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April 17, 2014

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Top Chef Episode 9: Choose your own adventure

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BravoTV / Trae Patton

Top Chef” guest judge Rick Moonen poses with Padma Lakshmi.

Whenever we enter a restaurant we are presented with the culinary equivalent of a choose-your-own-adventure book. Instead of deciding whether to investigate the hedge maze (bad, bad idea) or head to the library (just watch out for well-aimed candlesticks) we pick between beef carpaccio and roasted beet salad and muse over salt-crusted snapper or braised short ribs.

On Wednesday night’s episode of “Top Chef: Las Vegas,” the chefs were presented with a choose-your-own-adventure relay race Quickfire that was both a cheffing nightmare and TV gold.

Divided into two teams of four, each team cooked a dish relay-style with the chefs waiting blindfolded and silent for their chance to take over the station for 10 minutes and get to work. Watching them trying to decipher the intentions of their teammates without asking any questions was priceless. Incredibly, according to RM Seafood chef Rick Moonen, the finished products tasted pretty good, too.

As if this wasn’t a devious enough task for the chef’testants to tackle, the episode followed up this crafty Quickfire with a “Top Chef” favorite, the utterly diabolical Restaurant Wars.

For those not familiar with this challenge, Restaurant Wars is “Top Chef’s” tour de force. It asks the chefs to be superhuman culinary machines and boil down the months of menu development and tasting that typically goes into a restaurant opening into a day a half of shopping and planning and a handful of hours on the line. It’s like restauranteuring on speed. In other words, it’s hell.

After a playground-style team picking, the squads shook out like so:

Mission restaurant: Jennifer, Kevin, Michael I. and Laurine

Revolt restaurant: Bryan and Michael Voltaggio, Eli and Robin

The name Mission was a reference to Mission-style design, an aesthetic based on simple craftsmanship and unpretentious lines and materials. Revolt, on the other hand, borrowed initials and abbreviations from its chef’s names. Robin, Eli, Voltaggio, get it?

Other than providing a well-executed and conceptualized meal for the judges and guests, Restaurant Wars makes no demands of the chefs. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure challenge, during which a chef’s downfall comes not from some odd ingredient forced upon him or her or having to use a makeshift grill but from simply not cooking well under pressure. Forget civilized plating and the stopwatch ticking down to service, this is opening night at a brand new restaurant. Get too deep in the weeds and you might as well order up some take out for the judges to sample.

Restaurant Wars aims to simulate the pressures of a working restaurant, and that means someone has to ditch their whites, clean up nice and work front of house. Eli and Laurine stepped up to the largely thankless task, which demands that they provide the kind of courteous service that chefs sometimes shy from and, manage to prepare a dish to be served at some point during the team’s three-course meal.

If you can make it through Restaurant Wars without making Tom scowl and Padma blanche you’ve succeeded. If the judges say they like something, you might as well pop a bottle of bubbly.

Had the chefs followed my advice Wednesday’s “Top Chef: Las Vegas” would have included two very drunk Voltaggios. Revolt restaurant not only managed to not sink on its first night, it actually served a scrumptious meal that had the judges looking genuinely buoyant in Rick Moonen’s downstairs dining room.

Michael served a pressed chicken with calamari “noodles” that Moonen credited as “genius,” as well as a cod with parsley sauce that had the judges melting in delight. Even Robin pulled off a fabulous dish, a peach dessert with vanilla ice cream and elderflower syrup that Moonen compared to a “perfect massage.” Bryan, meanwhile, redeemed his chocolate ganache with a ribbon of rich chocolate topped with spearmint ice cream, and Eli held is own in civilian clothes despite a little down time between courses.

Tom called Revolt the best Restaurant Wars restaurant he’d seen in six seasons, and Toby offered that he would have given his meal three stars if he were reviewing it. Strong praise from the two baldies; give yourself a pat on the back, chefs.

That is, unless you were cooking for team Mission. You four are in the doghouse after serving the judges a meal that grossly underperformed on your culinary potential. Somehow, this foursome of skilled chefs skidded off track while creating their restaurant. From Michael I.’s boring starters to Jennifer’s lackluster midcourse (her butter sauce broke! Someone call Eric Ripert. Forty lashes with a stale baguette!) and Kevin’s poor cooking of Laurine’s lamb, Mission under-delivered in nearly every way.

Settling right at the bottom was Laurine, who just could not handle the chaos of her FOH post. It’s a shame to lose Laurine for a screw up outside the kitchen, but so it goes. All’s fair in love and “Top Chef” Restaurant Wars.

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