Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

'wich One Will Go?

Tom Colicchio on the first Restaurant Wars and what makes a great sandwich.

This week's Quickfire Challenge - creating the perfect sandwich - was one near to my heart. A bit of history - after opening Craft in March of 2001, I found myself walking a groove in the pavement between the new restaurant and Gramercy Tavern, my first Flatiron eatery, around the corner. I made the trip five or six times a day, and each time would pass a generic New York City deli that offered everything from baby aspirin to exotic flowers, but not the one thing I craved - a great sandwich. Now you're thinking, 'You own a restaurant, dude; go into the kitchen and make your own damn sandwich.' Easier said than done - the kitchens at Gramercy Tavern and Craft run like their own ecosystems; disturb one area, and you throw another one out of whack. Helping myself to a cook's carefully prepped stash of ingredients - known as their 'mise-en-place' - would show disregard for the hours of hard work that went into setting it up. So I decided to open a place that offered the same great, artisan ingredients as Craft, and the same attention to detail and flavor, between two pieces of bread. My wife came up with the name 'wichCraft (she's kind of brilliant) and a sandwich shop was born. I worked closely with Sisha Ortuzar, my partner at 'wichCraft, to come up with truly great sandwiches.

We wanted them to offer a balance of flavors - salt and a hint of sweet, richness balanced with a tang of acid or astringency (think pickles). The bread had to be fresh and delicious. And the sandwiches had to be ready fast (NOT pre-made) and be easily portable. I think we accomplished this and the reaction here in New York City and elsewhere confirmed for me that loads of people crave a really great sandwich. So back to the sandwich challenge...when I offered to add the winning sandwich to the 'wichCraft menu, I wasn't taking it lightly. All of the sandwiches, with the exception of Stephen's, were pretty darn good. But the flavors on Miguel's deconstructed falafel truly sang. And I was happy to see a non-meat sandwich, something I'm always looking to add to 'wichCraft's menu. But where was the bread? Miguel...this was a sandwich challenge! I refuse, as a matter of principal, to eat a sandwich with a fork. For this reason alone Miguel didn't win, and I awarded the Quickfire to Harold's mortadella with grapes, roasted peppers and sunchoke mayo instead.

The Elimination Challenge demanded that our chefs divide into teams to create their own restaurant - from concept, to decor, to menu and service. Tiffani, on a team with Dave and Harold, immediately put her concerns out there - clearly directed towards Dave - that it was important to stay professional and not take comments personally. Needless to say, as Tiffani shot down each of his ideas, Dave took it personally. Eventually Dave was relegated to the front-of-the-house of their restaurant, American Workshop, where his caring, but hovering style, could take flight. Lee Anne and Stephen opted for a restaurant called Sabor, which celebrated Spanish cuisine - a nod towards restaurants in Spain like El Bulli, known for their groundbreaking modernism. Stephen has demonstrated his enthusiasm for El Bulli's artistic plating and conceptual use of ingredients in past challenges. But more importantly, Lee Anne has eaten in Spain - thus anchoring the team in a place of first-hand knowledge, rather than second-hand worship. Miguel demonstrated his limited culinary background - he was unfamiliar with Spanish cuisine (in his native New York City, "Spanish" food can mean generic pan-Latin - rice & beans, etc.). As a result, Miguel took a backseat to his teammates and became the team's workhorse, rather than its innovator. Not that that wasn't important. As Stephen disappeared into time-consuming and expensive flights of fancy assembling front-of-the-house details, he made himself completely unavailable to his teammates, leaving Lee Anne to shoulder the bulk of Sabor's menu with only Miguel to back her up. I found it interesting that on both teams, the women fell naturally into the leadership roles, and the men humbly followed - interesting, but not surprising. Years ago, a team of French chefs from a famous Paris restaurant came to cook in my kitchen at Gramercy Tavern. They scoffed openly at the number of women they saw there. I said nothing - I didn't need to. By the end of their tenure the French cooks respectfully acknowledged the women as peers. The women cooks I have met match any man for their work ethic and professionalism and - most importantly - always put ego aside to help one another.

At American Workshop, Harold played it safe. He never rocked the boat, nor did he put his own ideas or personal stamp on his team's work. But his superior kitchen skills helped Tiffani pull off her cherished concept of American classics. Miguel, on the other hand, was a liability to Lee Anne - making amateurish blunders like misreading the price of the fish by $10 a pound! A restaurant is a business, and regular missteps like that can derail the bottom line, swiftly bring it down. Miguel also neglected to have the fish scaled by the fishmonger (Fish Prep 101) making more work for Lee Anne, and impacting the final dish. Once guests had arrived, Stephen launched into his favorite role - teacher. While not a bad guy, Stephen seems to lack a crucial empathy gene; since he is fascinated by the esoterics of wine, he assumes everyone else should be too. In my restaurants I instruct the servers (most of whom rival Stephen in terms of knowledge) to forego teaching - unless the guest asks. At that point, the diner has signaled they're OK with it. In all things relating to service, a good host should intuit the guests' expectations, and let them lead the way. Stephen became entrenched in his teaching role and therefore couldn't help his teammates. As diners at Sabor, we found ourselves growing antsy and bored between courses. And when the dishes arrived - while some were delicious - the scales on the fish were off-putting, and detracted from the overall professionalism of the restaurant. I didn't consider Tiffani's American Workshop idea to be particularly original - American comfort food has been a mainstay of the dining scene for some time - but I liked her teams' communal tables and foray into family-style service, which I felt dovetailed nicely with the cuisine. Unfortunately, Tiffani, Harold and Dave dropped the homey concept midway through the meal, suddenly serving the chicken and desserts individually, which made no sense. That said, Dave's friendly front-of-the-house approach in the dining room trumped Stephen's pedantic style. Guests found Dave warm and caring and gave the team high marks. While I didn't necessarily agree that they were the better restaurant overall, the challenge went to American Workshop, over Sabor, due to this crucial element. This really illustrates something successful restaurateurs know - great service leaves more of a lasting impression than almost anything. So why didn't we let Stephen go over Miguel? Because love him or hate him, Stephen took initiative in creating something and followed through with conviction. Miguel, on the other hand, took a backseat to his teammates, and never pushed for a concept where he could shine.

As I said at the Judge's table - we're not awarding points for top sous-chef, which is the role Miguel played. While Harold may have done the same, he did so without making blunders that could have derailed his team. I think Miguel will go far. His effervescent personality, his deep passion for food and his real desire to make people happy should serve him well in this business. Miguel was a blast to have around -- a sweet, open-hearted guy who has achieved a lot, even without the benefit of a lofty education. When Chunk Le Funk left the building, we were all sad to see him go.