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Top Chef: Wisconsin Recap: Conceptual Clumsiness

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Photo: David Moir/Bravo

First, a mea culpa! In last week’s recap, I wrote that Michelle won immunity for her Polish sausage étouffée in the sausage-showdown challenge. I was wrong; I missed that immunity is no longer being offered this season as a bonus for Elimination wins. My bad! Sorry to all who were misled by my confidence into believing that Michelle was guaranteed to stick around this week.

She does, by the way! But this Restaurant Wars is a classic example of the winning chefs not hitting the challenge brief, yet serving better dishes than their competitors who tried to fulfill the sentiment of the challenge. We’ve seen this play out on Top Chef (and The Great British Baking Show, for that matter) over and over again. Did the restaurant Channel deserve to win this Restaurant Wars? It’s honestly tough to say, because both it and Dos by Deul majorly suffered during their second wave of service, were inconsistent in getting food out in a timely manner, and had some sloppily conceptualized dishes. And for Channel specifically, I didn’t feel that either the chefs or the judges could believably explain how their generic “seafood” theme tied so many disparate dishes together. (Another classic Restaurant Wars tactic: picking a food group instead of a cuisine and deciding that’s enough.) But I think the judges very obviously prefer Danny and Dan’s food at this point in the competition, and there was nothing catastrophically wrong with Channel past that second-turn wait time. I would like it if not meeting the spirit of the challenge mattered more, but it doesn’t, so Dan and Danny’s presumed march toward the finals continues!

Let’s back up and talk about how this all went down. The chefs meet Kristen and Tom at Milwaukee’s Discovery World, where they learn there’s no Quickfire challenge this week because, despite there being an odd number of competitors left, they’re heading into Restaurant Wars. This year, each restaurant will need to serve a three-course menu with two choices per course, and they’ll need to specifically assign an executive chef, a floor manager, and line cooks. For the menu, they can decide what they want to serve; there’s no dessert requirement, for example. They’ll have five hours to prep and cook, and will serve 75 diners including two tables of former Top Chef competitors like winner Stephanie Izard and alumnus Kwame Onwuachi, who seemingly accepts every invite Top Chef offers. As last week’s winner, Michelle gets the advantage of deciding which team she wants to be on. The chefs are able to choose their own teams, and I’m pretty unsurprised by how Danny, Amanda, and Dan all cluster together (although a little shocked that Savannah ends up on their team, since she rode so hard for Kaleena when Kaleena made it back into the competition). The teams end up being Danny, Amanda, Dan, and Savannah, and Laura, Manny, Soo, and Kaleena, and Michelle chooses to join Danny, Amanda, Dan, and Savannah.

Kaleena, Laura, Soo, and Manny decide to draw from their Mexican and Asian backgrounds and do a fusion concept that they name Dos by Deul, and they decide to not do a dessert. Kaleena volunteers to be head chef and do expo, Laura volunteers to be front of the house, and Manny and Soo seem fine being line cooks. Dan, Danny, Amanda, Savannah, and Michelle land on a more nebulous seafood theme tied to the water surrounding them, and Danny will be executive chef, Michelle will be front of house, and Dan, Amanda, and Savannah will be line cooks. The group bends over backwards to make the name “Channel” work for their myriad disparate dishes. There’s nothing really tying the ideas together past seafood, and Savannah even observes this in her talking-head interview — that maybe the dishes they’re choosing are all representing themselves more than they’re representing a shared restaurant. But internally, there’s just an emphasis that each chef has seafood in their dishes, like when Michelle tells Dan that his intended beets appetizer doesn’t fit their seafood idea. He pivots to a smoked fish dish, and that’s that. In contrast, Dos by Deul has more trouble during shopping — the Asian specialty market doesn’t have the rice cakes Kaleena and Soo wanted, and Whole Foods is out of the fish they wanted for one of their entrees, making them settle on pork tenderloin instead.

Top Chef has been showing us less of the chefs hanging out at home after the first day, so after the teams shop, we don’t get any glimpse into whether they spend any part of that night menu-planning or figuring out how to run the front of house. All of a sudden the next day, Laura and Michelle each have fancy printouts of how they want the restaurants to be organized that they share with the wait staff, and Danny has made up a ticket that he wants all the servers to use so the food orders come in consistently and he doesn’t have to struggle to read anyone’s handwriting. It’s incredibly clever, and I would have loved to have known more details about whether Danny learned this from another chef or if he came up with the idea on his own, but alas! (Um, for more news about things Danny may have swiped without giving them enough credit, here’s a piece about the alleged origin of the chou farci scallop mousse dish he recently won with.)

Anyway, Danny’s uniform ticket system ends up being the secret weapon in Channel’s service. (My partner has requested a Party Down and Top Chef crossover episode so we can get some perspective from the servers on how these high-pressure events feel for them, and yes please, I would like more Party Down whenever. Ron Donald forever.) Channel certainly has issues: Tom is noticeably confused by their welcome drink; Michelle doesn’t check in with the first table of judges led by Kristen and Tom when they arrive and there’s a huge gap in service for the second group of judges led by Gail and Stephanie; and there are quibbles with dishes, like the mushrooms in Savannah’s chawanmushi and the overcooked rice alongside Michelle’s fried catfish. But ultimately, even though all the judges comment on Channel’s lack of a cohesive perspective, the dishes themselves are good. The progressive lineup is: Dan’s smoked walleye with labne, potato cake, and harissa; Savannah’s chawanmushi with scallop and mushrooms; Michelle’s fried catfish with dirty rice cake and smoked oyster aioli; Dan’s play on New England clam chowder, replacing potatoes with carrots; Amanda’s vegan gumbo with kombu; Dan’s maple cremeux with blueberries, pistachios, and caramel; and Dan and Amanda’s jasmine tea and citrus gelee with buckwheat crumble. I’m glad that the other judges pushed back on Kwame’s criticism of Amanda’s vegan dish, because isn’t it actually thoughtful and inclusive for your 75 diners to have a non-meat option? And I was spitefully pleased that Tom wondered whether Danny’s dish, with carrots and Old Bay, was really a New England clam chowder. It feels sort of clear, though, that Channel will win after the first service, when Kristen and Tom are so complimentary.

Over at Dos by Deul, where Stephanie and Gail’s table eats first, things also start off okay. The judges mostly like Laura’s beef tartare with a rice cracker and Kaleena’s Dungeness crab aguachile with melon, pickled bamboo, and a furikake tostada, and they uniformly seem to love Soo’s rice cakes with salsa verde, Chinese sausage, and pepitas, and Manny’s miso butter-poached shrimp with kimchi jicama and bok choy, although Gail thinks the kimchi jicama is too overpowering. But things change during the last course. The pork tenderloin that was the team’s group dish, and that Manny thought was underseasoned but the other chefs inversely insisted was too salty, is — according to the judges — not salty enough. They all praise the cook on Manny’s beef and the flavor in his mole, but when Tom gets the entrees in front of him, he wonders whether the pineapple pico de gallo is flavorful.

At Judges’ Table, the judges gave each team thorough feedback on each dish, which I appreciated after what has felt like a few weeks of scant judging. But the fact that both restaurants made their second group of judges drastically wait for food is mostly treated as a wash. Instead, it’s the little things wrong with Dos by Deul’s dishes that land them in the bottom: Laura’s rice cracker was soggy, Kaleena’s tostada greasy, and the pork bland, and the judges really go in on their belief that Dos by Deul didn’t do enough to fuse their two cuisines together (not enough Latin influence in the miso shrimp, not enough Asian influence in the beef dish) and relied a bit too much on store-bought ingredients in Soo’s dish. The episode again feints toward sending two people home because it can, but ultimately it’s Kaleena who’s leaving, because the executive chef on the losing team of Restaurant Wars getting cut is still one of the most predictable judging decisions on this show.

Assorted amuse-bouche

• Tom hat watch: Look, me and this bullet point are both ghosts. ??? Seriously, do we think Tom is wearing fewer hats this season because David hurt his feelings? They are so noticeably absent!

• What’s more irritating to you: This season’s aguachile omnipresence, or chefs saying they’re doing a “play” on a thing and then delivering a dish that is barely connected to what is allegedly a “play” on? I think my frustration comes down to a wish they’d just be confident enough in the dish to say what it is, rather than relying on signifiers and references that aren’t actually reflective of the food. Stop saying your dish is a remix and be original already!

• The dishes I most wanted to eat this episode: Michelle’s fried catfish and Manny’s beef. Did the Dos by Deul team ever explain what was in their refreshment drink?

• When Tom asks Kristen what she would have changed about her own season 10 Restaurant Wars experience (for which she was eliminated and sent to Last Chance Kitchen), her reply was “chosen maybe a different team.” For those looking for drama, her team included Brooke, Josie, and Lizzie, and they lost to the three-member team of Josh, Sheldon, and Stefan.

• Speaking of Stefan: Where is my guy with the overwhelming crush on Kristen, and why hasn’t he been a guest judge on this season yet? Their dynamic was kooky and odd and I miss him.

• Manny again wins quote of the week with, “Forcing a dish into a menu is like a fart. If you have to push, it’s probably shit.”

• I expected the episode to do more with Discovery World? But they did not. Anyway, it seems like a pretty cool science and technology museum.

• Harissa, which has roots in Tunisia, Morocco, and North Africa, is pretty easy to make at home and incredibly versatile; put it on eggs, mix it with mayo for a sandwich, do shawarma bowls and serve harissa on the side to mix with cauliflower rice, put it in your Sunday pasta sauce. Here’s a recipe from Moro: The Cookbook, which compiles recipes from both the Muslim Mediterranean and Spain to reflect the 700 years the Moors were in the country.

• I know it’s probably wrong to assume that everyone who competes on Top Chef watches Top Chef. But just like Kévin deciding to make a risotto, I grimaced when Michelle waited to greet the first group of judges and even walked by their table without saying hello. Ma’am, your job is to schmooze! At least both she and Laura did a good job explaining the dishes, unlike in the New Orleans season when Sara Johannes just dropped dishes off to the judges without contextualizing them at all.

• LAST CHANCE KITCHEN SPOILERS AHEAD: Let me start off by saying, I have all the respect in the world for Kaleena graciously but firmly refusing to compete on Last Chance Kitchen again for the sake of her mental health. I get it! She got eliminated once, went through Last Chance Kitchen, gave it her all during Restaurant Wars, and then got eliminated again and sent to LCK again. Worst-case scenario, she would get eliminated a final time. Best-case scenario, she makes it back onto Top Chef proper … and is then open to elimination all over again. The roller coaster sounds grueling and exhausting, and I think it was really self-aware and confident of Kaleena to realize she’d proven all she needed to and didn’t want to dive back into the tumult. So, Kaleena leaves, to Tom’s surprise (I’m assuming she told a producer beforehand what she was going to do, but Tom being thrown off seemed genuine to me and his “some things are more important than competing” felt off-the-cuff enough to be spontaneous), and he asks the previously eliminated Rasika if she’d like to compete in Kaleena’s place, which she does.

• The challenge is Restaurant Wars-inspired: Kévin and Kaleena will each serve a savory and a sweet dish from their dream restaurant concept. Unsurprisingly, they each go with their own ethnic cuisines, with Kévin conceiving French bistro-style dishes and Rasika a South Indian, specifically Tamil, perspective inspired by her grandmother. No one runs into any issues cooking, and the whole challenge plays out like a fascinating update on their last face-off. Kévin gets the win because of one mistake Rasika made: cooking her fish and shrimp outside of her curry and then just placing them on the curry for service. Tom says that makes the curry more of a sauce for some cooked proteins than a cohesive dish (which I do understand, because seemingly the proteins don’t have the curry flavor permeating throughout them), and Rasika looks devastated to have lost again. See, this is what Kaleena wanted to avoid, and I don’t blame her! Kévin survives as the LCK champion for another week.

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Roxana Hadadi , 2024-05-09 04:15:48

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