Restaurant Woes

Tom Colicchio elaborates on Team Sunset Lounge's win, and, once again, reacts to the fan response to Ariane's elimination.

Before discussing this week's challenge, I'd like to take a moment to address Ariane's dismissal last week. The reasoning behind it is pretty clear cut (pun intended): The lamb was the worst dish of the three. It was the worst dish because of how it was butchered. Ariane butchered the meat. Ergo, Ariane was sent home. It doesn't matter that the other two sat back and allowed it. We judges didn't know that. What we knew was that Ariane chose to assume the responsibility of butchering the meat, and she ruined it. Had one of the other dishes been worse, we'd have ascertained why and dismissed the person responsible for that.

The response to last week's elimination of Ariane was mammoth; I'm sure folks will respond in similar number and fashion to the judges' decision this week. Viewers will be outraged that Sunset beat out Sahana and that Radhika was sent home. But as one of the judges, I can assure you that were you there in a judge's capacity, you would have weighed the variables before you, deliberated them all, and been comfortable with the decision that was made, tough as the call was.

Remember two things: First, a lot happens, and it cannot all be put into a one-hour episode. We experienced the two restaurants more fully than could possibly be presented on TV, and editing choices largely determine how the material is perceived by the viewer. And conversely -- and I've said this before -- we judges were not privy to what was happening behind the scenes. The drama between Leah and Hosea? We had no idea. The lack of morale in the Sunset kitchen? Invisible to us. The laudable teamwork and positivity among the Sahana chefs? Equally out of our sight. We were patrons of the two restaurants, plain and simple. Those two dining experiences, coupled with the feedback of the other patrons, shaped our decision. And don't forget that while it may have been close, the other patrons favored Sunset over Sahana. There are many factors that likely influenced the majority of the patrons. Remember that last impressions may color the overall experience: the desserts soared at Sunset and tanked at Sahana, and Fabio left each patron feeling cared for specially, while Radhika failed to even bid us farewell at the end of the evening. A restaurant is equal parts service and food. It has been shown that most people will return to a restaurant if the service is good, even if the food was merely OK. Fabio embraced his role at the front of the house; Radhika never did.

But it goes farther than that. A chef/owner of a restaurant must exhibit leadership and executive decision-making in all aspects of the restaurant from the kitchen stoves to the front door. Radhika completely turned the running of the kitchen over to Jamie, Jeff, and Carla. She did not assert her preferences while the other chefs shaped the dishes to be served in her restaurant, nor did she oversee their execution. She asked Carla if Carla wanted help when the desserts were failing, when she should have stepped in and asserted what she wanted Carla to do to remedy them. And while it might have been argued that a chef'testant in her position might have failed in the kitchen because she was so immersed in her responsibilities at the front of the house, this was not the case with Radhika, as she was not present and performing in that capacity either. Her nerves seem to have gotten the better of her, and she expended nervous energy in an unfocused way, letting down her kitchen staff and her patrons alike. As a result, while with the exception of dessert, the food may have been better at Sahana, the overall package was better at Sunset. We just felt better there. Factoring in all the variables, we all agreed that we had an overall more pleasant and pleasurable experience.

The ability to create great food is the first and most important ability a chef must have. But as I wrote in the on-air elimination challenge earlier this season, being a Top Chef requires more. That earlier challenge and Restaurant Wars this week gave our chefs an opportunity to learn about the other skill sets they need to hone to make it to and stay at the Top.

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