The season of Top Chef filmed in the height of the pandemic—pre-vaccine, back when everyone was still pretending that cleaning surfaces or standing six feet apart in an enclosed space actually did something—had what I think was the best Restaurant Wars in the franchise’s history.
Top Chef Portland filmed in a bubble, so the guests were the all-star Top Chef contestants/guest judges, while the judges for that episode sat at a chef’s table, watching the contestants work.
It was fantastic, adding several degrees of pressure without fundamentally changing Top Chef’s most iconic challenge.
Last season, the show kept the same basic format, but brought back diners and the front-of-the-house position. It also gave us this iconic image.
Would Top Chef World All Stars—which has so far struggled to construct challenges worthy of a regular season, never mind a global all-stars competition—change back, or stick with the format?
What producers decided to do was remove a fundamental part of the challenge: instead of designing their own restaurant, the chefs just used an existing one, Clare Smyth’s three Michelin star restaurant Core.
(Clarification: This wasn’t the first time the show used existing infrastructure. In season six, Top Chef: Las Vegas, the two teams used dining rooms at Rick Moonen’s two-level RM Seafood at Mandalay Bay.)
So instead of spending time choosing colors and tableware, the chefs just had to focus on the food. Honestly, that took away some of the fun of Restaurant Wars for me. They did not have to think about things like space planning and the overall experience the guests will have.
Last season, in Houston, Buddha worked front of the house, and made the brilliant decision to face the tables toward the open kitchen. There were no such opportunities here.
While the judges again sat at a chef’s table, it was separated from the kitchen by a glass wall, and quite a bit of space. Tom Colicchio got up at one point and wandered in, terrifying Ali as Tom surveyed his plates and then left. Given an better chef’s table in the kitchen, Tom could have just asked.
The chefs learned that a stake was $40,000 for the winning team, sponsored by “contactless Mastercard,” a phrase I am very impressed Padma was able to work into conversation, since it is a thing no one ever says.
After a schoolyard pick, the teams of four sat down to figure out their concepts. That part of Restaurant Wars remained intact.
Half of the team of Gabri, Nicole, Tom, and Victoire—Tom and Victoire—had never competed in Restaurant Wars before. But Tom had an idea that evolved, with his team’s input, to “Root,” celebrating their roots across several continents.
Meanwhile, Buddha’s team—Ali, Amar, and Sara—sat silent as he announced they’d rethink classic British dishes and call the restaurant United Kitchen, aka UK, aka okay fine sure.
At this point, it seemed as though Buddha’s team was headed for a spectacular fall.
Then, while shopping, Tom forgot a basket full of Gabri’s produce. Buddha and Sarah saw it, and like good competitors just left on the ground. Sarah did tell Tom, but not until they were in the kitchen when it was far too late.
It wasn’t clear to me if Gabri could have just substituted something already in the Top Chef pantry. Maybe there wasn’t enough to feed all diners?
We saw concept planning, menu planning, shopping, and prep. But missing was any discussion or planning of their restaurant experience. That makes sense: They were just going into an existing restaurant.
But that also is what helped to tank Gabri, Nicole, Tom, and Victoire: Their concept was not clear. United Kitchen prepared a service menu for the servers, and the editors prepared us for their win by showing the restaurant director sharing with servers, and complimenting it.
That normally would have been the job of the contestant assigned to the front of house. I actually didn’t mind removing that, because I was always irritated when a chef went home because someone else cooked their dish badly. Here, everyone was responsible for their own stuff.
Yet I suppose if the diners don’t understand it, which happened at Root, that’s a failure on their part.
Root was also falling apart in other ways. Nicole decided to make ravioli, and it wasn’t working, and she said, to herself, “Are you new here?” Meanwhile, she and Gabri had conflict over equipment and space.
My favorite change for this version of Top Chef’s Restaurant Wars Food was having food critic and journalist Jimi Famurewa as an undercover diner in both restaurants, acting as a secret judge—and of course, doing what real food critics do, which is dining anonymously and then offering feedback.
At Judges Table, Jimi said that “Root was a little bit mixed” but it had “issues with the service, with the pacing” and an unclear concept, while the opposite was true at United Kitchen, which was “quite clearly defined.”
Buddha’s inverted merengue condensing on his dessert was visually spectacular, and between that and controlling everything (Jimi said he “tipped everything in the team’s favor”), he won. United Kitchen all won $10,000 each.
Guest judge Clare Smyth, we learned early in the episode, was Buddha’s boss at a Gordon Ramsay episode, so he was extra-thrilled that he’d won this episode. “I couldn’t even come up with this shit in my wildest dreams,” he said.
During Root’s critique, Tom Colicchio said “it didn’t feel like it was a restaurant.” At this point, I wondered what kind of guidelines they were given about what they were required to do, versus what they maybe should have done.
Thankfully, someone still went home for food. Nicole tried to shove Tom under the bus for the problems with reservation staggering, but the judges loved his dish.
Nicole’s tortellini, though, was a fail, and she knew it, so off to Last Chance Kitchen she went.
Holding Restaurant Wars in an actual restaurant is an experiment that I hope Top Chef doesn’t repeat. I don’t need to see the chefs assembling tables from Ikea or painting walls, but it seemed to remove too much of the process of actually creating a pop-up restaurant out of nothing.
That ultimately reduced Restaurant Wars to just another challenge where the chefs served 50 people. I’m not sure it’s possible to go back to the delightful Top Chef Portland model, alas, but for me, Top Chef Houston found a better balance than Top Chef World All Stars did.