The most common mistake made by those who aspire to own their own restaurants, it seems, is to think that being a chef will be easy if you are a good cook. So many restaurants in New York, - and anywhere, for that matter - fail because the chef believes that to run a successful place all you have to do is cook food people love. The rest will follow, right? Nope.
I have witnessed many times how easily chefs and owners forget that, like any other customer-service-based establishment, a restaurant is first and foremost a moneymaking business. Serving well-prepared and tasty food is, of course, one key element, but satisfying diners requires attention to thousands of other details, which any chef/owner needs to manage meticulously to provide guests with a positive and memorable experience. Training and directing staff, managing overhead and accounting including food costs and payroll, overseeing menus, ordering ingredients, maintaining equipment, accommodating reservations, considering decor, lighting and music ... the list goes on and on. Any experienced chef will tell you that playing a pivotal role in all the minutiae is essential if you care about your final product.
Now, I understand that the infamous Top Chef "Restaurant Wars" challenge is hardly a realistic portrayal of an actual restaurant opening - which usually takes months, if not years, of planning, rehearsal and investment - but it is still extremely telling in terms of how each individual contestant's personality manifests under the stress of opening night. As you can imagine, this plethora of additional demands on our chefs makes for a significantly more difficult challenge, and gives our contestants a small taste of just how hard the balancing act can be. The New York cheftestants were no exception. They barely got it all done in time amid the clamor, forgot simple elements of service (like forks and spoons), presented undercooked food to the judges and neglected to check on their customers for absurdly long periods of time. The leaders, or Chefs, of both restaurants hardly embraced their roles, from what I could see. Leah, of the Asian-inspired Sunset Lounge, butchered her Seared Cod so poorly that everyone judged it the worst dish served all evening! Thank goodness Fabio nailed his job as Maitre D', piling on the charm to soften the blow of what appeared to be a less than subpar plate of food. It was Stefan who truly came to his team's rescue with two excellent desserts: a Lemongrass Panna Cotta and a Chocolate & Rice Parfait. I cannot remember being served a single dessert on five seasons of this show that solicited as much praise, let alone two desserts and a petit four to top it all off! I only wish I had been there to taste them.
I will admit that I too thought the food served by Restaurant Sahana, the opposing team's Middle Eastern themed space led by Chef Radhika, sounded more interesting. Although I bet anything would have tasted better than Leah's raw cod. The Curried Carrot Soup with Smoked Paprika Oil and Raita looked like a dish worth trying at home. The Snapper with White Lentils sounded rustic and appropriate, as did the Lamb Shanks. Strangely enough, this team's mistakes were the complete reverse of those made by Sunset Lounge. Where Sunset Lounge excelled at desserts and service, Sahana failed miserably. Both Carla's attempt at Frozen Yogurt and her Spiced Chocolate Cake were apparently disappointing in texture, taste and presentation. As much as she tried to send them out with love and good karma, there is no substitute for trusting your instincts, instead of just relying on the feedback of others, which was the case here. Carla should have known better, considering we have all seen her create excellent desserts in the past.
And then there was Radhika, team leader, hostess and general manager - jack-of-all trades and master of none. She was clearly out of her element in this challenge, failing to lead her team, guide the menu, direct the waitstaff, attend to the guests and control the product as it was served. From the start, she was totally uncomfortable doling out tasks and making any hard decisions, both in the kitchen and the dining room. There is no question it was her time to go. As much as I enjoyed eating her food and thought she was a sweet, smart cook, all of these duties are par for the course if you want to be a chef in the true sense of the word. In this respect, it is apparent that Radhika still has some cooking to do.