SPOILER ALERT: I am starting this blog with our final decision, because I know many will be furious that we sent Kenny home this week, instead of Alex or even Amanda. I know we will hear the argument that Kenny is clearly the better cook and stronger competitor. And I know that is probably true. The same way I know there are many great restaurants all over this country—owned or operated by skilled, creative, talented chefs—that I adore and patronize, but that at one point or another have received a poor review. Being a chef in this position is incredibly trying. Being at the mercy of a handful of people who have the power to exalt or disgrace your life’s work with a few strokes of the pen, or in our case one line on national television, is, as you can imagine one of the most nerve-racking and anxiety provoking experiences possible. But that is the way the game has always been played – on Top Chef and in the life of any chef or artist. When written with care and adequate research, a restaurant review should be an informative guide and useful tool to help readers navigate what has become an overpopulated and increasingly ambitious restaurant landscape. Remember: Reviews do not exist to please the chef or, we hope, empower a political agenda. They exist to inform the greater population. Are they loaded with subjectivity? They certainly shouldn’t be, but as even Frank Bruni, former restaurant critic AND White House correspondent for The New York Times, as well as this episode’s guest judge, will tell you: Every diner in every restaurant has a different experience and a different opinion. It is impossible as a reviewer not to question whether you assessed each restaurant as accurately as possible. But that is your job.
The same, by the way, holds true of any art form subject to criticism, be it dance, film, music or, heck, even television! We are all judged, we are all at risk of failure and we are all subject to interpretation by others, for better or worse. In fact, on Top Chefwe have the distinct advantage, as far as fairness is concerned, of having four people sharing their views and opinions, all needing to come to a unanimous decision on the fate of the chefs whose food we eat. If any one person does not agree, we debate to make sure we are all satisfied with the final result. Unlike most restaurant criticism in the “real world,” where the final pronouncement is decided by one person and one person alone, we all fight it out, weighing not only our personal palates, but also any possible subjectivity. So too do we include in that foursome a totally objective voice each week –- the guest judge –- whose purpose is to come to the table without any preconceived notion of what to expect or who will be cooking. We level the playing field in every possible way, every time we sit down to eat, to ensure our discussion is honest, our motives true. What we don’t do is take into consideration what happened before we arrived, what happens when we are not looking or what personal histories may have played into the night’s meal. We examine and taste what is placed in front of us and form a conclusion on a relative scale within the context of the dishes presented. Period.
So, why this rambling rant? Simply to say that on this particular season’s episode of Restaurant Wars, Alex certainly made some mistakes. He may have messed up butchering the lamb and scaling the fish. He may have not been able to follow through with creating and executing an entire dish. BUT! At Restaurant EVOO that evening, Alex served as a fine enough host, albeit a nervous one. The Roasted Lamb Chop with English Pea Puree, Smoked Bacon & Parmesan we were served, which we were told not just by Alex himself, but also by the rest of his team, that he prepared was cooked well and tasted of fresh, complementary flavors.
Overall, we agreed that Restaurant Twenty One 21 served us an all-around less tasty meal. Kenny, having taken on the role of executive chef for the team, took on an even more difficult part to play that fateful night. In addition to organizing his team, their menu, and expediting the entire service process in the kitchen, he insisted on cooking two dishes. As we have seen in seasons past (our long-lamented friend Tre from Season 3 comes to mind here), all the leadership skills and expertise imaginable behind that kitchen door cannot make up for bad food. Kenny’s Beet Salad with Warm Chorizo-Citrus Vinaigrette was loaded with at least three ingredients too many, so none of its components could be distinguished. His vinaigrette was overpowering in the grease department, yet underseasoned in the flavor department. Then there was his Crispy Aged Goat Cheese with Strawberry-Rhubarb Relish. I believe some elements of the dish had potential, but overall it was off-balance and clunky, to say the least. After a large steak and a substantial fish dish, the last thing we all wanted, and we suspect most diners would want, is a massive, deep-fried brick of cheese. It was served with a watery, overly tart sauce, which did not end our meal on a satisfying note.
I am sad that Kenny left us and am perfectly confident that, given another chance, he would dominate in the kitchen, like the “beast” he professes to be. But on this night, in this restaurant, the reviews were just not in his favor.