Top Chef: All Stars LA didn’t begin well for me, starting with its disappointing episode-one team challenge. With the exception of episode two, “The Jonathan Gold Standard,” where the show payed tribute to the acclaimed Los Angeles food critic, I was enjoying watching Tom Colicchio attempt the challenges more than the show itself.
But starting in episode five, the season really found its groove, with one of the best competition reality TV family visit episodes ever, followed by a smartly tweaked version of Top Chef’s signature challenge, Restaurant Wars that concluded last night.
In mid-April, the reality TV competition stars aligned in a curious way: On Drag Race and Top Chef, the contestants had to create and sell products. On Top Chef, family members visited and helped out, and on Survivor and the finale of Lego Masters, family members visited.
But it was Top Chef All Stars LA‘s that had the best family visit episode this year, using the family members in creative ways.
First, the chefs found out, through some product placement, that their friends and family members were on the phone, talking to them from Nancy Silverton’s restaurant. They had to describe what they’d been served to the chef, who had to recreate it in the Top Chef kitchen.
The Quickfire challenge was not exactly the fairest challenge ever—it challenged the chefs as communicators, but also there just wasn’t an even playing field. After all, Jen’s sister thought fish—with scales!—was chicken. But they all did a remarkable job.
That wasn’t it for the family members, though: they stayed through the elimination challenge, helping the chefs create, prep, package, and then sample their product at an outdoor mall.
Gregory won for his “Party Pikliz,” a “spicy Haitian pickle” condiment. And it was with Haitian food—his parents are from Haiti—that he also impressed the judges during Restaurant Wars, which was the second time this season that Top Chef took a well-worn concept and used it especially well.
Top Chef split Restaurant Wars into two outstanding episodes
Restaurant Wars started by becoming Shark Tank, sort of: In episode 7, after Karen Akunowicz returned from Last Chance Kitchen, the chefs learned that Restaurant Wars was coming, but they wouldn’t be creating concepts huddled over a table for 15 minutes.
Instead, each chef had to pitch the judging panel on a concept for a restaurant, and the judges would pick two winners to lead teams.
The judging panel for both episodes included guest judges Stephanie Izard, who won Top Chef Chicago, and restaurateur Kevin Boehm, who partnered with Stephanie for her Chicago restaurants.
The chefs didn’t just throw out a name for a potential restaurant: they created mood boards, with Bryan Voltaggio even gluing a plate to his, and full concepts. Then they prepared multiple dishes for the judges to sample.
Their presentations were a lot of fun, from Brian Malarkey’s Shrek metaphor to Eric Adjepong’s continuation of the concept that he was exploring during the finale of Top Chef Kentucky, when he was eliminated by a disappointing and unnecessary twist.
Alas, while the judges liked Eric’s concept for exploring the African diaspora in food, a restaurant called Middle Passage, he was eliminated for his actual dishes, which just didn’t come together. “Bad technique,” Tom said.
The winning restaurants were Kevin Gillespie’s Southern-inspired The Country Captain, and Greg’s Haitian-inspired Kann.
Padma told the chefs that the winning team would receive $40,000, so $10,000 each, sponsored by Open Table, which probably didn’t expect that this episode would be airing when tables were not open in order to keep people from dying.
From start to finish, Greg just made brilliant choices. I was blown away that he chose Brian Malarkey first. So was Brian: “blew my mind.” So was Padma: “Just out of curiosity, why?”
Why indeed! But Greg had a plan, as he did for everything: Brian ran the front of house, keeping his manic energy out of the kitchen and where it would be put to perfect use.
Malarkey has such a perfect name, by the way.
The team Greg selected was “a bunch of wildcards,” as Lee Anne Wong called her team, while Kevin’s team, with its three previous Restaurant Wars winners, was, in Lee Anne’s estimation, “solid, focused, bad-ass.”
But from the very start, the editing was gesturing broadly toward Greg’s team excelling and winning.
He kept making clear, focused decisions. There were a few hints of minor conflict, like Lee Anne’s irritation with the servers while expediting, and Greg’s decision to stick with his menu and not let his teammates put their own spin on dishes, and also insisting on tasting everything.
But that leadership led to strong execution on every level. And actually, both restaurants seemed to do just fine. The chefs were clearly under pressure and working hard, but this was not the ludicrous chaos of past Restaurant Wars, and that made it so much more pleasurable to watch.
As Tom noted, Kann really felt like a real restaurant.
I cannot recall how long previous seasons have given previous contestants for Restaurant Wars, but this one seemed to give them more room from start to finish: an entire episode to pitch and refine concepts; wide, open spaces for the restaurants and the kitchens, with some considerable distance between them, enough for Greg to run his fish to the judges; and two days to prepare.
Kevin made decisions, too, but the wrong ones, starting with an unmanageable 12 dishes.
Judges’ Table was surprisingly swift, perhaps because it’d been such a long day, and the outcomes were so clear.
I was concerned that Karen, who ran The Country Captain’s front of house, was going to be sent to Last Chance Kitchen for her bad mushroom dish, which probably wouldn’t have been that way if she’d had time to prepare and cook it, and everyone else hadn’t been overwhelmed with 11 other dishes.
That’s my one general issue with Restaurant Wars: too often a chef is sent home for a reason tangential to actual cooking.
But Kevin fell on his knives.
When Tom Colicchio asked why he shouldn’t go home—for his poor rendition of the dish the judges’ previously loved, for his bad dessert, for his decisions about the number of items, for the decision to have it all come out Kevin didn’t throw Karen under the bus—Kevin said this:
“There have been times when I tried my best to save my own skin; it’s inapproapriate, and frankly I couldn’t live with myself if I tried to throw anybody under the bus to save myself. I believe that the faults that we made today land firmly on my shoulders whether they were my dish that I executed, or whether they were my idea, or wherther simply I did not step in and stop someone from doing something that perhaps they shouldn’t have done.”
As if that speech wasn’t classy enough, after Padma immediately said, “Kevin, please pack your knives and go,” he went up to the judges and thanked them for sending him home.
Earlier, at the start of this week’s episode, Stephanie Izard told the chefs, “We all know that this is an incredibly difficult challenge, but it’s also the one we look forward to every season.”
I do always look forward to it, but Top Chef All Stars LA’s version took it to the next level, and I hope this version returns for future seasons.