Bravotv.com: And this week it’s finally here: Restaurant Wars! Did you have thoughts about how this group would do with the challenge?
Gail Simmons: I could be wrong, but I think we usually we do Restaurant Wars with less chefs left in the game. I feel like we’ve usually done Restaurant Wars with teams of four, and this time we had teams of five, which doesn’t mean it’s going to be an easy challenge. But it does create a little wiggle room for them to have more hands on deck. We also gave them a little more to do. We don’t always make them build the kitchen as well as the restaurant and dining room. It was a huge task. The space we put them in was completely raw. I thought both teams did a great job getting their spaces to look and feel like they’ve been there a long time, as opposed to such a last minute rush creating something that wasn’t there 24 hours before.
They both had good concepts, their ideas were fine, and the names of the restaurants were fine. They both did a good job defining what each restaurant was for us as soon as we sat down. The confusion started when service began.
Bravotv.com: Right out of the gate, watching the teams collaborate what were your thoughts? Were you concerned with the Green Team’s focus on the décor and not the menu?
GS: The moment we sat down at Found, we knew there was an issue. We ate at Fin first, and although our experience wasn’t perfect,it was pretty strong all around. The service at Fin was probably the best service we’ve ever had in Restaurant Wars. When service is good, you can let a lot of other details slide because you feel very taken care of. This is something Danny Meyer has taught me, and I was so glad that he was there to see all of the success. As I think Tom mentioned, when we were sitting in Fin, there was a buzz to the place. That buzz, that really positive energy in a restaurant, only happens when everything is going right. Customers are happy, have drinks and food in front of them at well-timed intervals. They feel that when they’re looking for someone to help or if someone has a question, there’s a waiter there to answer it. They feel coddled. We go to restaurants to be taken care of. Otherwise, I could cook my own food and do my own dishes. We felt that at Fin, regardless of the food -- I’m not even getting to the food yet -- from the minute we sat down to the minute we left, that this had a lot to do with Travis.
That said, the dance between the front-of-house and back-of-house is so integral to any restaurant experience. I wouldn’t have felt taken care of if my food wasn’t coming out and tasting great, which is really about the kitchen, the execution, and expediting the courses. That is where the chef comes in. That was really the opposite case at Found, which we discovered later.
Bravotv.com: Let’s talk about the food at Fin, starting with Brian’s Scallop Crudo, Corn, and Squash Relish with Purple Corn Gel. . .
GS: Brian’s scallop crudo was an excellent idea: purple corn, scallops, squash -- all things that go together well. The scallop crudo itself was perfectly well prepared and presented. It was just his blue corn gel. For people not familiar with gels, he created a puree and then he added an emulsifier which thickens it. Depending on the type of emulsifier or thickening agent you use, it can have different consistencies. Brian added the wrong one, essentially. He wanted to add agar agar, which is a natural seaweed-based thickening agent, but he added xanthan gum, a chemical agent which creates a different consistency. I think David Chang said it best when he referred to it as “snot like,” which was unfortunately, very accurate and articulate. It just had a sort if a goopy-ness, a stickiness, which we knew right off the bat, was not what Brian wanted to do.
GS: The shrimp that Carrie made was delicious. The chickpea puree, lemon, and shrimp had a Middle Eastern bent. She made this very intense shrimp butter with the heads and shells of the shrimp. It really was amazing. But her plate became a bit greasy from all that butter. The butter sort of pooled at the bottom of the plate, which, as I said in the episode, was great as a soaking agent for the gougeres they served at the beginning of the meal. Ultimately though, the flavors in her dish were excellent.
Stephanie’s linguine with caviar was one of my favorite dishes of the night, by far. It had oysters and cream too, which made it brin and rich. Her linguine, which was handmade and hand- cut, was an excellentchoice and made with a deft hand. You can tell she felt confident making this dish, that she either had made it before or had spent time thinking about thoroughly, because it felt very finished, very refined.
Bravotv.com: Then we move on to Nicholas who made a Roasted Black Drum.
GS: Nicholas’ black drum, oxtail and kale with a very deep, dark hibiscus reduction and king trumpet mushrooms was a really bold dish. I’ve seen similar variations of it before -- dishes that pair a meatier fish with a very rich deep red wine or meat sauce. It’s sort of unusual, but it is really stunning when you pull it off well. And he certainly did. There was this great juxtaposition between the deep earthy flavors of oxtail, kale, mushrooms, and reduction and sauce against the fish. Drum is definitely an oilier fish, which could withstand such a bold preparation and wasn’t overpowered by the other flavors.
We could tell when we were at Fin, because of how smoothly service went, even more so when we heard the chefs talking at the judges table, then reinforced a third time when I watched the episode, how well Nick expedited service. I couldn’t help notice how much control he had over the kitchen, and because he took control of the kitchen, Travis could do his job more easily too. Everything f trickled down from there. He and Travis had a great working relationship from start to finish in the evening. They communicated. Nick’s role expediter in the kitchen -- to pace the courses, to make sure they were firing each course at the exact right time so it came out just a few minutes after the last course was cleared -- is a real skill. Nicholas clearly is confident in it, and it showed. I don’t think we’ve ever had someone in Restaurant Wars expedite with such confidence and ease in all the years that we’ve been doing this challenge.
It’s the first night of service in a new restaurant, essentially. Never does the first night of service go smoothly, so we were amazed at how smoothly their service appeared. This was not just a testament to Travis, but a true testament to Nick. He trained Travis well, he communicated with Travis well, he had constant control over all the other chefs on his team. Carrie, Stephanie, and Brian were all listening to him and clearly working for him that night, which is a tricky thing to do when you know in the back of your head that this person is also competing against you. That’s always the chefs’ problem at Restaurant Wars (certainly it has been our problem many, many seasons in a row), and he conquered it.
Bravotv.com: Finally you had Travis’s Olive Oil Cake, which you didn’t think was moist, but you did find delicious.
GS: We know how well Travis did in the front of the house, how comfortable he was, how charming he was and how well he ran service. His olive oil cake was a great choice. It was a little dry. I wish that it was slightly more moist and springy. But Olive oil cake, Greek yogurt, cherries, pistachios is a great combination. It was just sweet enough. It was a really smart thing to make because he knew he could work on it all the day before and he could have someone else plate it without worrying that they would screw it up because it wasn’t very complicated. He could then just focus on the front of the house.
Bravotv.com: There were a lot of problems with the front of house at Found. What did you think was the most egregious?
GS: I think, generally, how smug and distracted Sara seemed in the process of our service was the biggest issue. I know she was working so hard and her mind was going in a million directions, but she was stiff and so focused on doing her job that she forgot about taking any joy in the process. That translated to us not getting descriptions of our food and not feeling welcomed. She dropped plates and ran away because she had 2,000 other things to do. There was no time taken to pay attention to the details. You really felt her stress. This was even more apparent as we had just come from Fin where the opposite was the case. Travis had the same stress, was serving the same amount of people, under the same demands as Sara, but you never felt it. We all felt Sara’s stress from the minute we sat down and waited for someone to pay attention to us for 20 minutes. We knew there was something wrong in the kitchen. And Sara never came over to apologize.
Another lesson Danny Meyer taught me is that you, as the restaurateur, as the person in charge of service, as the manager or as the ambassador for the front of house of a restaurant, have the ability and control to make every first and last impression on your diners. Even if service isn’t going well, even if the food isn’t good, and there are obvious problems, there are so many little things you can do that allow guests to ignore problems and enjoy the experience: an extra glass of champagne, coming to check on them, making small talk, making them feel like you are sincerely sorry for any mistakes, that you are working on the problem, that you are taking care of them. As customers, we all just want to know you care because we’re giving you our money. Regardless of what goes wrong, a server can always turn that around, with very little effort if you focus on it. Sara just didn’t do that.
Bravotv.com: Now for their dishes, what did you think of Carlos’ Red Snapper Crudo, Avocado Mousse, Pickled Baby Carrots, and Fried Platano?
GS: On paper it sounded absolutely delicious. But his red snapper was cut very inconsistently. Some pieces were thin, some pieces were thick. It felt shredded. I’m not sure if he was working with a dull knife or just working too quickly. So many tasting menus start with crudos because they require no cooking. There’s prep in advance -- his avocado mousse, the baby carrots had to be pickled, plantains had to be fried. But the actual plating of the dish when the diner sits down, should be very fast. The fish is cut quickly so it can all be put on the plate and sent out. We couldn’t figure why we waited so long for that course until we found out there was a “verbal fire.” There was actually never a ticket to start the our meal.
Bravotv.com: Then you had Justin’s Roasted Parsnip Agnolotti, Mississippi Rabbit, and Collard Greens Broth?
GS: Justin’s rabbit and agnolotti also sounded delicious on paper. There were was a strange mix of issues going on in his plate. The pasta seemed undercooked. The rabbit was tough which means it may not have been braised long enough to let it relax. It just didn’t deliver on his description . We know how well Justin can cook and we couldn’t believe this was what he wanted or envisioned for the dish.
Bravotv.com: Moving to Shirley’s Olive Oil Poached Cobia, Blanched Ong Choy, and Salsa Verde. . .
GS: Shirley’s cobia was quite good. It was poached well. She had this ong choy on the bottom, but she used a shrimp paste to season it which is very intense in flavor, very shrimpy, very salty and briny. It was a bold choice. I liked it because as the third course, with the first two courses being so mild and erratic, this was a statement. It woke me up. But we did hear from a few people that it also turned them off a bit because they weren’t prepared for just how strong that flavor was.
Bravotv.com: Then you had Nina’s Pork Tenderloin with Sunchokes and Trumpet Royale Mushrooms.
GS: Nina’s pork tenderloin was by far the best dish of the night on that team. It was excellent. It was well cooked. There weren’t really any complaints about it.
You could tell that both Shirley and Nina worked in a bubble. There was so much going on around them between Justin, Carlos, and Sara. Shirley and Nina put their heads down, worked on their dishes, focused on their own food, and got it all out. And they were both well done, Nina’s especially.
What I thought was strange that I didn’t mention earlier was that it seemed like this whole team, and this could have also been their downfall from the beginning of the challenge, never discussed the menu as a whole. They never sat down and worked on each other’s dishes or made sure everyone else on their team was OK with what they were doing. In fact, when they went out shopping, it didn’t even seem like they had a menu yet, which I find so strange. Clearly from the beginning the other team Restaurant Fin, was much more at ease in their communication, which showed all the way through the challenge.
Bravotv.com: And finally Sara’s dish, the Summer Nectarine Brown Butter Cake with Moscato Nectarine Salsa, which was sans mascarpone.
GS: She should have had some sort of backup for the broken mascarpone. It’s really too bad that she lost control of this course because she wasn’t in the kitchen. She might done something differently had she been back there to fix it. Carlos plated it and when that mascarpone broke, there were no options, there was no Plan B. Brown butter cake with summer nectarines sounded great, but it was oily and almost too simple. It didn’t have much finesse. It didn’t have a lot of refinement. I was expecting something more. I could have made a rustic dessert like that at home easily and actually made it better, unfortunately.
So, combining the failure of her dessert and her clear inability to communicate with the back of the house and with her team, taking into consideration all that went wrong during service and all the issues they had, we decided it was time for Sara to go home.
Nicholas, obviously, being the chef and executing the food for such excellent service in his restaurant was the winner.
I’m sorry about Sara. I know that she’s a great chef and I know she would have done really well overall. She has cooked us some great dishes; she has showed us that she’s clearly very talented. This is always a complicated challenge because it requires you to work as a team in a way we’ve never asked you to do before. That’s where I think the breakdown was, she took on too much and was a bit stubborn in her approach to the challenge, and that was what did her in.
There was actually so much in the episode you didn’t see. On the night in between the two days of Restaurant Wars, when they all stopped working, I actually took them all to Hansen’s and got them all Snoballs! Hansen’s is the original New Orleans snoball place. It’s around 75 years old, and is an incredible institution. I got cardamom and satsuma flavor with drizzled with condesnsed milk. Delicious!