Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Restaurant Wars

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

Padma the co-host of Top Chef

When I started dating Nicky a few years ago, she and her roommate Showcase religiously watched a reality show where 12 or so of the best chefs battled it out in the kitchen for the honor of being crowned... Top Chef. I loathe reality programming as a general philosophy because for every reality show, at least five writers don't have a job... or some WGA-inflated statistic like that. Most of that reality fodder is junkfood and I only stumble up on a few compelling shows. But I caught one episode of Top Chef... and I was hooked.

In the middle of a crazy travel season, I pieced together viewings of Top Chef Chicago (the year that Stephanie beat out the freaky guy with the hair and the lesbo with an attitude problem) via the intertubes and TiVo. I quickly became a convert and religiously watched last season of Top Chef New York when Hosea (the bald dude from Colorado) came from behind to upset Stefan (the bald Fin raised in Germany) who the supreme chef among a gaggle of fry cooks. Stephan is the best of the best that I had seen on the show in the last three seasons -- but he choked in crunch time when it counted the most.

I recently discovered that friends of mine are also Top Chef freaks including a few who are gambling on the outcome of this season of Top Chef Las Vegas. Garth created a Fantasy Top Chef league and Daddy is a part of that contest in DC. Wow. What an ingenious concept! Nicky was impressed and inspired by Garth and Daddy, we engaged in a heads-up Fantasy Top Chef Pool. With 10 chefs to go in this season, Nicky and I drafted a team of 4 chefs a piece. She had first pick.
Nicky's Team Volt: Bryan V., Michael V., Ashley, Mike
Pauly's Team Chorizo: Kevin, Jen, Eli, Laurine
Undrafted: Ash (the gay guy) and Robin (the cancer survivor who won;t shut the fuck up)
Nicky scooped up both Voltaggio brothers while I anchored my team with Kevin and Jen. The oldest Voltaggio brother, Bryan, is the best chef of the crop. Let's be blunt... Top Chef is his to lose. Older Voltaggio's problem is that he's too technical and too perfect that his food and approach is almost too boring. He lacks the imagination and fearlessness that drives his younger brother. Michael is clearly not as skilled in all areas of the kitchen as his old brother, but he has a wider vision and a compulsion to take those risks to meet his vision. If Michael can nail one of those attempts... then little bro will finish ahead of old bro.

I liked my first pick.... Kevin knows how to bring flavor to a meal and put a high brow twist to traditional Southern cooking. It's hard to beat a fat guy who loves pork because his food is consistently bursting with flavors. Jen was a solid second pick because she's the most classically trained and has a firm grasp of old world cooking. Plus, she paid her dues in Eric Ripert's kitchen which means knows how to "wow" the British and Euro-trash chefs who are guest judges. She also has tremendous mood swings and I'm convinced that she's a cokehead, while Kevin and Eli are the two potheads in the group.

On the first week that we kept score, I beat out Nicky 11-2 when Jen won the Elimination Challenge (EC) to take an early lead. I scored a huge break when Ashley got booted (crappy prawns and salty gnocchi) and my Team Chorizo gained an advantage. Nicky's Team Volt was playing 3-handed and I continued my run during the second week when Kevin won the EC and I opened up a 20.5 to 7 lead.

Coming into the Final 8, Nicky was desperate for a big week from the Voltaggio Brothers especially since we reached the exhilarating Restaurant Wars where the contestants pair off into two teams and open their own restaurant within 24 hours featuring a menu with three courses. Disaster or success ensues. The crews who work the best together usually win while the teams screaming, whining, and moaning fizzle out.

But before Restaurant Wars began, the episode kicked off with a twist where the Quickfire Challenge divided the eight chefs into two teams for a blind-folded tag-team cook off with Rick Moonen (has a fish joint at Mandalay Bay) as the guest judge. Tag-team. Difficult challenge for a chef walk into a kitchen with ingredients on a stove and not know what's going on. Chefs drew knives and Jen won the chef lottery and secured the first pick for the Blue team. Jen immediately picked Kevin, followed by Mike, and Laurine. Michael was the captain for the Red team; his brother, Eli, and Robin. Interesting to see who was picked to close for both teams... Kevin (Blue) and Bryan (Red). The two top dogs to anchor the challenge.

Jen kicked off the the first leg and returned from the pantry with Alaskan black cod and scallops. Mike and Laurine kept it moving along and Kevin finished strong with a butter-fried fish dish instead of a poached fish dish as original conceived by Jen. Eli (aka the fat kid with glasses who lives with his parents) went with beef dish. Robin seemed clueless as per usual, but everyone seemed a bit clueless going in blind so she wasn't really at a disadvantage. If anything, I expected the Voltaggio Brothers to push aside her work and go with their instincts. They final product? Asian beef dish.

Moonen is a fish guy and naturally preferred the fish dish. Ergo, the Blue team won. Three of my fantasy chefs were on that team and I picked up a few points. As a bonus, those chefs won a $10,000 M Casino chip with a choice of letting it ride... if they won the Restaurant Wars, then they'd get $40,000. 4 to 1 gamble on a coin flip? Fuck yeah! I loved that added element to this season in Las Vegas. In previous years, Quickfire winners were awarded lame prizes like a new set of knives or day trips to Sonoma. Cold hard cash is way better for chefs who don't make much money anyway and the ones who own restaurants are probably leveraged to the hilt. Letting them gamble on themselves for money is more exciting.

With $40,000 on the line, the Blue team made two crucial mistakes before they even stepped into the kitchen.... Laurine in charge of front of the house and omitting a dessert on the menu. Mike, the most talkative of the bunch, would have a perfect candidate for schmoozing guests. When designing the menu, Jen opted for a conservative route and didn't want to fuck up a dish that ended up the demise of teams in the past. They picked Mission as their name, but it seemed as though they were on a mission towards failure. During the prep, they fell behind schedule and it seemed evident that they did not have enough time to handle the rush. Little did we know that Jen would be steaming clams to order... instead of cooking up batches before they seated anyone.

Red team went with a modern American food twist but picked a horrible name... Revolt, a play on their names (Robin - Eli - Voltaggio brothers). That sounds chic enough for a lounge in the East Village or in Silver Lake, but not a kitschy name for a hip eatery. During their prep... Eli took on front of the house duties, Bryan was in his own world, while Michael was bossing Robin around who didn't take too kindly to his barrage of insults and micro-managing of her dessert dish. I understood his intentions -- he doesn't want to loose on Robin fucking up a peach cobbler, so he's keeping an eye on the weakest link, but his desire to win unleashed his inner asshole.

During service, Padma was quick to bust on Revolt's menu and the name of their restaurant and that would be the only bad thing they had to say about them The first course... Arctic Char with beets & crispy potatoes was average, but Michael gave the judges a hearty boner and promptly gave Padma a wet deck with his chicken and squid concoction. "Lovely" was how Padma described the dish as she couldn't contain her food orgasm. Colicchio dug the chicken so much, he hogged Padma's.

"What the fuck, Tom? Why you stealing my chicken?"

"Models don't need big portions. Fat guys need to eat more."

The second course included the beef dish (NY Strip and short rib) and a fish dish (cod with zucchini and a croquette). Moonen jizzed all over Michael's "brilliant" cod that melted in the mouths of the diners, while his brother Bryan's beef tandem was tasty but served cold.

Michael and Robin feuded during dessert service over the portion sizes. Bryan didn't have time for that petty bullshit and wanted both teammates to take a more professional approach -- shit up and get the dish out and bitch about their issues after service is complete. Despite the spat in the back, Robin's Pear Pithivier impressed the judges, even the hard-to-please Toby. Bryan hit a home run with chocolate ganache with spearmint ice cream even though his brother thought it was a shitty dish when they were tossing around menu ideas the night before. As the judges gushed about the desserts, you pretty much knew that the gang at Revolt locked up the victory despite their shitty name and the bickering in the kitchen.

On the other side... Mission was fucked. They had to pull off a perfect evening if they wanted to have a chance at winning. Laurine seems like a sweet lady, but she looks stoned the entire time. That's cool when you're working the line, but I dunno if she was perky or sociable enough to run front of the house of Mission. It really looks like she just took a Valium or too to cope with the added pressure of Restaurant Wars. hit with $40,000 on the line for her team, you figured that she would have stepped it up. Instead, she wilted under the pressure.

Before the even sat down, the judges moaned about a lack of dessert at Mission. They were more than doomed. Laurine's crappy hostess duties didn't help the cause and she didn't even explain the dishes until Padma had to beat it out of her.

Mike's dishes in the first course looked kinda weak. Come on, an egg and asparagus for Top Chef? Plus the Arctic char was under seasoned that Padma actually asked for salt. Yet, compared to the ensuing dishes from his teammates, Mike's food was more than satisfactory.

Misson was slammed with back orders and the second courses did not arrive in a timely fashion for the judges. Those orders should pushed to the top of the list. Shit, as soon as they complained, I would have tackled other waiters and grabbed four dishes ASAP to send over to the table.

The two fish dishes had to be masterpieces in order to impress the judges when the food finally arrived. You don't make Colicchio and company wait on mediocre food. Alas, the Trout was so-so and the Halibut with clams severely disappointed the judges who had lofty aspirations of Jen's dishes. Even Colicchio took a dig at Jen and said that her mentor would not have been pleased with her piss poor performance.

To complicate matters, the third course also failed to impress. Since they didn't present a dessert, they needed to blow them away instead the undercooked lamb was the nail in their coffin. The Pork Belly was the only highlight for Mission as Kevin hit solo home run but he also fumbled the lamb (conceived by Laurine).

Revolt easily won Restaurant Wars with better service and better food. Michael's dishes were the highlight of the event and the youngest Voltaggio easily won the Elimination Challenge. Michael picked up a book as his prize and $10,000, but gained some karma points by splitting the winner's booty with his teammates.

Mission chefs got their asses reamed by judges. They were shocked that Jen admitted that she steamed the mussels and clams to order. Which would have saved her valuable time and gave her more time to properly cook the other dishes. Jen was mortified when she found out her sauce broke on the halibut. Yeah, she fucked up big time and all the talent in the world was not going to save her. She was on the verge of being sent home to Philly for a couple of crappy seafood dishes.

It came down to this... would the judges have mercy on her or kill off Laurine since she was the weakest chef on that team? Well, it seemed that Laurine took one for the team. She was booted due to her lackluster performance running the front of the house. She really took the bullet for Jen, who gets to redeem herself after faltering under pressure.

Nicky had two players on the winning team and racked up the most points during Restaurant Wars. She finally posted a winning week 11-8 and negated the four-to-three chef advantage. She picked up some ground but I'm ahead 28.5 to 18. With 7 chefs to go... the Voltaggio brothers are surging and Jen is a little rattled.

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