From a cook's point of view, these may be two of the best episodes one could possibly partake in! Not only did the cheftestants get the honor of cooking for the appropriately chosen, very talented, and well-renowned chef/restaurateur Daniel Boulud but also the very knowledgeable and successful chef Geoffrey Zakarian. They were given the opportunity to express themselves through their food by creating their very own burger and also to showcase their skills in the Mise en Place Relay Race.
Not to mention that in these episodes they were also bestowed the very challenging undertaking of designing and executing their teams' very own restaurants, from front to back in both a soft and hard opening. These challenges are a very good test of what it takes to be a chef and have given us a bird's eye view of who has it and who doesn't. I might as well add that the only person that didn't receive a single negative comment in regards to their performance in any way was Hung. Every other contestant in some way, shape, or form, was caught by the judges' radar.
In the burger Quickfire Challenge, the cooks were given a few Red Robin menus to look over and some very insightful advice from Chef Boulud -- obviously the latter being the true source of inspiration. During the challenge the chefs were definitely frantic, and totally stressed to try and impress this chef with their signature burgers. Sara's burger was served "protein style" (AKA no bun) which she claimed to make it healthier. First off, I would like to address the misconception that eliminating complex carbohydrates from one's diet is a healthy choice. This couldn't be farther from the truth -- starches are one of the healthiest sources of energy for one's body and the only reason to minimalize their consumption is if you are a low activity person.
Hung's shrimp burger looked and sounded delicious, with its contrasting textures, well-balanced flavors, and its solid execution. It was obviously one of the more adventurous but well thought out burgers that had surely left a good impression on Chef Daniel Boulud. After Chef Daniel's deliberation and judgment, he awarded CJ his first Quickfire win. I will say his burger definitely looked like one that I would be more than happy to sink my teeth into. It was also nice to see him utilize a moderately refined technique by poaching his burger inside of the ring mold so as to retain a uniform shape. So, congratulations to him, but also to all of the other chefs, such as Hung and Dale, that really seemed to impress Chef Daniel with their elbow-dripping, mouth-watering, and vastly diverse, tasty-looking burgers.
Before I go any further I would just like to say that Howie's burger was a little bit too much like the DB burger for me. Some say that imitation can be one of the highest forms of flattery, but I think it just shows a lack of creativity. Which is the perfect segue for a particular topic of discussion that I would like to address: Repetition and lack of creativity have become abundantly prevalent in several of the chefs' cooking capabilities. I'm not saying that you have to reinvent the wheel with every dish, but one should definitely use the diverse challenges as a platform to showcase the vast spectrum of their culinary repertoire. For example, how many times has Howie made risotto now? How many times did Tre decide to use beef tenderloin (which for me could quite possibly be the most mundane and least challenging proteins of all time to work with, not to mention eat)? Not to mention Tre has made the apple tarte twice now, and then even used apples a third time in his bread pudding! I think that Tre is an extremely talented chef and it's painstaking for me to see someone of his caliber and potential constantly fall back into a comfort zone, and use the same products and techniques over and over again.
Lastly, what is with all of the seafood mousselines? Brian even stated that he was going to make the exact same seafood sausage he had previously made in another challenge! Or what about the repulsive fact that he has done that watermelon oyster thing, without success, twice now. So you see, this lack of creativity and constant repetition just kills me. The creative aspect of cooking is one of the most fulfilling outlets cooking can provide for a chef. Therefore, watching the same monotonous food getting made over and over again is really starting to annoy me. Now that I got that off my chest, I can get back to the rest of what I wanted to discuss:
The Mise en Place Relay was a fantastic idea for a Quickfire Challenge, and I hope to see it again in future seasons. All of those tasks are part of the daily routine in almost every kitchen, and as a chef you damn well better be able to execute each one of them in a timely fashion with impeccable skills. I'm sorry to say it, but if you can't mince an onion (a basic skill required by even a prep cook), there's a pretty good chance that I'm going to have a really hard time taking orders from you in a kitchen. On the other hand, if you can break down five chickens faster than me, there's a good possibility I will follow you into the deepest of weeds -- or should I say the Vietnam jungle.
Without further ado, I would like to address the main event -- Restaurant Wars! This challenge really gave the contestants an opportunity to show the judges and the public why they deserve the title of Top Chef or, adversely, why they should be packing their knives and heading home. Having been a part of five separate restaurant openings in my culinary career, I am relatively familiar with a lot of the trials and tribulations one comes across when taking on the huge undertaking (pun intended) of opening up a restaurant. In this particular situation, the chefs have it pretty good. They were given an ample amount of money for food and decor and didn't have to even worry about some of the biggest challenges of opening a restaurant such as labor, promotion, putting asses in the seats, etc. They didn't have to consider things like "Does my concept coincide with my location?", "What is the demographic of the neighborhood?", or "What other restaurants already exist in the area"?, or any of the many other facets that need to be taken into consideration when opening a restaurant. All they needed to do was agree on the name, concept, decor, food, beverage, and execution.
During the soft opening, there were several unforgivable mistakes in almost every aspect of each restaurant. In order to prevent writing anything longer than a short novel, I am just going to touch on some of the things that really got under my skin. First off, I think $2,500 is a decent amount of money for decor, and you would think sending Hung and Dale would be a good choice for interior design, but apparently not. As soon as scented candles were even considered I began to cringe. Now don't get me wrong, I am all for the synergy of incorporating other senses, such as smell, into one's dining experience, but it needs to be well thought out, paired harmoniously with the food, and lastly a well-ventilated room. Vanilla scented candles? Get a clue, guys! You might as well have had Mr. Green gag me with a candlestick holder in The Garage.
Speaking of service, there is nothing more discomforting and unappetizing than having your meal served by a sweaty, flabbergasted, and very distraught general manager. Between Brian's tableside service of salt vapor and the mushroom risotto's dosage of Fleur de Howie, I would be amazed if anything was under-seasoned that night. Bravo should have done a poll of "Who sweats in the food more?" for this one. My last note on service is that Dale totally redeemed himself after the candle fiasco with his ability to be very charismatic and pleasant in the dining room, while aggressively keeping his servers in line behind the scenes. For those of you who have never held a service position, that is exactly how it's done in a lot of places. I also like the way he called out Stephen, whom I have no doubt was a huge asset to their team, but was also verging on becoming the notoriously overbearing and pretentious sommelier that everyone can be annoyed by.
Now that I got that out of the way, it's on to critiquing the restaurants' food. The cleaver-wielding, geoduck-shucking, pie-saving, chicken-deboning, Vietnamese firecracker Hung was the only one who consistently turned out flawless food and never once received negative criticism in both RW challenges, so I tip my toque to him and say, "Bravo, mon ami." Sara proved that she can be very assertive, has high standards, and is not afraid to send food back or have it done over if it doesn't meet her approval, which are very good qualities in a chef, and for that I give her a lot of respect. I think that Howie needs to reevaluate his skill level and check his ego at the door. Several times now, he has reassured his co-chefs and the judges that he knows exactly what he is doing, but then makes several amateur mistakes. Not to mention the fact that I couldn't help but notice no one wants to work with him, his people skills seem to be sub par, and he's constantly throwing temper tantrums and placing blame. I know what you're saying, that's the pot calling the kettle black, and that's fine. Say it -- I don't mind. It's all water off a duck's back to me.
As for Restaurant April, I'm not sure what happened to the intensity they had in the soft opening, and why they didn't use their Get Out of Jail Free card more wisely. Let's start with CJ -- he just seemed like he wasn't in it to win it. I mean he made one dish, a salad, and apparently it wasn't very good and over-seasoned. I also don't like the way he purposefully passed the executive chef position to Tre when he had a golden opportunity to take the bull by the horns and knock this one out of the park. I think maybe this is his first rodeo and he got scared when he realized he bypassed amateur and went straight to the major leagues.
What can I say about Tre other than I too thought he would at least make it to the finale. Even though he busted out three dishes when the rest of his team was lucky to pull one off, two of the three were not well received at all. So unfortunately, as much as I would like to protest this decision, I'm going to have to assume it was warranted, especially after seeing the judges' reactions after tasting his food. Lastly, I am also sad to see Tre go because without him, I don't know who is going to give Hung a run for his money.