Somewhere in the Nevada desert, Laurine sits by the edge of a pool, lolling her feet in the water, soaking in the sun’s unsparing rays and feeling happy that she’s “still here with the best chefs.”
Ha! Little does she know what cruel twists of fate await. A blindfold, a pot of boiling oil, whipped miso, a shoving match over a case of sparkling water, a roomful of exasperated diners and a withering summons from Padma to fetch salt.
“Padma wants salt!” Three words to strike terror in the heart of any chef.
Phew. I didn’t even get to Laurine’s little lamb. But before we find out whether it followed her to school or sent her packing, you must decide whether you can tolerate a SPOILER. I cannot decide this for you; it must come from your heart. And/or balls.
So the Brothers Volt go at it like scrappy puppies in the kitchen — the “eternal competition” as Kevin terms it. Poolside Laurine jokes around with bikini-clad Jen, who promises to perform the next Quickfire in her bathing suit and high heels. Aah, if only.
Instead, the eight still standing suit up in chef’s whites to march into Top Chef kitchen and face down the Knife Block of Destiny. Padma introduces guest judge Rick Moonen, and Kevin is thrilled! Moonen, who has two fish restaurants in landlocked Las Vegas, is the face of seafood sustainability, and Kevin is all about sustainability at Woodfire Grill. Even though Moonen could do delicious things to the world’s last bluefin tuna and charge big bucks for it, he chooses seasonal halibut.
(As an aside, Moonen is not a locavore, otherwise he’d have to feed his guests nothing but fried scorpions and cactus paddles.)
The chefs begin drawing knives and…
Nothing! Nothing and more nothing! What in tarnation is going on?
Finally Jen picks a knife that reads “first choice” and Mike V. gets one that reads “second choice.” These two must pick teams. Jen picks Kevin, Mike goes for big bro, Jen takes Mike I., Mike V. chooses Eli and…yes!
“I’m so happy I wasn’t picked last,” Eli admits in voiceover. Surely that shame would have brought back crippling memories of 5th grade dodgeball.
The chefs have a fun:
QUICKFIRE CHALLENGE: Tag Team Cookoff (Or: The Blind Leading the Bland)
The cooks in each team will have ten minutes to work on a dish before passing the baton to the next in line. But here’s the catch: Those waiting are blindfolded and have no idea what to expect.
Jen, Kevin, Mike I. and Laurine are the blue team. Eli, Robin and the Volts are the red team.
Good cooking “is about a line of people working in synergy,” says Moonen.
Synergy. Teamwork. Nothing should be easier for the red team, otherwise known as the Brat, Bad Mommy, Cain and Abel.
The challenge is fascinating to watch. Jen goes first for her team and grabs some sustainable black cod (otherwise known as sablefish). She starts simmering a sauce with chicken broth and cut-up shrimp and flavors a pot of simmering oil with thyme. Surely the next in line will know to oil poach the fish.
Laurine rips off her blindfold and finds the oil. “Is she frying thyme for a garnish?” she asks out loud. “No! She wants us to poach the fish. But it’s too soon, so I’m going to slice mushrooms.”
Mike I. attacks the mysterious doings next, reducing the sauce and sauteeing said mushrooms. Finally, Kevin (who gets the last spot because he has superior plating skills) finds the mushrooms, the sauce, the oil and fish. Does he poach? No, he pan roasts for better texture.
On the blue side, Eli’s sears strip steaks, chops mushrooms, cleans greens and gets hosannas from next-in-line Robin who is so thrilled with his prep that she reaches for the bottle of yuzu juice.
“Yuzu,” Bryan says, ripping off his blindfold. We’ve wandered into Asian territory. Time for some soy sauce, miso and green avocado business in the food processor. Brother Mike tears off his blindfold to finish the Asian steak and gets the idea to whip the miso.
How does one whip miso, you might ask. Simple. You put it in an iSi container — otherwise known as a whipped cream charger that aerates the contents with nitrous oxide. Looks like dessert topping, tastes like Japanese soup! Fun for the whole family.
Moonen really, really likes his steak in its whipped and gooey-green Asian setting but finds it maybe just a tad underdone.
But he loves the sablefish with mushrooms in gingery shrimp chicken sauce. Even though Jen mistakenly calls it “trout” (these long days and bouts of illness seem to be getting the better of Ms. Sang Froid), Moonen bestows the win on the blue team.
“Great fish, very sustainable,” says the happily chewing chef. (By the way, this is a fish that lives in very deep waters and develops the same tender, unctuous texture as Chilean sea bass — an overfished species that Moonen would spit out.)
The blue team disengages from its group hug to discover they get a $10,000 chip. They can take the money and run off the to Keno tables or they can put it back in the kitty and each win $10,000 if victorious at the:
ELIMINATION CHALLENGE: Restaurant Wars (Or: What’s in a Name?)
Yes, kids, it’s time for that “Top Chef” mainstay in which two teams have a day to conceptualize and build a restaurant from scratch, and then feed a roomful of people.
Moonen offers up his two restaurants — and since he does want them ripping out sconces and Supergluing bolts of purple taffeta to the walls — the chefs do not have to worry about decor, as competitors did in years past.
Free of non-culinary pitfalls, our confident blue team gambles for the big money. We’re in Vegas, baby.
Moonen sends two from each team off to Whole Foods with $1500 and a Seafood Watch sustainability card. The other two go to Restaurant Depot, which sells both dry goods and fresh ingredients at non-Whole Foods prices. They’re even given phones from, presumably, a sponsor, and the chefs all gush about the clear reception, easy-to-read LED display and seductively contoured chassis on each device.
At Restaurant Depot, Robin gets the notion that Laurine has been spying on her from behind the display of #10 cans of crushed tomato and has — gasp! — stolen her brilliant idea to serve sparkling water. So she give her a shove and a warning. Laurine is all, “Crazy woman, do not touch me.”
That night, despite a little brotherly squabbling, we see actual teamwork from the red team — heretofore shaping up to be the most dysfunctional familial unit since the Joads. Pen and paper in hand, Mike shows Robin how to turn her humble pear crumble into a Frenchified pear pithiviers with an almond frangipane base and a lattice-topped puff pastry crust. He then turns to the camera and informs everyone that Robin is “out of her league.”
As part of the challenge, the teams must come up with something to call their restaurants. Robin, Eli and the Voltaggios make an anagram of their names to come up with — are you ready? — Revolt!
What a great name for a restaurant! They also kick around a few other intriguing monikers — Nauseate, Discharge, Filthy Sponge — but conclude that Revolt says it all.
Cut to the confident blue team, which has decided to call its restaurant Mission to reflect the simplicity and clean lines of Mission-style furniture. Let’s just hope no one wanders into this Mission looking for Salvation rather than seared pork belly.
Per Restaurant Wars rules, someone from each team must work the front of the house. For the reds, it’s Eli, who goes ripping through his wardrobe for just the outfit that says “Revolt.”
What do you think, guys? The schlubby untucked purple shirt or the schlubby untucked striped shirt? “Looks great,” say the Volts.
The blue team, as winners of Quickfire get to pick which of Moonen’s two restaurants they’ll use. They go for the fancy one, natch.
No worries, say the Revolt-ing Quartet. We wanted the casual spot for our fun, edgy, casual food.
And then, boom. Three short hours to get it all ready. Jen is quickly in the weeds. Everyone is in the weeds. Even the censors can’t keep up with the bleeps as vulgar names and imprecations are hurled about the kitchen along with the sustainable seafood.
Laurine — in heels and a cocktail dress to work the front of the house at Mission — swings open the kitchen doors in horror.
“The lounge is full of people, and I am not ready,” she moans.
Lucky for them, the judges are upstairs in Revolt, where their untucked host, Eli, greets them warmly and ushers them to their table. Joining Padma (looking radiant, possibly preg-radiant, in black), Tom and Moonen is Toby Young.
First courses arrive promptly, and while the judges find the smoked arctic char with horseradish “one dimensional,” they are blown away by MVolt’s pressed chicken with calamari noodles and tomato confit.
The second course takes a while to arrive, and the judges get antsy. By this point in the evening, they should already have consumed at least 4,000 calories. But their wait is rewarded with “melt in your mouth” cod with parsley sauce and a Billi Bi (creamed mussel) croquette. Yum! It clearly bests BVolt’s cold beef duo with bland sauce that Tom dismisses as “meat and potatoes.” Even the nobodies at the other tables are aghast with their cold meat.
Meanwhile in the kitchen….
“This is my damn dessert!” shouts Robin, as she tries to wrestle a pear pithiviers from MVolt’s hands. “Screw off!”
They shout about conduct, about language, about portion size, and Robin once again feels patronized.
But the dessert is a great success, and Toby Young calls it the “best thing Robin has done.” Moonen says this dessert (or possibly the accompanying chocolate ganache cake with spearmint ice cream) is “like a good massage.” Deep tissue?
Happy and content, the judges are ready for dinner number two.
Alas, things are not good at all. Laurine proves to be a sullen and uncommunicative hostess of “sit here and I will ignore you” variety.
Plus, the blue team cooks have screwily decided to be responsible for a course each, preparing and plating every single dish, and ensuring a service nightmare.
Mike I. starts things off with underseasoned char squiggles with onion, and a simplistic asparagus and egg dish that do not knock Padma’s Spanx off. She summons Laurine to the table with a wolf whistle and demands salt. DEFCON 4!
Then the judges must wait and wait and wait for their next course, with nothing but that dish of fleur de sel to keep their tummies from rumbling.
“How long will it be?” Padma asks impatiently.
“Just a minute,” Laurine lies. The next course hasn’t even been fired.
Poor weeded, frazzled, near-tears Jen eventually puts out two fish dishes. The halibut is nicely cooked; the raw mussels in its consomme sauce are not. But her trout is “an absolute disaster,” Tom declares. Beige, flavorless and swimming in a greasy sauce. This poor species maintained its sustainability for this?
For the final course, the blue team superstitiously decides to eschew dessert — citing a curse from seasons past. “The team with dessert always loses,” they whisper.
But Kevin undercooks Laurine’s lamb racks, even as he puts a perfectly decent, Kevin-y plate of rarefied pork bits. The judges call it “lamb Jell-o” and leave the table with sour faces.
Red team, no duh, gets called to Judges’ Table first. Tom informs them it was ‘the best Restaurant Wars restaurant in six seasons.”
Mike, the leader, gets the biggest plaudits for his pressed chicken and cod, and he handily takes them for Robin’s dessert by informing the judges it was his recipe.
“There’s a fine line between being helped and being dominated,” grumbles Robin.
Mike is declared winner and receives an autographed copy of Moonen’s book, “Sustain This, Suckers.” But he also gets that forfeited 10K chip, which he generously decides to share with the team. Big bro BVolt doesn’t want the stinking money. “Keep it,” he sneers.
Blue team head to the chopping block and they all look aghast, especially poor Jen. When Tom berates her for her broken trout sauce, she responds, “I feel pretty broken right now.”
But Laurine, whom Toby says “looked like a deer caught in the headlights,” get the boot for her poor service and lousy lamb. I suspect that if the judges were playing by Queensbury rules, Jen would have gone for her lousier food. But she has proven herself admirable many times over, and I, for one, am glad she’s still around.
Laurine, for her part, is glad to go back to her life. No worries, no tears, no blame. A class act all the way, she packs her knives and skedaddles.