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Restaurant Woes

If Tom Colicchio knew then what he knows now...

By Tom Colicchio

I know what you’re thinking, and I know how you’re feeling, and all I can say is that having now watched the episode and seen everything that went on behind the scenes, I share your frustration. I really do. 

How to Watch

Catch up on Top Chef on Peacock or the Bravo App.

I am going to remind you right off the bat: we judges are not privy to what happens when we’re not there. I usually take a walk-through the kitchen at some point and schmooze with the chefs (though I don’t for Restaurant Wars), but that walk-through doesn’t afford me insider knowledge. It’s really more for the chefs; it’s a chance to help steer them to make their dishes the best they can be. After that, we judges arrive in time to taste the dishes, confer with the chefs and each other, and make our determinations based on what we’ve ascertained from tasting the food and asking the chefs some questions. That’s it. I later learn what you learn the same way you do -- by watching the episode once it’s been completed.

 So here’s what we judges knew: 

· The Bouillabaisse was deeply flawed: the scallops were undercooked and the halibut was overcooked, for starters.  

· Our biggest problem with the dish, though, was that the sauce, which Josie made, was delicious, but there was not enough of it on the dish.

· Kristen plated the dish and determined how much sauce should be added.  

· Josie never stepped up to suggest that Kristen put more, ostensibly because she was deferring to Kristen, because it was Kristen’s concept.

· The gelatin was supposed to go into the dish, but Kristen decided not to use it because there wasn’t enough time; she subbed cream instead.  

· At the end of the day, Kristen, by her own assertion, was the one who approved all of the dishes going out.

Given those facts, we were faced with no choice but to send Kristen home.Here’s what I learned from watching the episode:

· Josie continuously dropped the ball.  

· She was insubordinate: She was asked to make the sauce the day before and didn’t.  

· She then assured Kristen it would be done in the first hour the following day but failed to follow through on that promise.  

· She procrastinated, pushing the dish later and later, so that there wasn’t enough time to execute it properly, nor was there time to fix the mistakes.

It’s bad enough not to do what you’re asked to do, but it’s a whole lot worse to say you’re going to do it and only afterwards reveal that you didn’t… time and again. Had we managed to discover this at Judges’ Table, the outcome of the challenge would have been different, but Kristen wouldn’t divulge it, insisting that the buck stopped with her. I wish I’d asked one more question: “If this were truly your restaurant and Josie were one of your chefs, would you have fired her?” I believe that Kristen would’ve had to have said “yes.” But, to quote Kristen herself, hindsight’s a bitch. I didn’t know to ask that question, 1) given that Kristen was determined not to reveal what Josie had done, and, 2) as a result, given the information we had and how it (mis)shaped our sense of what had happened in the kitchen.

There were other problems that contributed to Atelier Kwan's loss. As you could see, Atelier Kwan’s whole set-up for service was a mess, though, again, that was because they were still dealing with prep when service began. But that’s not entirely Josie’s fault. The dishes, as Kristen herself pointed out in her exit interview, were complex and difficult to produce in their restaurant. A dish with six or seven components on a plate is not going to work. The art in being a chef isn’t in creating the dishes, it’s in then taking them and putting them into a system that will work so that you can then produce each dish writ large. As with composers who have written musical compositions that are too hard for performers to play, it’s not a great restaurant dish if you can’t pull it off in a restaurant.  

Urbano’s cooking and expediting, on the other hand, was smooth and organized, despite that restaurant team’s having one member fewer than Atelier Kwan's team had.  Urbano had none of the chaos that Atelier Kwan experienced. And with Stefan in the front of the house, that meant there were only two chefs in the kitchen making it happen, which was truly impressive. While Stefan’s service left Danny Meyer telling him not to quit his day job, no one was left waiting for food.

And the food at Urbano was great. In all the fury over the Kristen-Josie issue, let’s not forget that Sheldon did an amazing job. His concept was terrific -- I think he’s really on to something. He put together a great restaurant, and every dish was a very good, strong dish. The flavors in each dish were harmonious, and the meal worked beautifully and harmoniously as a whole as well. On a nice note, Restaurant Wars was the perfect challenge for Danny Meyer to join us for, and I’m so glad he came out to Seattle for it. I was partners with Danny for nearly 10 years, and it was great to have him there and to get to take a little stroll down memory lane with him.

However you might feel about Josie and/or Kristen and/or the outcome of this challenge, I have two more things to say.  First of all, I’ve had tweets for weeks now asking why Josie’s still here. Some even cite that she served raw turkey in one episode and demand to know why she wasn’t sent home. She had IMMUNITY. That’s the point of immunity. When you win it, you can’t be sent home in that Elimination Challenge, even if your dish is the worst dish of the challenge. This is a competition. The results are not cumulative; each challenge is judged based on what we are presented (both at the meal and at Judges’ Table) in that challenge alone. The week that Josie served raw turkey, she had immunity.  This week, Kristen refused to fill us in on Josie’s insubordination… as, of course, did Josie herself. It’s frustrating to know that Kristen fell on her sword, but she did… which leads to my second point. Kristen’s assumption of responsibility and refusal to set the record straight when she could have shows a lot of character. It shows, further, that she truly understands what it means to run a restaurant kitchen and be responsible for every plate that leaves it. I commend her for that.

And, well, there’s always Last Chance Kitchen…


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