Friday, January 23, 2009

"In love and in war, you are allowed to do everything."

Friday, January 23, 2009

Restaurant Wars has an ominous beginning, as we’re set up for the demise of the lovebirds (Hosea and Leah) almost immediately. Besides the obvious signs-while relaxing on the balcony, no doubt without the protection of SPF 30, Stefan asked Hosea what the first thing he wanted to do was when he got home, and his reply was “See my girlfriend”-it’s also important to note that both of the cheatin’ chefs were also facing the consequences of their ill-treatment of Ariane in the previous challenge. It’s obvious that the chefs are feeling more and more anxious as the competition continues-Carla says that being in the final 8 is akin to psychological warfare.

Padma appears to grow more and more cheerful with each quickfire. Perhaps her beaming face and overwhelming joy in this episode was due to the fact that finally we have reached the point where the winner of the quickfire no longer receives immunity? She stands in one her less fashionable getups next to the guest judge, Stephen Starr, acclaimed restauranteur. I like the idea of having a restauranteur as the guest judge for the Restaurant Wars episode-it gives a sense of authenticity to the challenge.

For the quickfire, the chefs must come up with a unique dish that would showcase a concept for a prospective restaurant. I, for one, would be terrified. Especially with a 30 minute limit. Fabio has difficulty opening the refrigerator. Hosea peels potatoes like nobody’s business. Dr. Chase, of course, has opened restaurants before and can “sell anybody anything.” Leah’s red snapper is skanky and she has to choose another protein. Jamie and her seasonable, local, sustainable ingredients are a veritable beacon of calm and light in the midst of panic and fear.

None of the chefs really seemed to have the “concept” idea straight in their head, although Leah’s tempura poussin was by far the most unique. I did not understand Stefan’s Eur-American, and neither did Stephen Starr. Dr. Chase’s salmon was painfully overcooked-I was embarrassed for him. I was proud of Radhika for sticking with her original interest, the “global small plates” concept. I thought Jamie’s dish looked delicious-I would go to her future restaurant. For sure.

In the end, Stephen Starr declared he would not be inclined to invest in the future business ventures of either Dr. Chase or Fabio. Fabio, I should mention, was completely offended by the comparison of his filet mignon sandwich to a cheesesteak. Leah and Radhika were announced the winners, so they would be selecting the chefs for their rival restaurants. Winning the quickfire in the Restaurant Wars episode is a double-edged sword-you usually get a great bonus, like choosing the chefs you want to work with, but as head chef, you’re always most at risk if something goes wrong.

Radhika selects Jamie, Carla, and Dr. Chase. Obviously, Leah’s first pick was Hosea. No big surprise there. Fabio and Stefan made up the rest of her team, Stefan being the last chef left in the schoolyard pick. This will prove to be an ironic twist, as you’ll see at the end of the episode.

Team Radhika seems to immediately benefit from Jamie’s calm exterior and experience. She quietly attempts to coax delegating decisions out of Radhika, while Dr. Chase asserts himself , stating that he wants to cook, not be at the front of the house, and Carla makes sure her team knows that she has the least restaurant experience. By the way, I called that one in the very first episode. As a caterer, Carla can really only get so far in the competition. It’s amazing that she has managed to stick around as long as she has. This challenge is a perfect example of the tremendous pressure of working in a restaurant. Catering is so different, a much more isolated event, rather than 24/7 craziness. I’m impressed with all of them, EXCEPT Radhika. Instead of acknowledging her teammates’ admission of strengths and weaknesses and dealing with them appropriately, she flounders and makes several poor decisions, most notably deciding that she would take the front of the house.

After both teams spend $5000 on restaurant décor at Pier 1, Team Leah sits around the table in the loft, eating Whole Foods brand barbecue potato chips, and discusses their Asian restaurant concept. As usual, Stefan is steam rolling over the team, insisting that the servings should be “pretty, tight, small and sexy.” He also refuses to tell the team about his desserts. So not a team player.

Team Radhika’s deliberating continues at the loft as well. Jamie appears to be an excellent leader. She encourages Carla to share what she feels confident in making, saying that the team will help her to spice it up, so that it will fit with their “old spice trade flavors” theme. Radhika appears mute and virtually useless.

Cue the rise of the moon, glowing red street lights, and cheesy music. The viewers are now treated, through a tiny crack of a window in the loft, to a view of Leah and Hosea snuggling on the couch, much closer than any faithful girlfriend with a boyfriend or boyfriend with a girlfriend should be. There was also kissing. And sighing. And matching white t-shirts and jeans.

Leah and Hosea both woke the next morning feeling ashamed and full of regret about their nocturnal canoodling. Not only do they feel guilty about their respective significant others, Leah to the point of tears, but the awkwardness between them seems sure to affect the challenge. It’s worth noting that Fabio and Leah go to Whole Food together, leaving Hosea and Stefan to go to the Restaurant Depot. Both teams have names now, by the way. Team Radhika is Team Sahana, which is Sanskrit for strong, or something like that. Stefan came up with Sunset Lounge for Leah’s team, perhaps inspired by the events of the previous evening.

The chefs arrive at their restaurant spaces and begin the extremely stressful process of prep and decorating. Leah and Hosea are distracted and tense. He’s literally sweating bullets, and she looks to be on the verge of tears, particularly when she mangles her cod while attempting to de-bone it. Stefan, on the other hand, is extremely collected. When his panna cotta doesn’t set properly in the freezer, he improvises with a huge bowl of ice.

Carla is having major problems with that freezer-it’s essentially useless, but for the most part, Team Sahana is completely productive and relaxed. Until the servers arrive, that is. At that point, Radhika’s lack of confidence is alarming. She doesn’t give Carla any advice about the dessert, and instead of training the servers, she walks around them in circles and looks frightened. She doesn’t appear to have spent much time in the kitchen during the prep, while Fabio, the rival front of the house, literally changed into his white suit moments before the restaurants opened.

I should mention that I have abdicated Team Hosea. I am now Team Fabio.

The judges head to Sahana first. While Radhika shyly greets them and the other guests, those waiting at Sunset Lounge are dazzled by Fabio and his charming accent. Jamie is single-handedly running Sahana, being such a perfectionist that she won’t send out a plate with a mussed garnish. As the judges admire the chickpea cake with a grilled scallop and the curried carrot soup, I immediately think that Jamie is at it again! More scallops! The chefs like the first course, as well as the second, which consisted of red snapper and braised lamb shank. Then came dessert, a disaster on a plate. Well two plates, actually. The frozen yogurts were more like creamy soups. Toby Young compared the meal to the career of Elvis Presley, “started out great, but died on the toilet.” Ouch!

The Sunset Lounge is a much cheerier place, due to the presence of Fabio as a host. He briefly breaks away from his personal visits to each table to graciously greet the judges. Unfortunately, the food doesn’t really match up to the ambiance. Amuse bouche, appetizer, and main course are all disappointing. In fact, after the judges receive undercooked cod, they don’t even ask for new plates. Leah is despondent and apathetic in the kitchen, even stalking away from Hosea’s attempt at a comforting hug. If judgment had occurred at this point, Sahana would must certainly have secured a victory. All of this changes, however, when dessert arrives. The judges absolutely loved Stefan’s desserts-Tom even admitted that they were the best dishes of the night.

Thus, it all came down to desserts and service. Stefan’s delicious desserts and Fabio’s personality gave Sunset Lounge a victory. In any other challenge, service would not have been much of a relevant factor. For Restaurant Wars, however, it’s very important. The fact is, if you eat at a restaurant with wonderful food but terrible service, there’s a solid chance that you won’t return. If Radhika had been a halfway decent host, Leah would have been packing her bags, even with Carla’s bad desserts.

I did not take issue with the judges’ decision to send Radhika home. She made little to no contribution to the food, proved to be a poor head chef, and clearly could not play the role of a host. Her explanations have continued to be weak and smacking of an avoidance of responsibility. It’s important to remember that this competition is specifically geared towards restaurant chefs and owners-there’s a skill set which any chef/owner needs to have, and Radhika doesn’t seem to have these skills.

I should mention that my respect for Jamie surged back this week-not only because she proved to be an able leader, but because she didn’t make those scallops! She made the lamb and soup! Final three, at the very least. I’m saying it again now.

Hopefully next week’s All Star edition will be more exciting. I usually love the Restaurant Wars episode, but I think this edition was disappointing.

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