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Clambs, Lamb, and a Traffic Jam

Laurine's dismissal was a simple math problem.

By Tom Colicchio

The top of this week’s episode saw eight cheftestants still standing, and I think they suddenly realized that it has become Do or Die. And as we saw, this seemed to have rattled a fair number of them.

… but I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the Quickfire Challenge. It’s interesting that both Kevin and Michael asserted that it was a ridiculous challenge. I think it was a fun play on a process that does happen in more creative kitchens … theirs surely included. One person says, “How about doing ‘X’?” and another says, “Oh, yeah – I have some heirloom tomatoes that would go well with that…” and another says, “…which makes me think we could then do ‘Y.’” In my kitchens, a chef will say, “I want to do ‘X,’” and I’ll say, “Cool, but let’s take that and go in this direction…” And so we do collaborate and co-create dishes. Just minus the blindfolds, i.e., during the planning stage, not, as here, during the execution stage. I thought it was a very interesting exercise, one that called into play a great many of the chefs’ skills, as they had to be able to assess the state of a dish-in-process, and move it towards completion in a way that set up the next teammate. Eli’s approach was very smart: he put the most general mise en place together and prepped without committing to any one thing. Jennifer, on the other hand, made some big decisions, putting sauce down and saying, “This is going to be the flavor of the dish,” a good choice for her given her skill with sauces. Everyone did well with the challenge, Kevin and Michael included, despite their initial skepticism. 

It’s at Restaurant Wars that it all began to go south for some….

I think we can all agree that in REVolt, we’ve never had a better restaurant with a worse name.  We’re glad it didn’t deliver on its name’s connotations. As for Mission, however, unfortunately it didn’t either.

For the second time in this one episode, Kevin said something that I have to challenge: He said that it was ridiculous to have three hours in which to open a restaurant. Well, yeah, that would be ridiculous, if that were what was being asked of the chefs  -- I’m not challenging that assertion – but is it ridiculous to do a three-course menu for fifty people and have it prepped in three-and-a-half hours? No. It’s a lot of work, but it’s not that crazy, as Kevin was suggesting.  As I wrote above, I think being at this slightly-more-than-half-way point in the competition had folks a bit fazed.

One thing the episode showed us was that the leadership of the two teams was very different.  Michael V. was very assertive: taking his leadership role very seriously, he had his hand in everything. He wasn’t being obnoxious when he asked Bryan whether his chocolate dish would be too grainy; rather, Mike wanted to be sure it would be done well for the sake of their restaurant. And when he felt that Robin was deviating from the plan they’d already devised and that he’d signed off on, he stepped in to fix the situation. He was firm, albeit respectful, and he expected respectful behavior from everyone else, so he wasn’t going to permit what she was dishing out, literally and behaviorally. And he led by example, working very hard and expecting the same from his team in that regard as well.

Jen’s style, on the other hand, was more laid-back than it had been at the military base earlier in the season. I think this was because of two major flaws in her team’s planning, two flaws that ultimately led to their defeat: First of all, they opted not to do a dessert. Aside from the fact that it felt like an omission on the menu and left guests wishing they’d had a dessert, it also meant that the team had more savory dishes to prepare, which put more of a burden on the entire team. And second, whereas Michael and Bryan worked on all four of the primary dishes together, plating them, etc., Team Mission decided that Jen would be responsible for the two fish dishes and Kevin would tackle the two meat dishes. Since both fish dishes hit the table at the same time followed by both meat dishes, this meant that first Jen was scrambling to do both of her fish dishes at the same time, which she could not do successfully, and then Kevin followed suit and struggled with the lamb. And as a result, Jen was unavailable to lead as effectively as I believe she otherwise would have.

It was easy to determine which restaurant won. The food was better at REVolt and the service was smoother. Now as for determining who on the staff of Mission would have to go home…

Jennifer could have gone home for making the mistake of choosing to steam the clams and mussels to order, but we all liked the halibut.

Kevin had a hand in Laurine’s lamb dish, but he made a great pork dish.

Mike Isabella wasn’t going home for either of his dishes, though I take issue with his having said, “As soon as my two dishes are out, I can go home.” This leads me to believe that he didn’t really help out much, as he should have, though I obviously didn’t know that at the time.

Remember how I said in last week’s blog that if anyone makes a mistake from here on out, they need to hope that someone else has made a larger one? I should’ve added, “or two of them,” as I think that’s exactly what happened in Restaurant Wars.

We all saw the disaster that was Laurine’s lamb dish. As far as her work at the front of the house, Laurine relied way too much on the wait staff, especially with regard to the judges’ table. Eli said, “If you fire the next course when the first one goes out, you’ll probably be OK.” A good system, as it didn’t rely on the waiters to ask the kitchen to fire up each new course, and the kitchen was automatically on schedule for each table, more or less. Laurine’s decision to rely on the waiters left room for human error and required Laurine to double-check on them … which she failed to do. She should have paid careful attention to our table – we were judging her, after all! – but even we received frazzled and poor service from her. We had to call her back to explain the dishes to us. And she failed to notice how long we were awaiting our second course. We called her over to inquire after it and sent her into the kitchen to check on it … and she learned that it hadn’t even been fired yet. The moment our first course hit the table, she should have taken the initiative of going into the kitchen to be sure the next course had been fired. She spent a great deal of her energy apologizing to diners all night long instead of fixing the system.

Laurine’s lamb was the worst dish of the night by far, and she gave us all terribly inattentive service. So – it’s a simple math problem. Laurine had two strikes against her, versus Jen and Kevin’s one strike each and Michael I.’s no discernable strikes. Laurine’s performance contributed the most to the overall failure of the restaurant, to our overall poor experience there, and so it was she whom we asked to leave.

I’ll say one more thing: While this didn’t contribute to our decision to send Laurine home, it is noteworthy that while questioning the chefs at the Judges’ Table, we got the very distinct sense from Laurine that, as she herself confirmed at the very end of the episode, she was ready to go home. Cooking for a competition is, indeed, very different than day-to-day cooking at one’s home restaurant, and we have seen people tire of competing at different stages of the competition every season. While we certainly wouldn’t send Laurine home for such an intangible reason, I think her performance in this week’s challenge reflected that she was done with the competition and wanting to go, and we did send her home for the work she did this week. So it all works out: we don’t want to keep someone who doesn’t want to compete, and the person who is finished gives us something that earns their trip home.

How to Watch

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

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