Decisions, Decisions

Miami chef and restauranteur Barton G. weighs in on Top Chef.


When I'm wrong, I'm wrong. So much for my prediction about Tre being one of the last chefs standing. It was a prediction I stood by last week despite his flustered performance during Restaurant Wars I. I put it down to having a bad night, thinking Tre would settle into his executive chef role for Restaurant April with the authoritative elan he normally exudes. Settle he did, right into elimination by being too relaxed about what was going on in his kitchen and even more importantly about what was going out of it. Given the brouhaha over smoked potatoes, the one big lesson from Restaurant April's preview for Tre should have been "don't send a dish out you know isn't right." He admitted the pesto was too strong on the salmon, and yet out it went to engender some of the strongest criticism from any set of judges since I've been watching. And it didn't seem as if he were involved in CJ's and Casey's efforts. Perhaps their dishes would have faired better with the judges had they had the benefit of more direction from Tre.

His self-described "relaxed" attitude was in such contrast to Sara, who was in tune with and in charge of her teammates' work. When she knew Howie's lamb chops were bordering on raw -- a condition that no amount of resting was going to improve upon -- she made him do them again. That's what an executive chef needs to do -- take responsibility for everything that goes out of the kitchen. Actually Sara was a revelation in this show, from her skillful slicing and dicing during the Quickfire to her commanding presence in Quatre's kitchen. For the first time she is looking like a contender, an astute leader to her band of "Bad News Bears," all of whom impressively stepped up to the plate to make Quatre the Restaurant Wars winner. They listened to what the judges and Andrea Strong had to say about Garage; they processed the criticism and acted upon with an energetic, infectious decisiveness. While Restaurant April's seemingly Dream Team did not take what they heard about their preview performance to heart for the hard opening. Yes, they made adjustments based on the critiques they had been given, but it was a piecemeal approach, not cohesive.

That was what was so striking about Quatre as the reinvented Garage -- its new organically integrated decor-to-food concept executed by a team that few would have ever believed could have functioned in such a focused, cohesive fashion. At some points I wondered, "Who are these people?" Hung was (nearly) mellow and Howie more malleable bear cub than stubborn "bulldog." Meanwhile Dale seems to be exercising a charm and leadership offensive. He's growing on me the way Tre did, which brings me back to Tre. I understand the judges' decision in the context in which it was made. For them, it came down to the food and who had to be held accountable for it. When they anointed Sara the challenge's winner, they almost had to send Tre home. He was Sara's counterpart on the losing team, the one ultimately responsible for Restaurant April's less than stellar cuisine.

But make no mistake, I remain convinced Tre has the makings of a top chef. Tom, in his welcome return to this site, noted he considers Tre's elimination a case of "the best chef doesn't always win." I agree. We haven't heard the last of Tre So where do I stand now on predictions for the final three? I'm hanging in with Hung, and my eye is now on Dale, but, having been burned by my early choice of Tre, I'm going to stop short of making a definitive declaration.

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