I am often asked if I would ever open my own restaurant, given the experiences I have accumulated working in and around the restaurant/food industry. My answer, for better or worse, is no. I would certainly consult or invest in one if the right opportunity should arise, and I still get excited at the thought of being in the heat of dinner service, but having seen so many labors of love struggle to open and many of them close, it is just too heartbreaking to imagine doing myself. I have complete and utter respect for anyone who manages to open and maintain a successful restaurant. Discovering the magic of how great restaurants achieve this goal is what drew me to work in this field, but these days I imagine myself more of an ardent observer than an active participant. I am grateful that my job allows me to contribute to the industry on a broader level.
Considering the lack of resources our chefs were given for this Challenge, I actually believe they did a decent job in many respects. The food was basically edible, save for one chicken wing and some watermelon soaked in cream and blue cheese, they somehow all made it through service and managed to feed a large group of people without a major revolt, and along the way there were even a few highlights we all applauded. The Lalalina Meatball and the M.E.C. Tempura Vegetables with Cornichon Aioli come to mind.
Opening a functional restaurant in less than 24 hours, in a completely raw space, on an incredibly limited budget is no easy task and we, the judges, all realize that. We did not expect every detail to be perfect. We did expect there to be a plan in place, preferably one in which every contestant plays a role and the parameters are followed through from concept to execution.
I know it appeared as though we were exceptionally hard on the last six chefs this week, but after ten Elimination Challenges, they continued to make a few fundamental mistakes time and again. As I said in my last blog, we are down to final moments that determine who will be Top Chef. There is no room in the competition for bad food at this point. What there was room for from both teams in this challenge was better service.
I understand that being a chef behind the kitchen door does not always require serious people skills, but if our contestants have goals of one day being restaurant owners, they will not last long without a solid grasp of social graces. And let me assure you that the mega-chefs of our time, people like Wolfgang, Emeril, Bobby and Mario, did not get to where they are now on their cooking skills alone. They have charisma and they certainly know how to smile. Sure, our contestants are all lovely people one-on-one, but neither team chose front men with any visible experience in this area. Or perhaps they were just too busy to handle the job.
Which brings me to Michael and his role in the evening's events. After reflecting on the whole experience, it occurred to me that in the Restaurant Wars Challenge of Season 1, we eliminated Miguel as we realized that, although he had some skill and an engaging personality, he was being carried by his team mates and not taking any initiative.
He was a good line cook, but not yet a chef. We decided to eliminate Michael this week for the same reasons. We no longer doubted his passion or his basic ability, after all he did set a record by winning both the Quickfire and the Elimination round in the same episode, but when placed in a team environment Michael did not attempt any kind of leadership role or show resourcefulness at all. This was apparent in both his purchasing of equipment (over $100 leftover in his budget and no bread plates or bowl for olive pits! No wine glasses! No wine!), as well as how he worked under Sam in the kitchen.
None of us could be sure what, if anything, he actually contributed to the meal. He was at times infuriating but always fun to see on set, cheerful and positive. Maybe he should have been doing the serving at Lalalina that night? At least then we would have laughed a little. I wish Michael the best but am confident that it was his time to go.