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Restaurant Wars

Gail Simmons on the very first Restaurant Wars.

By Gail Simmons

If I had a quarter for every time someone told me they wanted to open their own restaurant, I would be a very wealthy woman. To people outside the food industry, having your own place seems glamorous. In reality, it is probably one of the most taxing and under-appreciated careers to choose. There is so much more to running a successful eating establishment than simply being a good cook or a fabulous host. It may be fun to entertain the idea of a little bistro where you are always guaranteed the best table, service and food for your family and friends, but any owner will tell you that running a restaurant well is about so much more. It is a delicate balance between numerous factors including ingredients, cost, staffing, supply and demand, location, return on investment, trend forecasting, broken appliances, dirty dishes, clogged drains, customer service, employee management, delegation, compromise, and a whole lot of sweat.

How to Watch

Watch Top Chef Season 21 Wednesdays at 9/8c on Bravo and next day on Peacock.

So what factors go into having a great restaurant? Well, as we saw in this week's episode, a strong concept certainly helps. This is something about which our guest judge, Jeffrey Chodorow, certainly knows more than his share. Jeffrey is one of the country's most successful restaurateurs; known for the creation of China Grill, Asia de Cuba, Ono, Tuscan Steak and Mix among others. With restaurants in America opening and closing at alarming rates each year, he has seen more than a few concepts come and go. As Jeffrey pointed out during our dinners at Sabor and American Workshop, it is not enough to just want to serve "American Classic" or "Modern Spanish" flavors. A solid restaurant concept must be developed in its entirety, with every detail carefully thought through to execution.

I cannot stress enough how impressed I was that our six remaining contestants completed this task as well as they did - and with minimal bloodshed to boot! The challenge was behemoth: create an entire restaurant, down to every last detail and serve dinner for up to twenty people in it, all in less than 24 hours! I, for one, was more than a little skeptical.

Over the years, I have eaten in many restaurants on opening night, something I try hard to avoid as the first few weeks of any restaurant's life is inevitably about working out the kinks. I can proudly say that my meals at both Sabor and American Workshop were far superior to many I have had. But that is not to say that either was perfect.

Let's start with Sabor. From the beginning, Miguel was totally upstaged by Stephen and Lee Anne. Sure, he worked hard behind the scenes, but the fact that he knew nothing about Spanish food, and let them run with it to the extent that they did, was a telltale sign he would not be able to play a role in any of the decisions. This was the second time he has put himself in a backseat position. Remember his issues with Andrea in the street food challenge?

Stephen pulled what I now often refer to as, well, a "Stephen." He envisioned himself the perpetual educator, went completely overboard with his ideas without running them by his teammates, and in the end spent most of his time listening to the sound of his own voice -- not the sound of Lee Anne's frustration as her food got cold behind the scenes. Lee Anne was no angel either. She fashioned herself the leader, chose an extremely ambitious menu for their timeframe and budget, then at Judges' Table readily admitted that she was not comfortable working with the people on her team. To be fair, their food and overall concept was actually quite strong and we all enjoyed the meal (minus a few fish scales and lukewarm tapas). They lost due to lack of teamwork, which pointed to an even greater lack of planning. And lovable, passionate, hardworking Miguel packed his knives because he did not show leadership at the time when it mattered most.

Meanwhile, American Workshop had an entirely different feel. The best part being that they stayed true to their word and roasted one of the tastiest chickens I had eaten to date They also turned out an exceptional (if unoriginal) autumn fruit crisp. Their dishes may not have been creatively ground-breaking, but they had a solid understanding of what they would be able to handle under the circumstances and executed it well. Harold and Tiffani worked cohesively, sharing the pressure and responsibility behind the stoves. As Jeffrey suggested, the only part of their concept that fell short was the tuna tartare appetizer. We all agreed that it did not reflect their vision of American Classics, nor did it work as a dish to be served family-style, when nothing else was served this way. Again, following through with your concept from start to finish is paramount.

Inevitably, so much of what we film for each episode ends up on the cutting room floor. What you did not see to its full extent was just how brightly Dave shone that night! I am still not quite sure exactly what happened in that tiny dining room, but gone was the nervous, weepy, frazzled guy we had come to expect. Replacing him was an articulate, confident and knowledgeable Maitre D' who worked the room like a seasoned pro! He knew every ingredient, remembered every guest's request, never left a glass half empty and didn't stop smiling until the last customer went home. Miraculously, even at the Judges' Table, where he has been known to break down at the mere mention of his name, he stood up for himself with every ounce of strength he had in him. For me, "I'm not your bitch, Bitch!" will forever be synonymous with the voice of the underdog. I swear the crew was so astounded they almost had t-shirts made in his honor! I cannot wait to hear the scoop on Dave's trip to Cannes with Jeffrey and his team. Related link: Food & Wines' feature on great restaurants

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