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Restaurant Wars Redo

Tom Colicchio describes his own pop-up restaurant experience with Tom: Tuesday Dinner.

By Tom Colicchio

Well, the eagerly-awaited, both loved and feared Restaurant Wars were upon us this week, and I’d be surprised to hear of any surprise at their outcome. Creating a one-night-only restaurant is a formidable undertaking, and it’s been interesting season after season to see how our chefs approach and execute the challenge. The experience has run the gamut from hair-raising to, well, hair-raising for our chefs, and has never been humdrum for us judges.

As you saw from the introduction of our guest judge, Ludo LeFebvre, professional chefs of note will create such restaurant events, dubbed “pop-up restaurants.” My "Tom: Tuesday Dinner" (TTD) was (and is again) one such venture, in fact. Every other Tuesday for a year, I presented a rather impromptu tasting menu in Craft's private dining room. I've recently begun doing so again, periodically, for a little while. The space is intimate and the kitchen open to the dining room, so that I can connect with the diners and can enjoy cooking directly for them. Many of the dishes I devised for TTD have made their way onto the menu at Colicchio and Sons.  TTDs are always fun for myself and the chefs cooking with me, and our enthusiasm always makes its way across to the dining room. Pop-up restaurants  such as Ludo's and mine are culinary happenings of a sort, but at the end of the day, they still need to be restaurants. No one is expecting the atmosphere at a pop-up to be great, or the restaurant to be built out, but that’s not the point of the pop-up. One goes because one gets the sense that it’s new and only for the moment, and that’s what exciting about it. But a pop-up only works when that excitement is there from the start and is sustained throughout by the chef and his/her staff. All involved in the venture need to sincerely invest in that excitement and communicate it to the diner –- the workers need to have the attitude that they are part of something special. The diner is then brought along on this brief journey. The dishes can be experimental and fun and may or may not succeed, as long as the chef and staff are never imposing anything on the diner. Here, wewitnessed an example of a successful pop-up and one that pretty much imploded. We saw in Bodega the spirit of fun and the sense of sharing a culinary moment with the diners, whereas with Etch, we saw the head chef impose his will on his teammates and his negative experience on the diner. Not fun. The s--tstorm in the kitchen (as the chefs rightly referred to it) got in the way at every turn and translated into a poorer dining experience for the patrons and a loss for the team.While Marcel didn’t intend to broadcast his shortcomings to the viewing audience, his problems couldn’t have been better summed up by another better than he did himself in his exit interview: He said, “My only mistake was in picking the wrong team… I didn’t do anything I wouldn’t do again.” No… and no. His lack of self-awareness was his downfall. When leading a team in Restaurant Wars, one’s goal should be to win, not to showcase what you know or how good a chef youyourself are, and not to prove yourself right at every turn. It’s about putting together a menu that is coherent, that makes sense, and it’s about ensuring that the cooking of all the dishes is well done. It’s about creating a staff that operates as a unified team and supports each member. It’s about creating systems that will ensure not only that the food is executed well, but also that the service is seamless and that the diners have a positive dining experience. Some people have natural leadership ability –- they are simply people others wish to rally around. Marcel is not someone others wish to follow. He wants to get in your face, be controversial, and show how much he knows. Even at the onset, when he was ostensibly attempting to be conciliatory and listen to options, Marcel adopted a belligerent and off-putting tone with his teammates. And then he wanted to wow with his own dishes. Even there, though, he couldn’t get out of his own way. We’ve remarked on his foams throughout his time on Top Chef, effectively suggesting he give them a rest, but he just could leave them alone. They were the undoing of both of his dishes in Restaurant Wars. Once again, he couldn’t hear or learn from anyone, and it is the reason he had to pack his knives and go.

Dale, on the other hand, encouraged everyone on his team to bring his or her best to the task. Richard exercised gentle and quiet, less overt leadership, complementing what Dale brought to the table, which, combined with his excellent food, is why Richard won the challenge. Fabio exercised leadership with the wait staff, leaving nothing to chance in the front of the house. The team’s enjoyment of the challenge wasclearly communicated to the diners.  Combined with a fun and clever concept that was well expressed, Bodega was the runaway winner.

With half of our chefs now gone, the pressure is on to be sustainedly excellent. A minor slip can send someone home. I look forward to the weeks to come.

How to Watch

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

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