contestants than something that can be stuck in a microwave by an eight-year-old. Louis did attain revenge when he stopped Janine’s streak of ending Top Chef careers during Last Chance Kitchen. Also, he stated that he made more friends on the show than he had in the last several years of his life. Louis clearly got a lot out of his Top Chef tenure, and he came across as a wonderful man to boot. Every reality show contestant should be so lucky.

Today’s episode begins with an interior shot of Philadelphia cream cheese. But wait! The shameless promotion doesn’t stop there. The camera pulls back to reveal that said cream cheese is stored in a GE Monogram refrigerator. We are only three seconds into the episode and I’m already annoyed. Be less whore-ish, Bravo.

The focus of the first segment is Carlos. He is riding high after his victory in the pig challenge, a win that proved Beavis and Butthead right. Tacos rule. Our ascending friend from Mexico feels pride as he mentions that his career has taken a different path of his counterparts. He is self-taught, which causes my wife’s eyes to light up. Almost reflexively, the Pixar fangirl shouts, “Anyone can cook!” I hope that Carlos sees the charm in these words rather than focuses on the manner in which she just compared his cooking to that of a rat. Seriously, how has there never been a Pixar challenge on Top Chef? You’re sleeping on the job, producers!

There is no other filler or fluff in this episode. At the one minute mark, the contestants are already dressed for business at the Top Chef kitchen. Padma informs them that there is no Quickfire challenge this week, and that can mean only one thing. It’s time for Restaurant Wars, baby!

You all know the drill by now but let me refresh your memories. Restaurant Wars is the Top Chef challenge that requires the players to split into two teams. They will be asked to start a pop-up restaurant in 24 hours. And the proceedings do not stop in the kitchen. Every aspect from design to plating to menu is the responsibility of the teams. From nothing, they must create something.

The primary dangers in Restaurant Wars are twofold. The first is that any chef who chooses or is asked to be Executive Chef immediately becomes imperiled. The person who accepts primary responsibility for the meals to be presented is the one held most accountable by the judges. There is tremendous glory in being the executive chef of a winning Restaurant Wars team. Losers of this particular challenge have oftentimes been among the most shocking victims of elimination in the history of Top Chef. Look no further than last season when the eventual winner, Kristen Kish, was voted out by the judges because one of her teammates, Josie, delivered a woeful performance. In football parlay, if someone asks for the ball, they better catch it. Anybody handling the role of Executive Chef who drops the ball is at best a coin flip to go home.

The other player whose candidacy is seriously jeopardized is the person who accepts the role of Front of the House. This person must handle all of the accommodations for the restaurant’s diners. In addition, they are responsible for a dish that they will not be cooking. Front of the House requires all of the focus so the player handling this task must trust their teammates to make their dish to a satisfactory level. This particular job on Top Chef is the equivalent of a high tension trust exercise. If the person falls backward and their teammates do not catch them, they can fall completely out of the competition. Stating the obvious, choosing to be one of the players other than Executive Chef or Front of the House is the safest move for anyone more interested in survival than glory.

Frequent Top Chef guest David Chang appears to discuss the process of opening a restaurant. The guest judge for the episode relays a parcel of wisdom that proves prophetic. “Don’t plan about things that can go right. Plan on everything that can go wrong.” I wonder if these words reverberate in the heads of the chefs when the teams are randomly decided.

On paper, Restaurant Wars is a mismatch. Nina, Shirley, Carlos, Justin and Sara comprise one group while their opponents are Nick, Carrie, Brian, Travis and Stephanie. If Vegas were laying odds on this fight, Nick’s team would have roughly the same odds of winning as Middle Idaho State Tech would if they played Duke in basketball. And there is no Middle Idaho State Tech.

Nick is aware of the formidable challenge. His teammates can claim a grand total of two wins among five players. Nina has more wins than that on her own. Carlos, Shirley and Justin have all won challenges as well. The only way this battle could be a bigger mismatch is if Tom Colicchio joins Team Nina. Even then, I would still probably call them Team Nina. Poor Nick’s team doesn’t have a chance.

But wait!

Sparks fly almost immediately. As Carlos impotently watches the confusing behavior of his teammates, Sara and Justin spend an inordinate amount of time debating design issues. Yes, the group settles upon American cuisine as their focus. Everything they mention after that is maddening. Sara wants “wrought iron accents” while Justin suggests “big glass lanterns with candles.” Sara stresses that sexy is the key to the design. Sara also assumes that Sara is the arbiter in charge.

Carlos meekly introduces the idea that maybe, just maybe they should talk about the menu. Dictator for life (or at least dinner) Sara dismisses the notion. Look, I cannot craft a pan of edible lasagna but I do know enough about Restaurant Wars to appreciate that the food is the determining factor in success or failure. They probably should, you know, talk about the menu.

The Purple Team (aka Team Nick) is the polar opposite. This group has never heard the maxim about too many chefs in the kitchen. They operate as a single unit. Every idea presented is innocent until proven guilty, a refreshing change from Sara’s despotic regime of tyrannical (but sexy) restaurant design. Seafood is chosen as the Purple protein. Travis volunteers for Front of the House and Nick becomes the executive chef of Team Purple-Nick.

Sara volunteers herself for Front of the House while staring down anyone who would defy her regime as Almighty Queen of the Green Team. Justin offers to be executive chef, which causes Sara to set the tone for the entire episode. She casually mentions that Justin will have a target on his back. She is 100% correct. Based on Top Chef history, the four players most likely to win/lose Restaurant Wars are Travis, Nick, Sara and Justin. Stepping up during this particular competition is a bold decision, but it is fraught with peril as well.

The first issue occurs with the Green Team when they start to buy plates. Carlos has a puzzled look. He inquires about whether his teammates intend to create a soup. This tidbit is one they would know if they had maybe planned a menu. At this moment, the light bulb sparks for Justin. “I have no idea what you’re making.” That’s really more Carlos’ point, dude. While you were talking about candles, Carlos would have liked to plot the soup of the day. One of them will provide light and fragrance to the restaurant. The other will determine the fate of their team at Judges Table. Oddly, the quintet of highly accomplished chefs chose to obsess upon light and fragrance. They are not off to a good start.

At least they can correct their mistake now, right? Nope. Justin shuts Carlos down by adding, “We haven’t even discussed it yet. We’re not discussing right now. So drop it and go back to plates.” A dejected Carlos sits down and cedes to Justin’s alpha behavior. Just when the situation seems to have reached the logical conclusion of rock bottom, it gets worse. After all the focus on the equipment, the Green Team buys the wrong plates. They need flat plates but they get curved ones instead. The editing of this segment is so brutal that I would imagine it was painful for them to watch as the episode was broadcast. What we quickly learn is that there is a huge difference between being a master chef and a restaurateur.

Amusingly, the less heralded compilation of chefs on the Purple Team gets along swimmingly. They giggle and laugh as all four members fall into clearly defined roles. There is no argument about the restaurant’s infrastructure. Supplies and meal ingredients are acquired easily and without incident. I don’t care who wins or loses this challenge. Because of their seafood menu, they quickly settle upon a sublime name as well. Team Purple shall henceforth be known as Fin. And if I were playing, I would want to be on Fin. In fact, if none of them wins Top Chef, I would suggest that the lot of them go into business together. Their camaraderie is unmistakable.

Cut to…

The Green Team is fighting again. Do you know what a ring mold is? I had nothing to do with my wedding registry so I do not. Apparently, ring molds or, as I know them, cake pans are important. Nina and Shirley are responsible for acquiring this item for Sara. They glumly inform her that there is no such item at the store where they are shopping. We are not even halfway into the episode and Sara’s glum behavior during her monologues already cause me to believe that she is the person eliminated tonight. “I have no idea whether they put any effort in finding what I really need. It’s not making me feel well.” The blame game is on during her interviews, which is strange because this team looks invincible on paper.

The first set of food prep continues the theme. Stephanie harmoniously informs Nick that she is about to start shucking her oysters. Don’t make it dirty. Travis re-checks the dinner menu then asks for a roll call of who is doing what at the moment. Their side is an exercise in precision right up until Brian realizes he may have set himself and possibly the entire team. He was supposed to purchase agar agar but unintentionally grabbed xanthan gum. He states that he will be “dreaming of purple corn” tonight, which makes me wonder if I should start huffing xanthan gum. It sounds trippy.

As far as Team Green is concerned, mind-altering gum as an ingredient sounds like a viable option. Remember last week when Nina invited Justin to suck something that she anatomically lacks (I think)? Well, they are partners now, but Nina simply does not seem to like the men of New Orleans. After feuding quite randomly with Michael, she has locked onto Justin as the new source of vented frustration. Most of her comments fall on the passive side of the passive/aggressive bar although a few acerbic comments slip out.

Nina does inform us that the name of the restaurant is Found, which sounds like a future J. J. Abrams project to me. She watches as Sara laments the fact that the group grabbed too small a coffee maker to serve 125 guests. Sara is assuredly correct; Justin rightfully requests positivity from the woman who is oftentimes morose. Nina watches the interpersonal dynamic of the two people, sourly noting that the kitchen equivalent of Mom and Dad are fighting. That bickering bleeds into the cooking as a rule.

The Found-ers try to regain control of their emotions at the house that night. They hold a team meeting during which calmer heads try to prevail. What I note from the body language of the people involved is that all five players are miserable. In fact, I realize that Shirley basically hasn’t been on camera for the past 10 minutes. Carlos has also deduced that he should keep his head down, presuming that if everything goes wrong, Sara or Justin will be held accountable. After what transpired with Josie and Kristen last season, that is the correct deduction.

The good news for Team Found is that a new day means new opportunity. After a day of struggles, they are prepared to cook their food, which ought to be delicious. Front of the House leader Sara is dressed in her regular retro pin-up girl style, and the restaurant appears equally attractive. Alas, Sara is quickly derailed by the presence of frequent Top Chef guest Danny Meyer, arguably the most powerful restaurateur in North America. She gets psyched out instantly, and the evening digresses from there.

I could spend several thousand words recounting everything that transpires with Found. That feels like beating a dead horse, though. Suffice to say that Murphy’s Law is in full effect. The waiters are either improperly trained or unwilling to pay attention. Guests are repeatedly provided with the wrong meals, there are extended gaps in service and the mood in the room is the equivalent of thinking you have Bruce Springsteen tickets only to realize you have Rick Springfield tickets instead.

Amusingly, a Top Chef endorsement blows up in the face of the producers as Chase Sapphire “contest winners” are treated to deplorable service and disappointing food. Take that, Top Chef whoremongers! Note: I actually quite like the production staff of Top Chef. A few of them have kindly offered words of encouragement to our site over the years for our recaps. I simply cannot hold my tongue on the crass commercialism that has infiltrated the competition this year, though. A line has been crossed.

How does the struggle with Found compare to Fin? There is only the slightest bit of hyperbole in stating that when the editing cuts to Fin, the viewer can hear angels playing harps in the background. The food tastes like luscious ambrosia. And the contestants all hold hands and sing with their eyes closed, offering renditions of every 1960s song about peace and love…but not dope. They must have run out of xanthan gum the previous night.

Every aspect of Fin’s performance is glorious. There is no wait time for guests as Travis exceeds expectations by providing one of the strongest Front of the House performances in the history of Top Chef. Take that, Fabio! Nick is in complete control of the kitchen, and the guests act as if they thought they had tickets to a Ringo Starr concert only to discover that the rest of the Beatles (including the dead ones) have decided to perform a reunion show right then and there.

Cut to…

The depths of Hell featuring fiery barons of Hell prodding the cast of Top Chef with wickedly sharp pitchforks. Poor Carlos, long since driven mad by the proceedings, mumbles as he is tormented. “When are we going to do the menu?” The collected works of Creed provide background noise as Justin and Sara continue to fight about the lack of sexiness of Hell’s Kitchen accoutrements. I am mostly kidding but only mostly.

Season 11’s Restaurant Wars is the biggest blowout in Top Chef history. I reserve judgment as long as possible because I remember the swerve a couple of seasons ago. The editing hinted similar dominance by one team only to lead to a reveal that the other’s food was superior. There is no such miracle coming tonight. Found has lost.

How does the disaster transpire? Sara never recovers from the Danny Meyer intimidation even though he is quite possibly the least threatening man I have ever seen. She effectively turtles for the rest of the evening. Before the judges can sit down at Found, there is already a surprise. Danny Meyer’s giant table of Chase Sapphire “winners” is still eating. Padma queries him on the timing of his reservation. He is amused to note that the next reservation is in three minutes yet he was only recently presented his main course.

Once the judges are seated, Sara disappears into the kitchen. For no apparent reason, she asks Justin to fire “two of each for the judges, please.” Justin is confused, and he eventually flips to livid before the night is through. He had requested a system and a process for firing plates. Sara’s nerves obliterate whatever chance the system had of working. While I maintain that hearing the word “judges” should cause everyone in the kitchen to stand up and take notice, Justin asks for a written ticket. It never comes.

I like Sara quite a bit. She is a refreshingly unique person on reality television. Despite my fondness for her, there can be no argument about what I say next. Sara chokes during Restaurant Wars. The scary thought is that Justin does no better. The end result exemplifies a theme that has been mentioned repeatedly on Top Chef yet never demonstrated as effectively in this episode. All the best food in the world will go unnoticed if the service at the restaurant sucks.

By all accounts, Shirley and Nina both present delectable plates of food that could be worthy of winning Restaurant Wars. Carlos is less fortunate, but his mistakes in cooking are exacerbated by the woes of the serving staff. Nothing ever tastes as good when it is served cold. And Justin fails mightily in his attempt to control the kitchen despite the chaos upfront. Customers repeatedly wait on dishes that prove to be disappointing when finally served.

The strangest part is Sara’s behavior with the judges. When she delivers dishes, there is no presentation whatsoever. After the first meal, Tom and David are amused by her behavior. After Sara tries to walk away without a dish description the second time, Padma sardonically asks what it is. Sara grudgingly explains the food. Then, she quickly leaves again. On the next two occasions, the struggling hostess repeats the process of placing the plates without vocalizing their content.

The only dish that Sara does describe is her own, and it is broken. The sauce she wanted to add to her dessert, a key component of the recipe, does not make the dish. Sara effectively presents the judges with cake. Knowing that this is not good, she tries to save face by describing it in glowing terms. This tactic backfires in a big way.

Amusingly, there is some mystery among the contestants about who won. The staff of Fin is oblivious of the disaster that transpired in the competing kitchen. To their minds, they were the underdogs so they pushed as hard as possible, hoping to achieve an upset. What they do not realize is that if this were a Little League softball game, the Mercy Rule would have been invoked several innings ago.

The judges invite Fin’s members to the back. There, they are announced as the winners of Restaurant Wars. This is as shocking as the announcement that Reagan beat Mondale in 1984. What becomes clear during the celebratory conversation is that if the team had lost, Brian would have been sent home for his ajar ajar mistake. The difference between winning and losing on Top Chef is that narrow at times. Meanwhile, Nick the executive chef is lauded as the winner of Restaurant Wars. He is also informed by David Chang that he had the best dish. Travis also deserves special mention because his performance with Front of the House is arguably the best ever.

The loser’s bracket features many frayed nerves. Justin and Sara, to their credit, do not throw each other under the bus as I had anticipated. They aren’t bosom buddies right now, though. They are equally frustrated by a night that felt like the logical extreme of Murphy’s Law. Nothing went right. Justin is berated for his failings as a chef, but the knives are out for Sara.

Padma is dialed up over Sara’s handling of the judges during meal presentation. She has a particularly large ax to grind over one aspect. Sara failed to highlight any dishes other than her own. I honestly believe that there is an explanation for this mistake that is not self-serving. Sara was worried in the early moments that any comments she made would allow the judges to realize what a catastrophe the night had been. She remained quiet, choosing to be thought the fool. I respect that.

What changed the calculus is that her emulsion broke. At that point, she had entrusted the preparation of her dessert dish with people who failed her. Yes, she was partially responsible for that because the chaos with the servers directly caused many mistakes. When she had the epiphany that Front of the House was a disaster and her dish was terrible to boot, Sara tried to make lemonade out of lemons.

Padma only tasted the sour. What she believed is that Sara was in it for herself. I am of the opinion that this was not true. The looks exchanged by Nina and Shirley indicate that they saw it Padma’s way, at least at the time. Hopefully, now that they have watched the episode, they understand Sara’s behavior a bit more. It is the difference between panic and intentional neglect, something we saw with Josie last season.

No matter whether Sara is guilty of the crime for which she was accused, she is the one eliminated. The choices were Justin and her for the reasons noted above. There is a pattern during Restaurant Wars that is hard to ignore by now. Had Sara performed well with Front of the House, Justin would have deserved to go home even more. The problem is that there is a chicken and the egg aspect to such a discussion. Would Justin have done so poorly if the orders had been presented in a more organized fashion? We will never know. As such, Sara is the proper choice for elimination. It’s unfortunate in that the season loses a lot of personality with her absence.