Top Chef California: Episode 10
By Jason Lee
February 8, 2016


You know it. I know it. The cheftestants know it. With only eight chefs remaining in the competition, it’s time. Restaurant Wars is upon us!

We join the chefs in the car as they head over to what they’re sure will turn out to be Restaurant Wars. There are a variety of different ways the chefs are coping with the stress - Marjorie keeps hitting her seat mate in the leg, Kwame and Phillip bounce in their seats like antsy three-year-olds, Amar talks nervously to us about what’s about to happen. The anticipation is almost better than the competition.

Almost. The cheftestants arrive in a big, empty warehouse and are met by Bill Chait, a Los Angeles bigwig in the restaurant world. Padma teases them about knowing what’s to come. There are only eight chefs left, after all…

The cheftestants take this as their cue to break into an impromptu rap about Restaurant Wars. I check quickly to see if #nerdchefs is already trending on Twitter (it’s not). “Unfortunately,” Padma tells them, “it’s not Restaurant Wars.”

In response to their shocked reactions, Padma lets loose with a big, “just kidding!” Whew. That’d be the biggest case of Top Chef blue balls if she’d been telling the truth. As expected, the chefs draw knives to be split into two teams . . . except that only two chefs have anything written on their knives. Amar has “first choice,” and Karen has “second choice.” Ah, it’s the ole “pick’em like elementary school dodgeball,” once more.

Amar does the smart thing and picks Kwame, despite his recent stumbles. Karen, also smartly, goes with Marjorie, who she notes would be able to do bread, cakes, desserts, etc. Amar picks Kwame’s co-favorite for the title of Top Chef, Jeremy. Karen goes with solid, dependable, easy-to-get-along-with Carl. Two chefs are left: Isaac and hipster Phillip. While Amar notes that Isaac is probably a better chef, he goes with Phillip, who has already expressed an interest in doing front of house.

Ah, but this isn’t going to be like all the other Restaurant Wars. As the show’s promos and commercials have made clear, this version is going to be (as Padma puts it) “bigger and better than ever.” Each team will have to do a lunch course AND a dinner course, and each chef will either have to do front of the house OR executive chef for one of the courses. No one will be able to hide.

The teams immediately get to work figuring out their name and style of cuisine. Interestingly enough, both teams intentionally pick out restaurant names that don’t connote any style of food - Amar’s team goes with “District LA”, and Karen’s team picks out “Palate.”

With that done, the shopping starts. First off are décor, serving ware, and flatware. Wandering around the shop, Phillip - in total hipster fashion - keeps picking out mason jars and showing them to Kwame. “Mason jars are so ‘10 years ago in Brooklyn,’” Kwame scoffs to us. There will be no mason jars at his lunch!

The teams quickly move on to ingredient shopping, which necessitates each team splitting in half to go to Restaurant Warehouse and Whole Foods. Carl starts to stress Marjorie out by running through his ingredient list in haphazard fashion, while she typically likes to organize thing by department. “I’ve worked so hard to get to Restaurant Wars,” she laments, “now all I want to do is crawl in a hole and die.”

Cook now, die later, Marjorie. It’s time to start prepping for the next day’s service. The cheftestants are allowed to prep from 9:00 p.m. until midnight and they’re bound and determined to use every minute. Tensions are running high (as I imagine they’ll be through tomorrow night). Kwame chews out Jeremy for not buying some bacon for him, but Jeremy points out that Kwame told Amar to get bacon but not Jeremy, but Kwame is still pissed at Jeremy, so Jeremy snaps back at Kwame… Ah, it’s like Mean Girls but set in the high school cafeteria.

It doesn’t get better when the cheftestants arrive back home. Phillip will be doing front of the house for dinner for his team, and so he walks his entire group through the plating of his strawberry salad. As steps are followed by more steps and then even more steps, the eyes of Kwame, Jeremy, and Amar start to glaze over. “We need to simplify,” Kwame says. Phillip digs in his heels. It’s HIS dish, and he wants it done HIS way. “Do you know what you’re going to do?” he presses Kwame. “Oh yeah, I know what I’m going to do,” Kwame says insinuatingly.

Amar comments with massive understatement that maybe his team isn’t working all that well together.

Before we know it, it’s time to prep for lunch service. Marjorie will be doing front of the house for Palate, while Kwame will be doing front of the house for District LA . . . but he’s a bit lacking in experience, and so (lucky him!) Phillip arrives to “lend a hand.”

Back in the kitchen, Carl is stressing about his terrine, which hasn’t come out the way he wanted it to. Isaac is prepping for the start of lunch service, but Karen (who’s going to be firing his dish), has no idea when and how he wants that done.

It’s looking like a catastrophe all around. Oh boy.

Service starts and the judges kick things off by heading to District LA. Jeremy immediately stops work on the food for all the other tables - the judges come first.

Kwame takes out two appetizers for the judges: Jeremy’s arugula salad with grilled asparagus and a crispy egg, and his own corn and sage velouté with pancetta (not bacon). The judges like both dishes a lot. Tom says that soup is “really good,” and Padma loves the salad, which feels very appropriate for lunch.

Meanwhile, the other tables get no food. Despite my screaming for the judges to notice this, Tom simply comments that only one table in sight has a first course, and only one other has food.

Jeremy again holds all food in order to get the judges’ dishes perfect. Next up for them is a roasted salmon with ratatouille from Phillip, and a roast chicken with polenta and wild mushroom ragout from Amar. “Wow, service is quick,” comments Tom. Yep, but at what cost?!?!?

Padma likes the salmon but doesn’t appreciate the ratatouille on top. Tom notes that the vegetables in the ratatouille are undercooked. As for the chicken, Padma wishes it had more ragout, to which Tom replies, “yes, it needs some sort of sauce.” He further notes that this is the second or third time that Amar has cooked a sous vide chicken breast. “It’s a little safe,” Padma agrees.

With that, the judges are up and heading over to Palate. Meanwhile, Jeremy, Phillip, and Amar are finally getting to work on the food for all the other tables, which have languished while the judges dined.

Over at Palate, Karen is very pleased with how service is going. She was worried that Isaac was disorganized in the beginning, but things are moving along. Out in the dining room, though, Marjorie is having a hard time getting diners in and out of the restaurant - the people who have finished eating are simply sitting at their tables, while the line outside grows longer. In a brilliant move, Marjorie goes over to a couple of tables and asks them to join her BY THE BAR for some sparkling wine to finish off lunch. The diners head over, and some hungry individuals take their place at the tables.

Wow, that was smooth by Marjorie. Super smooth.

Unfortunately, while Marjorie is in the back giving the new food orders from the new diners to the kitchen and grabbing a quick drink of water, the judges show up. Ughhhhh. That was Marjorie at her finest a minute ago, and now she comes off in the worst possible light. Acknowledging that, Marjorie tells them, “of course, the infamous ‘nobody at the host stand.’” Then she runs back to get the kitchen to fire four appetizers for the judges.

When next we see her, she’s got two dishes for the judges: a pork and bacon terrine from Carl, and her own marinated beet salad with pickled cauliflower and baby greens. Tom doesn’t have a positive word to say about the terrine, which leads my heart to sink to my stomach. He finds the texture off and the dish as a whole pretty under-seasoned. As for Marjorie’s salad, Gail likes the freshness of the beets, but Padma wonders whether Marjorie was smart in choosing a beet salad as her one dish for lunch. “It was certainly better than Carl’s terrine,” Tom says. UGHHHHHH.

Meanwhile, back at District LA, there is still a huge line of diners waiting to eat. In the kitchen, the chefs bicker amongst themselves as they rush to get food out. Jeremy notes that he has no actual food orders. “KWAME!?!?” he yells to the dining room.

Marjorie comes back out to the judges with a grilled shank steak salad with carrots, dikon, and jicama from Karen, and a seafood stew from Isaac. Padma absolutely adores Karen’s steak salad, saying that she could eat it every day and be happy. Tom agrees that “it’s all there” in that dish. As for the stew, Tom likes the flavor and Gail notes that it was better than the salmon and chicken entrees over at District LA.

Summing things up, Tom says that while the appetizers at District LA were better, the entrees at Palate are “much stronger.”

“It’s no harm, no foul,” Bill (our guest judge) concludes, and Tom agrees. He notes that the chefs were probably more focused on executing and expediting food than making creative or daring dishes.

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, Marjorie rejoins her Palate team members. Lunch service is over - for them. The dining room at District LA is still packed. In fact, as Palate wraps up and starts to prep for dinner service, a waiter comes over to tell Jeremy that they just seated people at six tables. They have new tickets waiting to be filled. Jeremy is stunned. He quickly realizes that by holding food for the other tables while the judges ate, their service is now severely backed up.

Phillip starts barking orders to the other chefs - the sooner lunch is over, the sooner dinner can start. Jeremy, the ostensible executive chef, snaps at him. Meanwhile, in the dining room, Kwame says that the line of diners outside the restaurant keeps growing every time he looks at it.

Thus, while the chefs at Palate are well on their way to turning out (hopefully) a good dinner service, the chefs at District LA bear expressions on their faces that remind me of the end of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, when all the characters look out into the horizon, dumbstruck by how much farther they have to go.

Mordor awaits.