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Like We Could Leave Restaurant Wars Out Of The Picture

Lee Anne Wong dishes about the popular episode.

By Lee Anne Wong

Like we could leave Restaurant Wars out of the picture ... please. I scouted out Lou Mitchell's with production several weeks beforehand. This meant Shauna and company threw me behind the line for two hours on the egg station to see how I fared. The trickiest part was not the fact that there was only one burner to fry the eggs as the griddle was mostly taken up by hash browns and bacon and sausage, but the fact that they used small eggs and a whole lot of diner lingo. One egg meant crack two eggs, and two eggs meant you had to cook four eggs. The trick was making sure there was a stockpile of cracked eggs in the bowl next to the stove. But I did very well (OF COURSE I DID - ha!) and we knew throwing our chefs in the hole on a busy weekend brunch morning would make for a challenging Quickfire.

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If you live in Chicago, then you know all about those dastardly donut holes they hand out when you walk in the door at Lou Mitchell's. They run around with an entire basket of them, like Little Red Riding Hood. Cakey, a little crunchy on the outside, and drenched in powdered sugar, I could seriously devour an entire basket and got into giving whoever was carrying the basket a dirty look if they headed in my direction (which was usually Helene). Our contestants all took turns on the line. Each was given 20 minutes in the hole and in the end Antonia and Dale fared the best (I think Antonia made in for 11 minutes, Dale for 9). I was literally standing off camera watching them cook. The toughest part is keeping track of the orders and getting them out in such a small space. As you can see with Richard, it's not often easy for a cook to get the body movement down in a strange space right away. In this case, they could literally only turn around in a circle, so it was awkward for some of them to get their bearings.

I was glad we got to execute this challenge. The contestants had been looking forward to Restaurant Wars for the entire season, and I'll be honest, it's a damn good challenge that has grown in both scope and budget since Season One. Who better to judge than Jose Andres, who has opened up a slew of restaurants in DC and Spain. As one of the world's foremost Spanish chefs, he is a leader in concepts for both food and restaurant, with successes of his own that include the popular tapas menu at Jaleo to the intellectual dining opera that is Minibar.

Antonia made a smart decision by choosing Stephanie and Richard. In my opinion, the three of them are clearly a bit more level-headed than the others. Their idea for a gastropub was a smart one: underpromise, overdeliver. That's what we like to say in the restaurant industry, and it's a formula that never gets stale. They went with a simple and familiar menu, adding their own special twists such as the ras al hanout for the beets and the sausage and horseradish cream for the linguine and clams. It would ensure that the diners could feel comfortable ordering the dishes and then be pleasantly surprised with the dish that was actually presented to them. And at the end of the day, Antonia and Richard executed the dishes flawlessly, while Stephanie vigilantly took care of the customers. The decor for their space was low-key and understated, which allowed for the food and service to shine.

While I knew Dale, Lisa, and Spike would go with an aggressive Asian theme, I'm not sure you could pay me to be on a team with the three of them. You could sense the tension and unstable energy, and quite frankly, there's not enough air in the room to sustain all of their egos at the same time. Not to say that they are not talented, because they are. They just all seem a little conniving, contrary, and condescending to each other once in interview. There's no "I" in team, except for with these three. Spike actually lucked out and skated by, by taking on the front of the house role (the suit was a nice touch, but he's no Stephen Asprinio). We provide wait staff for each team and one of the things that I am always looking out for is how the chefs address and manage their wait staff. As you can see, Dale doesn't handle stress so well and took to calling his staff names and cursing at them (could you imagine being one of them?). At Judges' Table, it became a blame game between Lisa and Dale, both being equally at fault for the team's failures. The laksa tasted like you were chewing on burnt wood. The butterscotch miso glaze was cloyingly sweet.

The only real successes were the short ribs and the dumplings. Many would argue that Lisa should've gone home for both of her dishes being bad. The fact that Dale refused to take responsibility as the Executive Chef, the role he so eagerly deemed himself, and for Lisa's mistakes, got him sent home. There have been cases in the past where the Exec can take responsibility and still send their sous-chef home (Season One and Season Two ring a bell?). Deliberation is the last chance you have to state your case, and if you can do it diplomatically, or at least intelligently, you may be able to save yourself. I think Dale was overconfident and in denial that he could be at fault for any of his team's shortcomings.

Competition is a strange thing, because Dale is one of the nicest, happy-go-lucky guys I've ever met ... off-camera. Wildly talented, and certainly passionate, I have no doubt his emotional goodbye should let you all know he's a little soft on the inside and just how much the competition meant to him. He should just be thankful he never let the dam break, like Joey. His reputation as a tough guy would be ruined.

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