The Weakest Link

Judge Toby Young explains the difference between being the weakest link and the weakest chef in Restaurant Wars.

Who in their right mind would launch a new restaurant, particularly in today's economy? Restaurants are a bit like Broadway shows in that the failures vastly outnumber the successes and anyone investing in them is almost guaranteed to lose money. Indeed, it is such a tough business that the lifespan of a particular restaurant should be measured in dog years rather than real time: a restaurant that has stayed open for 10 years is the equivalent of any other business surviving for 70. I have to confess, if I was reviewing either Sahana or Sunset Lounge - the two restaurants cooked up by the remaining contestants in last night's episode - I wouldn't rate their chances. These days, it's not enough to offer good food and great service in the right location; you've got to be original, too. And the problem with both Sahana and Sunset Lounge is that there are hundreds of almost identical restaurants in New York City.

They both offered pan-Asian cuisine, possibly in a misguided attempt to impress Stephen Starr, this week's guest judge who owns Buddakan, Morimoto, and a dozen other modern Asian restaurants. Done well, this food can be mouth-wateringly good, but it is all too easy for the region's distinct flavors to become muddled up and watered-down and you end up with a generic mish-mash. That was true of Sahana and Sunset Lounge.

Many people watching the show last night will have thought that Leah ought to have gone and concluded that the only reason she remains is because the producers want to keep alive the romantic subplot involving her and Hosea. In fact, the producers don't try and influence the judges' decisions one way or another and the reason Leah survived is because she was lucky enough to be a member of the winning team. That was largely due to the quality of Stefan's desserts. In effect, Leah was saved from elimination by the fact that Stefan was on her team - which is ironic, considering she picked him last. Were we right to eliminate Radhika? I think so. She wasn't the weakest cook on her team - that prize would have to go to Carla, at least on this occasion - but she was the weakest link. As team leader, Radhika had to bear some responsibility for the failure of Carla's desserts -- and if you couple that with the fact that she was a very lackluster front-of-house presence, she deserved to go. With the benefit of hindsight, Radhika should have put Carla in charge of meeting and greeting - a job she would have done well - and volunteered to do the desserts herself.

After three episodes of judging Top Chef, it is clear that there is no such thing as a "safe" contestant. No matter how good a particular chef is, he or she can have an off night and that is enough to send them home. In the end, it is less about culinary skill than it is about character - about how you react under pressure. I have no doubt that Radhika is an excellent chef, but in last night's episode she dropped the ball.

For more about Toby, visit his Web site at www.tobyyoung.co.uk

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