Tonight's Elimination Challenge was one I can relate to -- the Chefs were asked to come up with a restaurant concept and menu, and then help "create" the restaurant in the raw construction space of a soon-to-be-built Shopping Center, serving dinner to about two dozen guests. Our six remaining contestants were divided into two groups of three, with Sam and Marcel getting to choose their teammates as a reward for having aced the Quickfire Snack Challenge.
Now, while I say I can relate to the challenge, let me clarify -- in the last fifteen years I have opened six restaurants and a slew of sandwich shops, but obviously I have never been given only 24 hours, and a single design professional and server to pull this off. The demands posed by the challenge meant that the Chefs had considerably less time and resources at their disposal than even the most modest "real world" opening. Typically when I open a restaurant I spend months mulling the concept and the menu. Many more months and many highly skilled and talented people are involved in the design and construction. So before you hit me with the angry emails, know that I am well aware that this was a unique and daunting task.
But here's some things that the Chefs didn't have to do in those 24 hours: Design a full menu with multiple appetizers, main courses, side dishes, desserts and seasonal specials (they were asked to create one appetizer, one entree, and one dessert).
They weren't asked to work closely with an architect on design and lighting and to choose beautiful but affordable building materials or shepherd the construction along, sticking closely to a budget and managing costs at each turn. They were spared the task of raising capital, the skittish eye of investors and the reams of paperwork -- permits and licenses -- opening a restaurant demands. They didn't have to design a kitchen that promoted efficiency and communication while cleaving to exacting standards of safety and ventilation. They didn't have to navigate the unions and health codes, or hire cooks and teach them to execute food exactly as they would. They didn't have to interview dozens of front-of-the-house staff and train them for weeks to convey the type of hospitality that seems effortless but requires hard work and deep commitment to getting it right. They didn't have to develop relationships with farmers, fishermen and producers to get artisan ingredients that are only obtainable in small quantities. They didn't have to work out the timing of dozens of dishes and then plot out the nightly choreography that allows a table with a well-done order of beef to touch down at the same instant as a rare tuna, to repeat a variation of that ballet for dozens of other diners, to pair wines perfectly to each, and make sure guests feel nurtured, not intruded upon. They didn't have to design menus and stationary and matchbooks that elegantly convey the restaurant's mission, design computerized ordering systems, or manage the press that inevitably accompanies the opening of a restaurant.
And they didn't have to do it from dawn -- when the first farmer's truck rolls up and stocks must be started -- until the last guest leaves late at night, and all over again every day of the week.
So yes, our chefs were given a very stringent 24 hours to nail this restaurant challenge and yes, that's hard. But in that 24 hours what they really had to do was create a concept, plan a three-course meal that illustrated that concept, purchase the raw materials and accoutrements to successfully execute that concept and work with a designer and a waiter to carry the concept through in the appearance and "feel" of the service. That, and cook the food.
In my opinion, the most important thing they were being asked to do was to express something personal and evocative of the chef and restaurateur they hope to be. A sketch, if you will, of the oil painting to come. And even though it was just a sketch, it had to have good lines and clear promise of the talent and vision they would ultimately deliver if given a chance. Do I think they did this? Sadly, no.
I was truly disappointed to see that none of the chefs stepped up with a deeply personal vision of their food, and the environment that could showcase them to the judges and to the world. We're down to only six chefs, and its safe to say that each of the six hopes to win and use the victory as a stepping stone for their own culinary career. Here, at last, they were given a chance to show who they were. If even one of the three on each team had done this, and the other two had provided support, it would have been a revealing window into the soul of these chefs and a chance to see who led and who followed.
But for reasons I can't even fathom, Lalalina, Sam, Ilan and Michael's "rustic Italian" restaurant and Marcel, Elia and Cliff's M.E.C. Diner seemed like theme restaurants -- each representing an idea devoid of the personal connection that a real chef needs to bring to his work to make it unique. And on top of this, neither one was done particularly well.
I could go on and on about the disappointments -- the uncooked barbecue chicken wing, the dispiritingly meatloaf-esque burger, the misguided and distasteful watermelon and cheese gnocchi. The pit-without-a-plate, the missing wine, the morose and awkward service. But I won't. You've seen the episode, and I won't force you to relive it here. But I won't pretend I didn't hope for better. Some cool ideas, a bit of vision, a soup of soul. Didn't happen.
I continue to be amazed and heartened by the hundreds of insightful viewer comments that pour in each week after this blog is posted. I genuinely try to read them and wish I had the time to respond to each with the same care and thought that went into their writing. To compensate for the lack of interesting analysis in my blog tonight, I'd like to offer readers a chance to post their questions about the show or tonight's episode and I will choose ten to answer in upcoming days. Hopefully in this way I can show my appreciation for your continuing interest and enthusiasm for the show and the remaining chefs -- even on the nights when their imaginations were sorely lacking.