After last week’s double elimination whammy of Jamie (long overdue!) and Tiffani, I was ready to kick this off with lengthy rant about Jamie and her stupid, arrogant face, but then Anthony Bourdain showed back up and Anthony Bourdain makes everything better. He’s like a swaggering, chain-smoking unicorn at the end of my reality show double rainbow. Put him in all the blazers you want, Bravo; it doesn’t change the fact that Bourdain is six feet four inches of no-bullshit badassery. And unlike that pretentious asshat Toby Young, whose entire face seemed to work with the effort of spewing out an insipid one-liner at Judges’ Table (seriously, how grateful am I that guy is gone?), Bourdain’s criticism never comes across as posturing. Plus, I once watched him gag his way through eating a roasted lizard, but he finished that lizard, so at this point I think he’s earned some goddamned respect. You won’t see Jamie “Cucumber Water” Lauren doing that shit.
The chefs are herded to Eric Ripert’s seafood restaurant La Bernardin, where Bourdain introduces them to Justo Thomas, who is working on a fish with the sort of finesse you’re used to seeing when a baker rolls out dough, not cutting a filet with a huge knife. The Quickfire is obvious at this point – butcher one Cod and one Fluke to La Bernardin standards in 10 minutes. Fabio, Carla, Antonia, and Tiffany land on the bottom; Richard, Mike, Marcel, and Dale come out on top and, between the four, are challenged to make a winning dish out of the leftover parts of the fish, not the tidy cutlets they’ve just made. It’s a clever twist and they all rise admirably – though, in final judging, Marcel’s cod mousseline is the only dish to receive a negative comment. Bourdain calls it “monochromatic,” which is a rather cold, colorless (ha!) word for technique-obsessed Marcel, and he flinches. Dale wins the challenge – and immunity – with his double-serve of Fluke black fin and bacon dashi with Cod collar.
But nobody cares about any of that because this episode is the fabled and oft-feared RESTAURANT WARS. (Which, it should be noted, was the swan song of Dale and Tre in their respective seasons.) The reason Top Chef fans love Restaurant Wars is because it is often a loud, sweaty mess of clashing egos and Judges’ Table ends up resembling an Animal Planet special – the chefs start cannibalizing each other, Colicchio hunches his shoulders and growls about salt, and Padma wears her very best bitchface. No one can do anything right in Restaurant Wars. No one. So when Padma tells the chefs that for the first time in Top Chef history the diners will be deciding the winner, not the judges, it’s to the their credit that this seems to heighten the stakes. No one looks relieved. And the celebrity chef sitting in on Judges’ Table? Chef Ludo, who basically redefined crazycakes on his two Top Chef Masters appearances. (Food & Wine’s Editor-in-Chief was a VIP diner, but didn’t sit on the table.)
Since Dale won the elimination, he’s a team captain and he chooses Marcel as the other team’s captain. Dale’s Team: Blaise, Tre, Fabio, and Carla. Marcel’s: Angelo, Mike, Antonia, and Tiffany. Dale’s team settles on a playful “bodega” theme, while Marcel just keeps saying “Mediterranean” and “up here” to explain his concept, which frustrates Mike and confuses everyone else. Marcel seems incapable of actually telling his team members what he wants until they’re in the (outdoor) kitchen and he’s micro-managing them at every turn.
I’ve watched every single episode of Top Chef and I can’t think of a single Restaurant Wars where a team was as Zen-like as Dale’s team was throughout the entire challenge. Bar Dale getting pissy with servers at the very start, it was actually a bit boring to watch. From kitchen to front of house, they were on it. The freaking menu was being gushed over before a single plate of food was served. Fabio, who could sell you dessert and a bridge, strolled through the dining area like it was his house and Colicchio seems especially impressed with the level of organization. As for the food, everything from Dale’s take on bacon, eggs, and cheese to Tre’s pork shoulder with Corona sauce to Fabio’s amaretto cake received raves. It was the most unsettling and bizarre scene I have ever seen on this show.
Thankfully, Marcel’s team brought the drama and the crappy food. While I agree with Colicchio’s comment at Judges’ Table that Angelo sensed disaster and kept his head down, I have to give the guy credit (yeah, right?) for at least trying to pull everyone into some semblance of a team. Marcel never once steps up; all he does is harp and bitch, which wouldn’t inspire loyalty in a pet, let alone four distinct personalities who are trying to feed a dining room of impatient, hungry people. Mike and Marcel’s shouting match was surprising, but only because it reminded me that, holy shit, Mike’s still here?
Unsurprisingly, Team “Etch” loses the War, with a rather laughable 17 out 76 diners preferring their restaurant to “Bodega.” Mike, Tiffany, and Antonia serve Marcel up on a silver platter to the judges, and I don’t blame them. Okay, sure, anyone can be edited to look like an asshole, and never mind that Marcel blamed everyone else on the team for the loss, never once taking responsibility – if you play yourself up in your exit interview by saying everyone thinks you’re “notorious and diabolical” but that you’re “misunderstood” and you know you’re a “nice guy” – you’re a douchebag. With foam. End of story.
And I am now officially Team Blaise. Here’s why: Richard Blaise doesn’t care who you are or how “refined” your palate is or isn’t. As opposed to the similarly-minded Marcel, who seems to cook so people will say how clever he is, Blaise seems to get off 100% on other people enjoying his food. He’s like the Doc Brown of Top Chef, with the spiky hair and Basset hound face and charming neuroses. When he stops over-thinking and goes with his gut, the guy impresses at every turn. It’s not often I look at yet another pretty carpaccio and think, “Wow, I need some of that.” With Blaise, I see tuna with fried chicken skin and I’m not only thinking, “Holy crap,” but I’m also wondering what he’s bringing to the table next. And that’s really what it’s all about, right? So as much as I love Carla (and Fabio, but I just love him for being Fabio), it’s Richard’s competition to lose at this point, and tonight proved that. So here’s hoping we’re done with team challenges for a while so the nine remaining chefs can bring it on their own terms.
Agree, disagree? Am I over-estimating Richard? Under-estimating Angelo, Dale, Antonia? Let me know in the comments! (p.s. I almost titled this post “See Justo clean fish give me tears.” Heyyyy.)