“What I want in a Restaurant Wars episode,” said Françoise, a listener of the podcast Extra Hot Great, “is one team of underdogs to knock it out of the park, and one team of overconfident assholes to crash and burn.”
Alas, that was not what Top Chef Houston gave us—this season is light on assholes, thankfully—but it yielded such beautiful disaster that it was a wonderful episode, and produced my new favorite moment in Restaurant Wars history.
Restaurant Wars is Top Chef’s signature competition because it creates impossible circumstances, but also because it shows us the cascading effects of decisions.
Top Chef Houston’s Restaurant Wars was filmed on the ground floor of POST Houston, with its spectacular criss-crossing staircase. The space was split down the middle, one half for each restaurant.
After a schoolyard pick that left Luke and his inability to season food as the last choice, the teams started strategizing.
And almost immediately, it was evident which team was going to succeed wildly (Matriarc) and which team was going to implode (No Nem).
Team No Nem (Evelyn, Jackson, Jae, and Luke) decided on family style service, but also serving multiple dishes at once for no reason because Jackson, who had COVID before coming on Top Chef and lost his ability to taste or smell, thought that was a good idea.
Meanwhile, Team Matriarc (Ashleigh, Buddha, Damarr, and Nick) had a simple concept reflected in their name, and focused their food around matriarchs in their lives and the culinary world. They each contributed dishes they could execute well and that were also inspired.
Their kitchen ran quietly and smoothly, thanks to executive chef Ashleigh; there was no conflict or tension, not even when the judges started glaring and dramatically diving for bread as if they were starving because their food wasn’t coming out fast enough.
Buddha, it turns out, is a Top Chef scholar who has encyclopedic knowledge of the show’s history, which is so fascinating I want an entire episode about that alone. Hell, give him a spin-off series in which he dissects and analyzes every past episode, or trains people how to be perfect Top Chef contestants.
Buddha volunteered to be the chef in charge of the front of the house. Even casuals know that this is notoriously a tough spot: someone else cooks that person’s food while they fumble about and get blamed for everything that goes wrong.
Yet Buddha handled it flawlessly, from designing the dining room so that all the tables faced the open kitchen to introducing each plate to the judges.
Their win was not a surprise. Tom Colicchio said “this actually feels more like a restaurant than other experience we’ve had—like a real restaurant that’s actually been open.”
Jackson, who can’t taste or smell, botches front-of-house
The No Nem experience was not a disaster, except by comparison to Matriarc.
Jackson Kalb, who it turns out cannot taste or smell, decided he would be in charge of front of the house, and it was clear why almost immediately.
He had creative ideas, like deciding to welcome the judges to their restaurant not by greeting them at the door, nor talking to them at the table, but by leaving a note scrawled in handwriting that I hope someone turns into a font called “Childlike.”
The note said, simply, “Welcome Judges.” The J was capitalized because “judges” is not a proper noun, and the text was written on an uphill slant and with kerning that artfully changed between words.
The paper it was scrawled on was folded twice to make a table tent that became limp and sagged against the table, probably from embarrassment.
I’m not sure Restaurant Wars will have such a spectacular visual image ever again.
While serving his restaurant’s VIPs, and the people responsible for deciding who stays in the competition and who does not, Jackson (who had COVID before coming on Top Chef and still doesn’t have his sense of taste or smell back) essentially dumped the plates and sprinted away, or just had servers deliver and then communicated telepathically with the judges from across the restaurant.
Gail finally had enough, and was like, Could you please tell us what in the actual heck we are eating and if having COVID also affected your handwriting and judgement?
For the last course, executive chef Evelyn joined Jackson—who had COVID and cannot taste or smell—in his ceremonial dumping of plates onto the judges’ table and fleeing. As he tried to walk away, she put up her hands in the universal What the hell? gesture, and said, “Can you spiel them on the dessert? All of them?”
I’m not sure if it was over-confidence or, as he explained earlier, anxiety, but it was a spectacular cascade of bad decisions on Jackson’s part, from concept to execution.
No Nem lost, of course, though Tom said “You probably put together the best restaurant to lose Restaurant Wars. It wasn’t that you guys failed; most of what we had was very good.”
I’d argue that Evelyn and Jae were mostly responsible for that. Evelyn kept the kitchen moving while also teaching Luke how to make curry for his dish, never mind making her own dishes. Jae’s sauces were the highlight of the menu.
After the critique, while in the stew room, Jackson, who lost his sense of smell and taste, decided to come clean with the other chefs and tell them his big, dark secret that even the editors had been hiding from us all season.
Jackson revealed that he got COVID just before Top Chef and thus cannot taste or smell, and when he did, the other chefs all had looks on their faces that should win Emmys. Perhaps that might have been something relevant to share with teammates in a cooking competition.
Luke, who is more polite than I would have been, was in disbelief that he might be packing his knives for an under-seasoned dish when Jackson, who can’t taste or smell, told him it was too salty.
Perhaps leaving Jackson, who still cannot smell or taste anything, in the cast of a cooking competition was a bad call on the producers’ part, or perhaps they knew exactly what they were doing and thought this would create drama.
Over eight episodes, he was in the top group six times, and won twice. Jackson can absolutely cook, even if—and this is interesting—he can’t taste or smell anything that he is cooking.