Restaurant Wars is always one of the most exciting episodes of a season of Top Chef. For most contestants, running their own restaurant is the ultimate career goal. This is a high-stakes event that pulls all of the toughest aspects of Top Chef together including time management, communication, and the ability to please diners other than the judges. Other than winning the entire season, winning Restaurant Wars is the most sought-after victory on Top Chef. It’s brutal, stressful work to fully develop and open a restaurant in just 36 hours. Proving they really are some of the strongest competitors this show has ever seen, our eight remaining chefs come together to create two very strong restaurants. Tom even described the losing restaurant as “the best restaurant to lose Restaurant Wars.” Rough. Let’s get into it.
With such an immense amount of work required to put together these one-night-only dining experiences, there’s no Quickfire this week. Instead, the chefs immediately draw knives to see who gets to start the schoolyard pick of teams. Nick draws the “first pick” knife, and Jae gets to follow. The resulting teams are Nick, Damarr, Ashleigh, and Buddha; and Jae, Evelyn, Jackson, and Luke. Considering the high caliber of remaining chefs, the teams are pretty evenly split. Jackson and Evelyn have consistently been at the top of the pack, but so have Buddha, Nick, and Damarr. It’s really anyone’s game going into prep.
Immediately, Jackson takes off running, confidently proposing ideas before anyone else can. He runs a restaurant at home and feels like he has the ability to lead this team to victory. The central concept comes from Jackson; the restaurant will be a family-style, Southeast Asian-inspired restaurant called No Nem. Luke and Jae, neither of whom typically cook this style of food, are wary of both the family-style and cuisine. It’s not a great start, but Evelyn and Jackson are confident enough to inspire their teammates.
On the other side of the kitchen, Damarr proposes the idea of honoring the women that inspired all four of these chefs. He’s been vocal all season about how important his mother and grandmother are to him and the impact they’ve had on his cooking style. Nick, Damarr, and Ashleigh all have a Southern influence on their food, and Buddha seems to be good at everything anyway, so they decide to go with a Southern menu and the name Matriarc. Right off the bat, this team is more confident and more cohesive than No Nem, but we all know Restaurant Wars can fall apart in just a moment.
The location for Restaurant Wars is beautiful and adds another layer to an already stressful experience. The judges will be seated right in front of the open kitchen. Not only will the judges be able to watch every move the chefs make like a predator stalking its prey, the chefs will also hear the commentary in real-time. It’s a unique kind of torture to be exposed to this immediate criticism and one that was typically reserved only for the brave soul who takes on front-of-house.
Front-of-house is a high-risk, high-reward situation, which Buddha recognizes immediately. He and Jackson take on the role for their respective teams and have wildly different approaches. Jackson tries to treat the judges like he would any other table. This is a respectable move, and I can see the appeal of it for sure, but it left the judges feeling underserved. By the time dessert rolled around, they’d barely been introduced to any of the meals, and Evelyn had to sort of force Jackson to describe the dish to them. He seems uncomfortable “spieling,” as she describes it. Tom notes that it felt like Jackson was actively avoiding the judges. Major yikes. Buddha, on the other hand, takes the time to explain who made each dish and how it correlated to the overall theme of Matriarc. The judges love every plate presented to them, and with each passing compliment, the chefs gain even more confidence. Even when Damarr was in the weeds, the cool composition of this team kept the food coming out smoothly.
This front-of-house dichotomy seems to be the decision-maker tonight. While all the food was good across the board, Nick, Damarr, Ashleigh, and Buddha take the win. Not only was Matriarc a well-oiled machine cranking out delicious and inspired food, but Buddha was also a strong presence to tie it all together. There’s essentially nothing for the judges to criticize. They impressed everyone, including returning guest judge Tiffany Derry. Between taking charge of the woman-led concept and her killer gumbo, Ashleigh’s deemed the winner of Restaurant Wars. She may be a little all over the place in terms of standings, but this should be a great confidence booster for Ash, and I hope it propels her through the next few rounds.
Sitting in the stew room after Judges Table tonight, Luke and Jackson are extremely stressed. Luke is convinced he’ll be sent packing because he contributed less to the team — and what he did make was a weaker dish — but Jackson seems to know it will be him on the chopping block. Like a deathbed confession, Jackson finally tells his fellow contestants his big secret. It’s been a few weeks at this point since he had COVID, but the most unfortunate side effects a chef could suffer — a lack of taste and smell — are still affecting his ability to perform. Evelyn looks equally heartbroken and pissed off that her teammate kept such a big piece of information from her. Would things have gone differently if Jackson hadn’t inserted his skewed perspective on how the meals tasted? Probably not, but it’s surely a possibility. No Nem returns to the judges, and Jackson is told to pack his knives and go. He took on a risky amount of responsibility tonight and just couldn’t compete against a team that flirted with perfection. I’m sure the other chefs are relieved to see such a strong competitor leave, but who knows, maybe he’ll follow in the footsteps of Kristen Kish and Brooke Williamson and return from LCK and take the top prize.
Musings from the Stew Room
• My new favorite compliment from this season: “You really know your way around a condiment, Jae.” Same, but like, eating condiments.
• There’s no way the judges were unaware of Jackson’s sensory issues, right? He didn’t mention it on his way out, nor did any of the judges, but I wish they did. I feel like Jackson would’ve felt better about the situation had he just come clean from the beginning of the season. The unbearable weight of massive secrets, I guess.