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'Top Chef: New Orleans' Recap - Episode 9

It's time for "Restaurant Wars" and lots of drama.

It's a very special episode this week. As any “Top Chef” fan knows, "Restaurant Wars" is the challenge that comes back every season and usually involves meltdowns and implosions. It's drama time!

As per usual, there is no "quickfire," so the chefs are quickly divided into two teams and everyone starts getting to business. On the green team we have Justin, Sara, Nina, Carlos and Shirley. On the purple team we have Nick, Carrie, Travis, Stephanie and Brian. Immediately you see that the chefs with the most wins are on the green team and you might think they've got this in the bag, but it's definitely not so. The purple team gel together immediately and give their restaurant a solid focus (seafood), while the green team's concept is much broader with "modern American," where each chef showcases their type of food. The seafood restaurant is named "Fin" and the green team's is named "Found." And you can tell from the get-go that one team is destined to be focused and successful while the other will be awkward and disorganized.

During this episode, I started to wonder about Sara and Justin, who volunteered to be the general manager and executive chef. It seemed like in the last episode with the boucherie challenge, Justin started to lose the "nice guy" act and either started to show his true colors to the cameras or he just started having a really bad couple of weeks. At times, the way he was talking to his fellow teammates was a bit unwarranted, even though I understand that when you're an executive chef, it's par for the course to bark at everyone in the kitchen. But it just seems counterproductive for Justin, because like last week, when he gets bitchy, his food really suffers. This week he was pretty damn bitchy, and his food looked like the worst of the bunch. Even Tom Colicchio was snickering at his rabbit dish it was so bad.

So why didn't he go home? Good question. Even though the Bravo poll this week had Sara beating Justin in the "who should be the one to go home" department by a whopping 90 percent, I'm not sure that she should have been the one, even though she of course sucked royally, too. But as the judges said, she had the second to worst dish. Justin had the worst. Also, at the end of the episode, I took a quick glance at Twitter to see if anyone was disappointed with Sara going home and saw that the Twitterverse was ecstatic that she was knifed. Sara isn't well liked on Twitter it seems. Sure, she made some fatal flaws, and perhaps it was her time to go home, but she wasn't running the kitchen. Justin was running the kitchen, very poorly I might add. So what is worse? An asshole executive chef who can't run a kitchen and makes a bad dish? Or a control freak general manager with less than stellar people skills? Do we tend to be more forgiving of Justin because he's on the home team? Or a dude? Not sure.

On the other hand, a big part of the challenge is how well you work with others, and I'm not sure Sara is all that great at it. Perhaps she did deserve to go home. She seems to do better at the solo stuff, not when the chefs are divided into teams. Like with the failure in the Vietnamese challenge and the backseat butchering from the previous episode that pissed everyone off, I wonder if she's an annoying control freak who can't deal with other people being in charge. I haven't wanted to be too harsh a critic of her because you never know if these guys are being edited unfairly. She always seems grounded in her interviews and never talks poorly about people, so I'm not sure if the show is skewing her to be super-annoying or if she really is a huge know-it-all who derails every group challenge she's in with her need to be in charge. Whatever it is, her stint as a GM was bad. Like, really, really bad. From walking away from customers who were in the middle of asking her questions, to not introducing her team's dishes to the judges, she put on a horrible showing. It was hard to watch, frankly. Also hard to watch was when she got defensive with the judge. Sometimes the judges can be harsh, but you probably shouldn't act like a snot to the people who decide your ultimate fate on the show.

Contrast that with Nick and Travis who I've actually grown quite fond of. They both rose to the challenge beautifully, and it makes me wonder if perhaps Travis may have done justice to the Vietnamese challenge (minus that tomato sauce) had Sara not been there to derail his direction with her need to control everything.

Travis was a natural at running the front of house, saying, "Gays belonged in the front.” He was great at sincerely connecting with the customers and chatting them up while Sara was anything but sincere, plastering a fake smile on her face the whole time while reminding her staff to do the same thing every five seconds.


Nick's Roasted Black Drum

Over in the make-shift kitchen at The Foundry, Nick set everything up like a pro, expertly expediting service and running his kitchen seamlessly. All the plates went through him on their way out to the tables, giving them final touches with his squirt bottles and quick wipes if needed. It seemed like the only real misstep was Brian's mistaking xanthan gum for agar agar flakes, which are a type of algae that will usually make a nice gel. Instead he got purple corn boogers in lieu of a nice purple corn gel. Luckily for him, the other team crashed and burned so bad as to make his purple corn boogers mildly forgettable.

The standouts were Nick's Roasted Black Drum, Nina's Pork Tenderloin, and Shirley's Olive Oil Poached Cobia. Since the Black Drum happened to be served by the winning team, and since he did such a great job running his kitchen, Nick was able to snag a win. It sort of makes you feel bad for Nina and Shirley, both of whom I'm sure would have given Nick a run for his money as executive chef, for being on such a crap team when they had great dishes. Justin just couldn't handle it. At no point did he look like he had any kind of control over his kitchen and couldn't even read his tickets, which may or may not have been his fault since they appeared to be different than what he had wanted. It was just a mess. And I hope that what we've been seeing from Justin lately is just a stressed out guy who had a few bad weeks, instead of the bitchy asshole that's emerging.

In the end, I suppose "Restaurant Wars" is one of the challenges that is about more than just the food. It's also about the experience, and "Found" gave their customers a bad experience. Sara was the face of that bad experience and ultimately went home for it.

Next week: Leah Chase returns and everybody seems to be crying!


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