Top Chef Kentucky
Surprise... It's Restaurant Wars
By Jason Lee
January 1, 2019


From Richard Blais and Brooke Williamson to Nina Compton and Karen Akunowicz—the parade of Top Chef alums continues. While it may admittedly appear a little self-serving for Top Chef to keep highlighting athletes from its own roster, it’s also a testament to the pedigree of a lengthy Top Chef run—it requires real skill, and those who make it through the crucible are legitimately talented.

So it is with Nina and Karen, who return to the Top Chef Kitchen sporting newly acquired titles of “James Beard award winning chefs” (though neither actually won the title of “Top Chef” during their time on the show). Given the heavy, holiday-laden desserts that they had to produce a few nights ago, we’re going decidedly lighter this time around. The chefs will have 20 minutes to make an amazing amuse-bouche—a perfect bite of food—and will have to select between three serving vessels: a Chinese soup spoon, a small plate, and a ramekin.

Padma calls time and there’s a mad rush for each chef to grab their vessel of choice. Seriously, this group of chefs does not mess around. They’re out for blood. They’re also being really ambitious, with more than a few chefs seemingly chomping at the bit to either escape the bottom or emerge from the middle. They have supreme confidence in their own skills and they’re wanting to show that off.

The question is whether 20 minutes is enough time to do that. That’s questionable. David, the winner of the last two Quickfires, is struggling with his handmade ravioli, and Brandon (the runner up in the first Quickfire) shows questionable judgment in trying to make a broth, which one would assume would take more than 20 minutes to achieve sufficient depth of flavor.

The chefs who selected the Chinese soup spoons go first and there are few comments offered by the judges (Padma, plus Nina and Karen). The only one to get any real comments of substance (Eddie, with his steak tartare with eggs stracciatella) is complemented for its texture. Nothing much is said about the plates from Brian, Adrienne, or Eric.

The small plates go next. Kesley has a shrimp-and-grits version of a hush puppy, but it’s too dry. Nini does a take on aguachile with yuzu and dragon fruit, which is nice and acidic. David’s brussel sprouts and apple raviolis are, as he expected, too dry. Justin has a fried chicken with apple, fennel, and champagne vinaigrette, which seems fine.

Last up are the ramekins. Nina loves the pickled shrimp and sunchokes from Sara. Padma finds Pablo’s corn with miso aioli “interesting,” as it resembles a truffle taco. Brandon’s bay scallop chowder with pea broth is a big hit, so that shows what I know. Finally, Michelle has a great halibut ceviche with compressed watermelon.

The chefs who came up at the back of the pack were Adrienne (her red bell pepper was too biter and her lamb was underseasoned), David (for his aforementioned pasta flaws), and Kelsey (as her hush puppies were too large and too dry). Better news arrives for Brandon (great chowder), Eric (nice balance of curry and sweetness), and Michelle (thoughtful use of vegetables and halibut). Soft-spoken Michelle comes away with the win—and immunity!—emerging from the middle of the pack (and finally getting a bit of screen time). Good for her.

With that complete, we get to our first big twist of the season. Instead of waiting for the top eight chefs to emerge, Top Chef is jumping the gun this year by bringing Restaurant Wars to the top twelve chefs. And instead of two restaurants, we’re getting three. In short, Restaurant Wars is early and supersized.

Happy New Year, folks.

The teams, as you may have guessed, will be formed based on the serving vessel each chef selected—thus, it’ll be the Chinese soup spoons versus the small plates versus the ramekins. Each team will have two days to open their restaurant, needing to conceptualize their restaurant and design, prep for service, and execute a dinner for 100 guests. That will be a three-course meal, with two options for each course.

Restaurant Wars is already such a sh*&show with eight chefs. Can you imagine what this is going to be like with twelve?

If there’s a team that looks like a runaway favorite, it’s the team comprised of David (two QF wins), Nini (two Elim wins), Kelsey, and Eric. Thus, not only do they have four wins already on their side, they have two chefs who are comfortable with dessert (Nini and Kelsey). They take up the name “Third Coast” and decide to lean heavy on seafood. Kesley will act as executive chef and Nini will be front of house, owing to her ability to stay calm during turbulent times.

The team of Sara, Michelle, Pablo, and Brandon is a mixed bunch. They adopt the name Thistle and decide to be a veggie-forward restaurant. Because she has immunity, Michelle will serve as Executive Chef and Sara will handle front-of-house.

Finally, we have a team made up of amicable-but-serious chefs Brian, Adrienne, Justin, and Eddie. Their name will be “North East” and will focus on fall flavors from that region. Adrienne imposes her will and gets Executive Chef duties, and Brian says he’ll do front of house.

With that out of the way, the chefs head to Whole Foods, where Eddie demonstrates that he will never forgive himself for having monopolized his team’s food budget in episode two. He asks the butcher for the cheapest cuts they have and then asks for those cuts to be chopped into one-inch cubes.

Back at the house, with shopping out of the way, it’s time to plan how the chefs will divvy up duties and plan a schedule for service. North East is clearly taking this very, very seriously, meticulously planning out a schedule for the next day. Then Brian stays up all night writing a service manual for the staff he’ll meet in the morning. It’s quite a contrast to the supremely confident Third Coast team, who meet in the four-person Jacuzzi tub with a bottle of champagne and caviar.

The next day arrives and the chefs start in on their six hours of prep. As might be expected, there are problems all around. Very few of any of the staffers for any of the teams have any experience in food service. The designers for the spaces seem like they’re behind schedule, which limits any pre-service prep. And each of the front-of-house chefs are having problems. Sara (Thistle) seems anxious and unorganized. Brian (North East) is taking way too much time on his one dish (a chicken ballentine) and doesn’t have time to prep his staff (Adrienne has to do it instead). And Nini (Third Coast) is just way over her head. She doesn’t seem focused on her one dish (a dessert), she has no idea what to do with her staff (having them polish silverware), and generally doesn’t train them at all. Kelsey, figuring this out, is horrified when she finds out how little they’ve been trained before service, taking it upon herself to start improptu, rushed training. Meanwhile, her teammate Eric fumes—absolutely fumes (I thought I was going to see smoke coming out from his ears)—about Nini’s problems from behind his work station.

Meanwhile, things are not all hunky-dory in the kitchen. Pablo (Thistle) is having trouble pulling his dishes together in time—not good, considering that he’s doing both of his team’s main courses. Who knows how Brian’s ballentine is going to turn out, and Nini is being absent-minded about her dessert and staff.

In short, there appear to be multiple candidates for elimination, even at this early hour. In the midst of this chaos, Tom walks into the kitchen. Restaurant Wars is not only going to be earlier and bigger than in years past—it’s going to be more ruthless. Two chefs will be going home after this.

As Adrienne puts it, “Holy shit.”

To be continued next week . . .