May 29, 2023

Top Chef 20 episode 9 recap: Restaurant Wars


Everyone starts “Top Chef: World All-Stars” episode nine, “Restaurant Wars,” with a bit of shellshock. They just said goodbye to Charbel Hayek, who won the “London Calling” challenge at the start of the season with a risky onion dish and had never been at the bottom in an Elimination Challenge but then all of a sudden was sent home in “Street Food Fight.” They raise a glass to “onion boy,” who joins “potato girl” Sylwia Stachyra on this season’s boot list.

The eight remaining competitors playing for the $250,000 grand prize are Ali Al Ghzawi (Middle East and North Africa), Sara Bradley (Kentucky), Victoire Gouloubi (Italy), Buddha Lo (Houston), Tom Goetter (Germany), Gabriel Rodriguez (Mexico), Amar Santana (California), and Nicole Gomes (Canada).

Elimination Challenge

No Quickfire Challenge this week, unsurprisingly. This season started with 16 chefs and is down to the final eight, and eight divides neatly into two teams of four. And what does it mean when you divide into two teams of four? Restaurant Wars! All the chefs see that coming, though they are surprised to see who will be judging them, three-Michelin-star chef Clare Smyth. Especially enthusiastic is Buddha, who worked with her for two years. “She really developed me into the person that I am and how I cook,” he says.

But that’s not all. This season there’s a twist on Restaurant Wars. Instead of creating their own restaurants from the ground up, they’ll be using an existing restaurant’s infrastructure: Clare’s restaurant Core, complete with Clare’s own professional restaurant director. “This is huge,” Buddha explains, while Sara surmises that this will mean a lot more pressure on the cooking since they won’t be able to impress (or disappoint) the judges with front-of-house duties or restaurant design. Meanwhile, Tom and Victoire are flying blind since their versions of “Top Chef” didn’t have Restaurant Wars. That could be a blessing or a curse, since it means they don’t have preconceived notions or baggage around the challenge. “A lot of chefs are scared as f*ck about it and they cannot talk about anything else, so it’s time to get it done,” Tom notes.

It’s time to draw knives. Victoire gets first choice and Buddha gets second choice. So they’ll be choosing their teams. Victoire goes with Tom first. Then Buddha picks Ali. Victoire selects Nicole. Buddha picks Amar because Amar and Ali always seem to “come as a bundle.” “It’s papi and habibi,” Ali explains about their bromance. I think they deserve their own couple name at this point — “Alimar” perhaps? Victoire then selects “my angel” Gabri, which leaves Sara to join Buddha’s team. “Bring it on bitches, you picked me last?” says Sara. “I think people don’t know I came up in Michelin star kitchens … The only thing you can do when you’re the underdog is prove everybody wrong.”

For the parameters of the challenge, the two teams have 30 minutes to conceptualize their restaurants. Then they’ll have 1,000 pounds at specialty stores and 2,000 pounds at Whole Foods to get their ingredients in order to create at least four courses for 50 diners. That’s followed by five hours of cook time, and then tomorrow they’ll finish up their meal prep and serve their guests at Core. The winning team gets $40,000.

Buddha takes charge of his team and comes up with a theme for their restaurant — UK, or United Kitchen. He wants them to do their own unique takes on classic British foods. Sara is a little unsure because she doesn’t know much about British food. Ali and Amar also look kinda nonplussed by it. That seems a little worrisome to me. Buddha’s team dominated Restaurant Wars last year, which is a good sign for this team, but not if Buddha has become overconfident in the process. But when Buddha asks if anyone else has suggestions, his teammates are mum, so United Kitchen it is!

The other team seems harmonious. Tom is the one who devises the idea for Root. Since he, Victoire, Gabri, and Nicole represent four markedly different regions of the world, they should tap into their roots and create dishes reflecting their backgrounds. Nicole wants to tweak that, though, and create dishes that tie into their personal culinary roots — she, for instance, is Canadian but is more into Chinese and Italian cuisine. Nicole also wants to make pasta, which Tom thinks is a risky decision, but he trusts her judgment. I wonder if Ms. Never Been On The Bottom is flying a little too close to the sun here. We saw what happened to Charbel last week after he’d never been on the bottom.

My early instincts are telling me that Root is looking strong despite — or maybe because of — Tom and Victoire’s lack of Restaurant Wars experience. United Kitchen doesn’t seem entirely bought in on Buddha’s concept, so it’s possible he’s the one flying too close to the sun on this one.

Root and United Kitchen both decide to split up their teams for their shopping. Root’s Nicole and Gabri and UK’s Alimar shop for proteins, while their respective teammates focus on produce. Not much drama here besides Nicole struggling to find fresh lobster for her tortellini filling. But then there’s one colossal screwup. Tom and Victoire, after picking up every vegetable that wasn’t nailed down, forget an entire basket of their vegetables in the store. An entire basket. A pretty surprising and perhaps debilitating error for their team. I’m leaning towards United Kitchen as the favorites in this challenge now.

Once shopping is complete, we learn the two teams’ planned menus.

United Kitchen
— First course: Full English breakfast (Buddha)
— Second course: Scallop vadouvan (Amar)
— Third course: Cullen skink (Sara)
— Fourth course: Lamb and Cornish pasty (Ali)
— Fifth course: Strawberries and cream (Buddha)

— First course: Leek and chestnut (Tom)
— Second course: Shellfish tortellini (Nicole)
— Third course: Sea bream huatape (Gabri)
— Fourth course: Tiramisu (Victoire)

But how well will they execute those plans?

Root’s Restaurant Day

Since Victoire got first choice when they drew knives, her team is first up at Core. Gabri, having found out that his teammates left his all-important cauliflower at the store, has to improvise with roasted onion puree, which will change the flavor and texture of his dish, hopefully in a good way. Nicole also has some trouble. The tortellini she made the previous night has to be redone since the moisture from inside has seeped through. Then there’s a brief conflict between Gabri and Nicole over a mixer. And Tom explains to the wait staff how they should serve the meals — “go fast” seems to be the general gist of it.

When guests start flowing in — including secret judge and restaurant critic Jimi Famurewa — the initial meal service goes pretty smoothly. So far. You never know where it’s gonna go. And when the judges taste Tom’s leeks, they deem it a “really good start.” Though when Gail Simmons asks Tom who their executive chef was, he says something about teamwork that evades her question. Gail’s not to happy about that, and his answer may betray a lack of team cohesion.

The biggest problem is Nicole’s pasta course. Since she had to redo so much of her work, she struggles to keep up with the orders and there’s a loooooong wait for her dish. When it does appear there are mixed reviews for it. The judges praise her flavors but criticize her execution of the pasta itself, which is thick and uneven. Gabri’s third course comes out a lot faster, and while there are beautiful notes to it and the fish is delicate and well-seasoned, it lacks texture and seems too similar to Nicole’s pasta dish. Victoire comes out right on time with her African-style tiramisu, which has a beautiful taste, though lacks punch.

So all things considered, not a bad showing for Root. One significant meal service problem and a couple of flaws in the dishes themselves, but no fatal flaws it seems. Sounds like a solid B+ restaurant experience. Definitely beatable, but United Kitchen can’t afford errors.

United Kitchen’s Restaurant Day

“The key to today is just being f*cking ready,” says Buddha in the car, dramatically putting on his sunglasses David Caruso-style. But Caruso usually makes those dramatic pronouncements while standing over dead bodies, so hopefully that’s not a sign of things to come. But Buddha is “living in a dream right now” when he enters Core’s pristine kitchen. And all four teammates seem to have a clear idea of who’s cooking what and where. They each have their stations so as not to get in each other’s way, unlike Root. Already off to a better start, but the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, so I’m not gonna unclench just yet.

Indeed, Buddha’s ambitious two dishes are taking forever, and Ali is worried that his pasty is coming out dry and he needs to borrow some of Buddha’s work station. But … that’s pretty much it when it comes to problems. Sara presents the service staff with detailed information about the meal, which restaurant director Rob Rose loves because the servers can learn it and explain it to the guests. I keep waiting for something to fall apart, but nothing does. Buddha is an eensy bit terrified cooking and serving food to his mentor in her own restaurant, but his meal comes out on time despite his worry about taking on too much. The worst criticism he gets is that his black pudding is a little too crispy, but his breakfast course has the punch that Tom Colicchio was hoping for from the previous team.

Amar is next. He pours a warm sauce on his cold scallop, which seems like an odd choice to the judges, but they all enjoy it. Sara is next with her perfectly cooked, delicately smoked fish. The biggest problem comes from Ali, who presents a “glaringly naked” dish that desperately needs a sauce. When Colicchio sees that Ali’s adding a dollop of jus to some of the other dishes that are going out, he gets out of his chair to investigate in the kitchen. He walks in, silently inspects Ali’s work station, and walks out without saying a word. Ali is wondering WTF just happened, but it can’t be good. The team finishes strong with Buddha’s strawberries and cream, which he presents with some nice drama and showmanship.

“What a way to finish,” says Jimi inside the restaurant proper. I think it’s pretty clear that United Kitchen is winning Restaurant Wars, unless Ali’s incomplete-seeming dish does them in. Given the technical errors on Root, though, I don’t think a lack of jus will be enough to cost UK the win.

Judges’ Table

Secret critic Jimi emerges and gives his impressions to the rest of the judges, and they’re more or less in agreement. Root’s meal service was “a little bit mixed” with some exciting dishes but problems with service and pacing and a theme that didn’t come through. United Kitchen, meanwhile, was “clearly defined.”

Indeed, United Kitchen learns that they’re the winners of challenge! They had a plan, they had an instruction manual, they were organized. Gail loved seeing them work. The breakfast was great. The scallops were pristine. The cod was a standout, and all the nooks and crannies of British culture came through. It even turns out that Ali did put jus on the judges’ plates, just too little of it. But when all is said and done, the individual winner of the challenge is Buddha, who gets choked up — “I am screaming on the inside. I just won Restaurant Wars with my mentor in front of me.”

Tom is just as emotional though. He doesn’t have much of a poker face, so you can see just how much it hurts to be at the bottom the week after winning his first Elimination Challenge. Jimi felt “adrift” trying to figure out what connected Root’s dishes, even though he likes the sound of it when Tom explains it. They might have benefitted from more detailed instructions for the wait staff like UK had. But the judges loved Tom’s leeks. And Jimi loved Victoire’s tiramisu, even though the other judges thought Victoire could have pushed the envelope even more than she did. Heartbreakingly, the judges tell Gabri that his dish needed another vegetable to tie it together — cauliflower maybe? And Nicole’s dish was both out of place and imperfectly made.

In the stew room, Nicole and Victoire start to cry. And Tom laments, “It doesn’t matter who goes home. You still lose a little bit of yourself because it’s a team responsibility.” This is definitely one of the roughest Judges’ Tables of the season, and in a repeat of last week’s Charbel elimination, we lose a chef who had been unimpeachable all season long: Nicole has to pack her knives and go in what I suspect was a close call between her and Gabri, who has narrowly escaped elimination five times now.

“This competition has taught me so much, that I am still a good cook, that I still want to cook,” says Nicole in her exit interview on her way to “Last Chance Kitchen.” “I’m very proud of what I’ve done so far, and I met some amazing people. I’m sad to say goodbye to everybody, but to be on ‘World All-Stars,’ that’s pretty incredible in itself.”

Be sure to make your predictions so that the contestants can see how they’re faring in our racetrack odds. You can keep changing your predictions until just before the next episode airs every Thursday on Bravo. You’ll compete to win a spot on our leaderboard and eternal bragging rights. See our contest rules and sound off with other fans in our reality TV forum. Read more Gold Derby entertainment news.

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