Restaurant Wars' Controlled Chaos

Best of the Best

Francis Lam: What's on the Menu?

Curtis Stone's Lemon Creams with Poached Cherries

Bryan Voltaggio: "I Thought I Won. I Know I Won."

Jennifer Jasinski Was a "Great Miracle"

Lesley Suter's 'Ratatouille' Moment

What it Takes to Be Top Chef Master

The Finale Countdown

Doug and Sang: Bad Romance?

Sang is Back!

David Burke Has Titanium Balls

See Ya, Suckers!

Why Jennifer Jasinski Didn't Go Home

James Oseland's Teacher Tribute

Gail: "I Still Can't Believe Sang was Eliminated"

The Strangest Episode of 'Top Chef Masters' Yet?

Lesley Suter: On Tongue, Flautadillas, and Birthday Cake

What Has Curtis Stone "Spewing"?

A Series of Unfortunate Culinary Events Leaves Blood on the Mat

Gail: "We Couldn't Excuse Neal"

Lesley Suter: Hey, Chefs, Why So Raw?

Pull it Together, Sang!

Francis Lam: I liked Sang's Fish

Curtis Stone in Nacho Libre

Gail Simmons: "Neil Went for Our Bellies"

The Evolution of Sue Zemanick

Curtis Stone: Throwing Curveballs

Ruth Reichl: "I'd Rather Be Training a Nation of Food Warriors"

When Plex Met Toodee

'Top Chef Masters' ' Toughest Critics Yet

Gail Simmons: No "Chef" in Lynn's Dish

Restaurant Wars: 'Getting' Busy

Francis: A New Kind of Locavorism

What Being a Chef Really Means

Ruth Reichl's Perfect Los Angeles Restaurant

Franklin Just Did Too Much

Curtis and Lindsay: A Perfect Pairing

Curtis Stone: This Episode Sends Hearts Racing

Franklin, Can You Hear Me?

James Oseland Fights for Franklin

Restaurant Wars' Controlled Chaos

Hugh Acheson comments on the mayhem that is creating a restaurant in a day.

The whole bringin’ your ninja repartee between Jason and Neal last week has had me thinking a lot about ninjas. I am not sure I would want my sous chef to be a ninja. It’s a hard job to begin with, what with inventory, working the line, keeping your kitchen crew making great food, and then you add sharpening throwing stars, and talking slightly out of sync with the motion of your mouth. I am just looking for a talented chef who does inventory really well and understands that they need to nurture a crew to be better everyday. And what do you pay a ninja? Do they have checking accounts? Really opens up a lot of questions. 

But all this ninja talk made me order a Ninja Kitchen System Blender, the Ginzu knife of Smoothie town, and I will stick with my VitaMix, thank you. Then there’s ninja cinematography. I have the classic Azumi on hold at the video store, cause Netflix brings up Au Pair Girls (1972) when I search Azumi. I will find time to watch Au Pair Girls, but it seems a little off topic.

So the maestros arrive and soon find out that four of them will be without sous chefs while four will have the assistance of their fine employees. This hurdle was decided in the previous Battle of the Sous Chefs where Ted, Drew, Nick, and Chris lost in the food package challenge. No Quickfire today, and we will get right into the action. It is RESTAURANT WARS.

Restaurant Wars is the most feared episode of the season because, without a doubt, one of the chefs, usually one playing maître d’, will have some major issues. They will express complete dissatisfaction, as their team plates their food for them back in the kitchen. They will hobble through niceties at the host stand, and leave customers hanging as they coddle the judge's table. Trust me. I have seen it too many times. Set your watch to it, cause this time it’s Jennifer who succumbs to the front-of-house blues. 

Team Bluecoats/72 & Sunny: Sue, Douglas, Sang, and David

Team Redcoats/Artisan Restaurant: Jennifer, Bryan, Neal, and Lynn.

Busy Philipps is pregnant and hungry for a diverse L.A. experiential restaurant, kind of like a potpourri of Wolfgang Puck Express, the Viper Room, the Brown Derby, Pinks, a donut place and In ‘n’ Out Burger. I am "busy" these days and had to Google who Busy was. She seems very nice. My lack of TV knowledge is abhorrent. 

Luckily, the two remaining L.A. chefs have balanced out each team, so we don’t have too much provincial favoritism. The Cobb salad expertise is even. This is making me hungry, and I do love a good Cobb salad. 

David is yearning to do pourover coffee for the guests. I am with Burke on this one. Sang is not. You can woo people with great coffee after a great meal. I call it the bookends of cocktails and coffee, and I like them paid attention to. But, perhaps Sang is on to something because Restaurant Wars is harried mayhem and concentrating on the core food is probably smart…. Let’s be honest, it’s not a real restaurant. Real restaurants are mayhem for much longer than a day. Lynn wants to keep this simple, while Bryan wants to make banana crème anglaise domes, and put Lynn in the dome where she will have fight a three-legged moose wearing armor (the moose will wear the armor; Lynn will wear a chef coat). 

Jennifer likes to talk on the phone. A lot. I abhor talking on the phone. I also abhor texting. Emails. I like emails. 

The winners from Battle of the Sous Chefs come in to help Team Red. This should be a huge advantage. Or not. Who knows. Actually, I know.  

Busy and Leisure Suit Curtis come to the kitchen to check on the chefs. Things happen, and then the waiters arrive to check in and get this restaurant all set up. 

Sang: “I don’t like any sentence that begins with, “I think…” This does bring up the importance of communication in a restaurant: keep it short and to the point. At my places, I hate it when people start a question off with, “Can I ask you a question?” MY JOB IS TO ANSWER QUESTIONS. If I tally up that wasted time in my life, I should have an extra night of sleep at the end of my existence. And I want that sleep. That said, Sang is going rogue Alpha dog and is getting really bitchy with everyone. Please don’t fire the fake waiters, Sang. 

Artisan is not getting a Michelin star from the Michelin inspector, who has just blown his cover. Meanwhile Bryan has this nervous laugh that is hilarious whenever he has to deal with Jennifer. David Burke is a flirtatious winner on the floor. Killin’ it.

Here’s the food, with comments:

Team Red

Jennifer: Cauliflower-Tahini Soup. Deemed too thick and too tahini-y. Something about hair or pear. No love. 

Jennifer: Citrus Salad with Avocado, Chevre, Endive, Radicchio, and Orange Vinaigrette. Good but busy. 

Bryan: Cobb Salad Inspired Salmon with Dehydrated Bacon and Horseradish Snow. A thing of utter beauty. 

Neal: New York Strip Steak with Cavolo Nero and Twice Baked Fingerling Potatoes. Ho-hum. 

Lynn: Chocolate Brownie Sundae with Roasted Banana Ice Cream and Peanut Caramel Sauce. Joltingly sweet. 

Neal: California Olive Oil Cake with Mascarpone Ice Cream. Ho-hum de dum. 


Team Blue

Douglas: Barely Cooked Salmon with Ginger Shiso, Dashi Gelee, and Salmon Caviar. Brilliant. 

Sue: Quinoa, Arugula, and Feta Salad with Radishes, Mint, and Lemon Vinaigrette. Though Dana proclaims 2013 Year of the Quinoa, this rendition fails to wow. It’s more woe than wow. 

David and Douglas: Snapper with Sweet Corn Puree, Garlic Chorizo, and Roasted Tomato Vinaigrette. Doug & Dave co-production that is pretty great, but Gail wants to be nuzzled by green onion. She’s pregnant now, though, and has just eaten 10 pounds of black licorice with a side of bananas and anchovies. 

Sang: Strip Loin with Broccoli Two Ways, Puffed Tendon, and Black Been Ghee. The sauce is wicked good. Sang, through all his madness, has succeeded. 

David: Tangerine and Spiced Honey Panna Cotta with Strawberry Champagne Gelee. They love. Everyone loves it, except Curtis, the Oracle of Gastronomy, says that things are not good when you get sick of them. Duh. 

Sue: Chocolate Malt Semifreddo with Fudge, Marshmallow, and Graham Crackers. Loved by Busy. Stay away from quinoa, Sue, and stick with the classic sweets. Blue Team gets called first, and they are tops. David excelled in the front, and the team delivered a good product, despite the chaos that Sang was trying to create in the back of the house. Burke’s panna cotta, though a touch heavy on the spices, was still loved. The salmon by Keane was revered, and it exemplified L.A. well. Sue’s salad had an AOC feel and brought that California cuisine thing. Sang’s beef and broccoli may be the only dish ever that was made better by his service bitterness…. Usually, you can taste that in the food. Go big blue. Sang wins the money, too. $10,000 for the Worldwide Orphan Foundation.

Team Red, maybe Orange -- I can’t tell -- is the team in Loserville and having to explain themselves. They had sous chefs and everything. Jennifer’s soup was too thick with the tahini being too omnipresent, and the salad was busy blend. Jennifer is taking the criticism well, though, and nodding a lot. Neal is accused of having made a NY steak in an L.A. challenge, and not really bringing much pizzazz to the plate. Lynn’s brownie is judged to be too decadent. Bryan’s salmon is judged to be a winner, and Bryan has no idea why he’s saddled with these chefs. Can’t we just have a challenge of Bryan v. World? He’d probably win. 

So, Neal, has immunity, and Bryan ain’t going home so it’s between Jennifer and Lynn. Team Red-Orange is buffering themselves with wine for the impending firing squad. They talk about David Burke’s shoes to change the topic. 

Lynn goes back to her Ontario. She waves them farewell. 

Watch Battle of the Sous Chefs on, and also follow me on Twitter (@hughacheson) where I talk about my bunions and onions. 

Francis Lam: What's on the Menu?

The critic focuses on the first part of the cooking process.

When I talked with Chris Cosentino about cooking last season's Top Chef Masters finale dinner, he said one part of it was easy --the menu planning. The challenge then was to cook four courses, with a theme of letters: a love letter, an apology, a thank you note, and a letter to his future self. Chris' menu came together quickly because, he said, "I know who I am." The wording of the challenge was provocative, but it was really just a way of asking the chefs to tell a story about themselves through their food. It left lots of room for personal interpretation. 

This year, the finale challenge also asked the chefs to dig into their personal lives but with more specific instruction. Asking Jen, Bryan, and Douglas to make dishes that represented their past selves, their current lives, something from a mentor, and something from a protégé was asking them to encapsulate their careers in four courses. (Only giving them a day and a half to do it meant that no one could lie on a therapist's couch to unpack their memories, which is probably a good thing.) 

I loved this challenge, and I was happy to not actually be there as a judge, but rather as a diner, as an observer, and as a fan. Without having to worry about who did “better” than the rest, I could just focus on the food and, even more, on the insight into each chef’s culinary life. Who these great chefs thought they were.   

I loved the way Douglas’s first thoughts were to his formative cooking experience, the first dish he remembers making in a restaurant, and how it became his mussel billi bi soup. I once had a version of that soup at his restaurant Cyrus in 2007. It had so much mussel flavor I can still taste it. To taste it at finale was, for me, like the past come back to life. And for him, someone now so inspired by the lightness of Japan, to reach back to the glories of a wallop of cream and brine… it felt like he was starting the meal by going back to his roots. 

I loved the way Bryan went in another direction, going to the first dish he ever cooked for his wife. I thought his dish was fantastic: the sweet subtlety of crab hovered over the grains and the egg yolk, but honestly, I also could’ve eaten the OG version of a sautéed chicken breast with crab and cream sauce. I kind of miss food with names like Chicken Chesapeake. Who will be the brave soul to bring back ye olde cruise liner food in their restaurant? But anyway, Bryan’s cooking impressed me through the whole season with its creativity and intelligence—I was shocked to realize he hadn’t actually won a challenge until the end—but it was so great to see, in the end, how grounded he feels in his emotional side as a person and as a chef. The dish was light; it felt full of possibility. You could tell his was cooking with the memory of being at the start of something, the excitement of it. 

And I loved it when Jen took the “something borrowed” part of the dinner as a chance to nod to her old mentor Wolfgang Puck, from when he was borrowing from Chinese cuisine at Chinois on Main. Her “Chinese duck with shiitake broth, eggplant, daikon, grilled bok choy, and duck wonton” was too busy, too over the top, too 1992… and just freaking awesome. Just like L.A., really. (I used to think that L.A. is stuck in the '80s and '90s, until I realized that, no, it’s just that in the '80s and '90s, the rest of the country was just trying to be like L.A.) I hadn’t had the pleasure of eating her food before Top Chef Masters, but I could see a direct line between what she was “borrowing” and her own food: it pulls flavors from a global palette—pulls them mightily, puts her back into it—to come up with thoroughly American dishes. Her cooking is so muscular, so full of umami and depth and, when she wants to use them, pungent spices. 

There were many other dishes that day: thrilling ones (Bryan’s white-on-white dessert), masterful ones (I mean, you try to wrap a piece of fish in individual noodle strands like Douglas did!), just bang-up delicious ones (Jen’s paella gnocchi. That is all.) But I most loved seeing into these chefs’ past and how they went from there to who they are today. I haven’t had a chance to talk with them yet, but I wonder which of them will say that writing the menu was easy. All three of these chefs were so good, their cooking so assured, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that from all of them.