Coming off her win on last week’s “Top Chef,” chef Shirley Chung of Twenty Eight in Irvine started from a position of strength on last night’s episode. And a very good thing this was, too, because, with eight cheftestants remaining, it was time for Restaurant Wars. Maybe because it’s one of the most taxing challenges in a “Top Chef” season, there was no Quickfire—it was straight into choosing teams and getting going on the punishing task of opening a restaurant in a mere 24 hours.
Picking knives that made them de facto captains, Shirley and Katsuji Tanabe assembled the teams. Tanabe grabbed Sheldon Simeon, who’s been Shirley’s good friend and collaborator. Shirley chose Brooke Williamson, another strong competitor, in a smart strategic move: Williamson very successfully worked Restaurant Wars front of house in “Top Chef” Season 10, where she went all the way to the final before losing to “Last Chance Kitchen” returnee Kristen Kish. Chung also added Sylva Senat, who has definite chops and seems to be something of a judges’ favorite. Tanabe ended up with his similarly talented-but-unpredictable frenemy John Tesar, and Casey Thompson, a golden girl from Season 3 who’s had her ups and downs in Charleston. Chung’s team is completed with Emily Hahn, the chef cast as the weakest link this season—last week escaping elimination only because Jamie Lynch forfeited his immunity.
I’m cheered when Shirley volunteers to be executive chef, and her leadership experience immediately shows its value. From menu planning to shopping, through prep and execution, she’s a self-described “cheerleader,” supervising and motivating her team in an iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove way that really keeps things on track. And indeed, they prepare an excellent meal served with super-pro front-of-house support. It’s the cleanest, clearest Restaurant Wars win I can remember. They had some help from Tanabe and the opposing team, who had every problem they could possibly inflict upon themselves: warring team members, messy kitchen environment, unfocused menu, chaotic expediting, and basically nonexistent service.
Tanabe himself took the hit, and then lost to Lynch in “Last Chance Kitchen” as well. Lynch stays alive in this secondary competition as seven chefs remain in regular play, and the final gets ever closer.
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