‘Top Chef’ recap: It’s a real food fight as the 8 All-Stars are drafted for ‘Restaurant Wars’

In last week’s episode of “Top Chef,” the judges rewarded restaurant pitches by All-Stars Kevin Gillespie and Gregory Gourdet in a prelude to this week’s “Restaurant Wars.” Meanwhile, eliminated chef Eric Adjepong tried to fight his way back into the competition on “Last Chance Kitchen,” but Nini Nguyen managed to retain her status in by cooking an Italian fish dish that was Tom Colicchio’s favorite. What happened this week during the show’s most-feared challenge? Read on for our minute-by-minute takes on the eighth episode of Season 17.

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10:02 p.m. The eight remaining chefs celebrate Kevin and Gregory’s victory in their Hollywood Hills home away from home. Gregory shares that Restaurant Wars was “an absolute disaster” the last time he competed on the show. His Season 12 team had a really broad theme and was all over the place. So he is looking for redemption with his Haitian-themed restaurant Kann. Meanwhile, Kevin looks like he doesn’t know what hit him as he won with his Country Captain, a family-style Southern eatery. Kevin knows being his team’s executive chef is a risk but he “would rather go out fighting for a victory every single time.”

10:04 p.m. The chefs march into the kitchen and are greeted by host Padma Lakshmi and guest judge Stephanie Izard, the first female chef to win the title of “Top Chef” in its fourth season. Padma says of Izard’s return after she also appeared in last week’s episode, “We’ve taken her hostage.” Padma then explains their dueling restaurants will be set up right next to each other in one of downtown L.A.’s trendiest dining districts, ROW DTLA. Time to pick who will be on each team. Knives are drawn, and Kevin gets first choice. Kevin picks Bryan Voltaggio, Melissa King and Karen Akunowicz. Gregory goes with Brian Malarkey, Lee Anne Wong and Stephanie Cmar.

10:06 p.m. Padma asks Stephanie how much she knows about Haitian cuisine. Her optimistic reply: “I’m a fast learner.” She then stirs the pot a little more by asking the chefs who won Restaurant Wars on their previous seasons. Bryan, Melissa and Karen raise their hands while Stephanie is the lone winning Wars vet among Gregory’s platoon. Lee Anne says, “The other team right now is a solid badass focused team. We’re a little bit more all over the place. We got a bunch of wild cards on our team.”

10:08 p.m. The chefs will have 48 hours to make their restaurant concept come to life. It’s up to each team how many dishes they want to have — no restrictions. They have to plan their menus and set up their kitchen. Then they will head to an event rental place to select their décor. And they will also place orders for seafood and meat. Stefanie points out, “We all know this is an incredibly difficult challenge, but it’s also the one we look forward to every single season.” Padma says, “The stakes are very high because the winning team will receive $40,000.”


10:10 p.m. Off they go to begin their errands. Brian tells the camera that his is “the funky team” and “the underdog team.” But he adds, “The good thing about that is if we do this right, we are going to lose a solid, solid competitor on the other team.” Karen offers to do the front of the house — one of the most dangerous responsibilities to take on during Restaurant Wars. But she says, “I like to do it. I did front of the house on my season and I did a great job.” However, she admits, “It’s not exactly a safe position to be in.”

10:12 p.m. Kevin says he wants his team to be inspired by the food of this time, but not being married to it rigidly. He adds, “I have to leave room for interpretation. I want people to feel like they personally contributed from concept to total execution.” He tells his team, “The key to Southern cooking is to be hyper seasonal.” In the car, Lee Anne asks Gregory how many dishes he would like to do. He thinks six. Stephanie realizes, “Gregory is clearly the executive chef and Malarkey is clearly the front of the house. These are people who have been through this before.”

10:14 p.m. Kevin tells his team, “In a formal Southern meal, you have an hor d’oeuvres course, a soup and salad course, the main course served with fixin’s, and you have dessert.” Melissa says they should slim down by losing the mid-course. Kevin says, “If we ditch the second course, we need at least five accompaniments.” Sounds awfully ambitious to me. Bryan is worried, too.

10:17 p.m. The teams check out the spaces where their restaurants will be. The mood boards from the previous episodes are in place. Gregory says he wants patrons to feel like “they have been whisked away to the Caribbean.” He notes that Haitian cuisine is underrepresented in America. He wants to open a restaurant back home, “so having this come to life is exciting.” Meanwhile, Kevin says he is going to serve the cuisine that represents the plantation-era South. The inspiration for the design comes from his grandmother. Like Gregory’s ode to his roots, Kevin’s theme is very personal to him as well.


10:19 p.m. The teams are back on the road and heading for Whole Foods. Lee Anne notes Haitian food has a lot of rum in it, which is OK with her “because I might need a shot by the middle of the day.” Gregory says for the pitch, he made braised oxtails but, for the challenge, he wants to make a new menu “to show the judges the repertoire of food and really push myself to create something magical.” He knows it is risky not to make a dish that the judges loved, but he is confident that the new dish will be equally delicious.

10:21 p.m. Melissa notes that Kevin has decided to make 12 dishes – and that gets me nervous. She tells Bryan to get a “sh*t-ton of apple cider vinegar.” Ooh, they buy plants and orchids, too. Gregory continues to do things smartly, letting Lee Anne and Malarkey handle front-of-the-house details while he and Stephanie go shopping at the specialties stores. Gregory goes to a meat market to get 35 pounds of beef shoulder. Meanwhile, Kevin and Karen pick out their aprons. Gregory next hits a seafood market and buys de-boned red snapper.


10:23 p.m. As Kevin and Karen pick out their dishware, she notes that they will be serving their food family style. That means a lot more china pieces. Brian, however, picks out the exact same place setting – and he isn’t going to change it even after Kevin angrily confronts them for poaching his plates. “It just happens to work for both concepts.” Oh, well, Malarkey has to be Malarkey. Lee Anne tries to apologize for him, but Karen isn’t having it. It’s called Restaurant Wars for a reason.

10:26 p.m. Lee Anne is at a flower store and prep work is in process. Brian cries out, “Masa, masa!” Stephanie shouts out “Malarkey” and shuts him down. Gregory has salt cod soaking for the salt cod patties, he has pork that he will rinse and marinate. He will make some chicken after that. “Gregory has a very clear vision of what he wants his menu to look like,” Stephanie says. “I think that is the key to our success.” She is doing a first course of fried green plantains, salt cod patties and pikliz. Gregory is handling twice-cooked pork and Lee Anne is doing a salad.


10:28 p.m. Gregory says the peppers he is cutting will get stewed with the chicken. He then says his second course is the most challenging. Malarkey is taking whole roasted red snapper for “a beautiful, dramatic presentation.” Gregory himself is doing the stewed chicken with white rice and kidney bean sauce. Gregory will start to make the rum raisin ice cream that will top Lee Anne’s pineapple upside-down cake.

10:31 p.m. Karen asks Melissa what she is working on. She says, “I’m just cooking down the aromatics for a chicken liver mousse. She then adds in a confessional, “I think executing 12 dishes is aggressive, but Restaurant Wars is really different this year. It’s the first time when they don’t have clear rules of this challenge. So Kevin wants to serve the meal family style because that’s how it is at granny’s house.” She goes on to say that besides her chicken liver dish, there are two other canapes on one plate including Bryan’s smoked trout puff and crab Louie. Kevin is focused on his second course, curried chicken with yellow rice. Melissa is also making fried potatoes and Bryan is making dilly beans, shrimp and grits and cucumber pickles. Karen is preparing glazed mushrooms with Madeira and red pepper relish. Kevin will be closing things out with banana pudding for his dessert course.

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10:34 p.m. Brian goes to check on the front of house details with five hours of prep time remaining. Karen notes she is only doing two dishes because she has to build an entire dining room. Kevin joins her in setting up. Meanwhile, Brian is ticked off because the rest of his Kann crew doesn’t have time to help him. He starts by putting together the table and chairs. He says, “I can’t wait to bring Kann to life.” Kevin is upset that the curry powder he used when he first cooked his chicken dish for his pitch wasn’t available this time. Gregory gives some tips to Stephanie as she kneads the fish patties. Bryan frets that with 12 dishes, that is a lot of food to be scrutinized. As he says, “This is a big load.”

10:37 p.m. Stephanie asks Gregory how they are doing on time. He admits he is getting nervous. Since Karen has been busy putting together the restaurant, she won’t be able to make her dishes until the next day. Kevin suggests Melissa can lend a hand since the front of the house can’t organize itself.

10:40 p.m. The chefs return to their mansion and Karen tells the others that she will write all the tickets and keep them at the host stand. Gregory then tells his crew he will introduce the concept of his restaurant and its cultural roots to diners via his menu. Lee Anne has a ton of things to do the next day and she is homesick. We get to see her son as she calls him by videophone. He recoils from a forkful of pasta.

10:42 p.m. Each team gets a bit of a “Reservoir Dogs” walking edit as they stride into their eateries. There’s only two hours left to cook. Lee Anne says, “It’s definitely a push for Gregory. He’s stressing out. But he’s putting a lot of faith in each and every one of us. And we are here to crush it for him.” Elsewhere, Kevin needs some chopped herbs and so does everyone else. Melissa volunteers to chop away. Bryan notes they will be serving 100 diners, including the judges, adding, “It is going to be a stressful service.” Karen says Malarkey has everything ready to go and he then talks to the servers.

10:45 p.m. Meanwhile, Karen is still cooking while servers are waiting on someone to give them direction. There are only 45 minutes left before opening. Lee Anne tells the staff that the food will be served family style and that the cuisine reflects Kevin’s vision. Gregory shows how the dishes should look on the plate. Bryan is rightfully nervous that the servers haven’t seen their food yet and guests will be walking through the doors in three minutes.

10:47 p.m. Malarkey greets the diners with a smile at Kann while Karen does the same at The Country Captain. Orders are coming in at Kevin’s place. But beyond the canapes, Melissa says the service is “feeling a little rocky.” In fact, the amount of food is overwhelming everyone, the tables included.


10:50 p.m. Stephanie, who isn’t liking how Lee Anne is berating the servers, offers to expedite the orders. Gregory asks Lee Anne if that is all right with her and she reluctantly steps away. Meanwhile, the judges have arrived at Kann. Restaurateur Kevin Boehm is upset that Gregory didn’t make the oxtail dish that he served for his pitch. Malarkey is pretending all is good while his motto is “comfort and chaos,” meaning that the judges see comfort while he deals with the chaos out back.

10:52 p.m. Stephanie notes that the food Gregory is serving is very personal to him. As she observes, “He wants to be plating, he wants to be tasting, he wants to be in every dish that goes out of this room and into the restaurant.” Of course, that also means things take a little longer. The judges get their first course of salad made by Lee Anne along with Stephanie’s salt-cod patties, pikliz and plantains. Gregory’s crispy twice-cooked pork is also served. Stephanie Izard says she would eat the fish patties all day long and they also like the double-fried plantains. Sadly, they aren’t as impressed with Gregory’s pork entrée. Gail complains that it’s a little dry. But head chef Tom Colicchio says, “I like what Gregory is doing here. He is giving us authentic food from his heart. He’s not trying to chef it up.”

10:54 p.m. Trouble ahead at Kann as the judges only have a half-hour left to dine and the fish main course hasn’t been served yet, let alone dessert. Gregory races to deliver his fish to the judges himself along with his chicken course. Padma doesn’t hold back and tells Gregory how disappointed she is that his oxtail dish is not on the menu. “That was a really big part of why we chose you.” Despite that, the judges are finding these entrees to be equally yummy. Brian delivers some good news to his team that Padma and company are loving their food. Padma asks her dining companions if they would come back to Kann, and all say yes. As Tom says, “It just feels like a restaurant. And a lot of Restaurant Wars, it doesn’t.’


10:56 p.m. Noting the throngs of customers still waiting to be seated, Karen says, “The judges will be walking into a very crowded restaurant. And I will have to take responsibility for that.” Padma says, “Let’s go do this all over again.” Karen delivers the bad news to Kevin that diners are just not leaving. As Gail waits to be seated, she immediately criticizes the décor for being far more Southern grandma than Country Captain.

10:58 p.m. Karen tries to smile her way through the crowded dining room as the judges are seated while the rest of the tables have to be reset. Restaurateur Kevin says the restaurant “looks more feminine than he thought it would be.” Gail adds, “It’s also more formal, which is not what I got from Kevin in his pitch.” The criticism continues with the menu as Tom says, “Graphically, this does not make sense.” Judge Stephanie says, “It’s very like ‘80s. This looks like ‘Miami Vice.’” The canapes are served, and Melissa’s chicken liver mousse is well-received. Gail preferred Bryan’s smoked trout puff “because it had the most flavor.” However, Tom observes, “There is nothing screaming Southern about those three canapes.”

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11:01 p.m. Meanwhile, Tom notices that the servers are struggling with the timing. Karen leads the parade of them with food to the judge’s table. Padma questions whether there are one too many items on the table for the main course. Gail concurs: “There’s a lot on this plate.” But they seem to like the food including Melissa’s fried potatoes, and Gail really digs the dilly beans. Padma thought Bryan’s shrimp dish was too sweet. And, as Kevin feared, Tom says the sauce on his Country Captain chicken isn’t as good as the pitch version. As diner Kevin says, “The problem of building an entire restaurant concept around one dish, that dish better damn well be spectacular.”

11:03 p.m. Tom really doesn’t like Karen’s mushrooms, which he damns as “not good.” Karen tells Kevin, “Fire the judges’ desserts.” They are actually wondering why Kevin Gillespie hasn’t made an appearance himself to greet them. It looks like he might not make one. The warm banana pudding is served. Padma gripes, “It’s not enough pudding and too much everything else.”

11:05 p.m. Kann is near closing time and Gregory says, “I can breathe. Our service wasn’t perfect. There was some tension in the air, 100 percent.” Meanwhile, Kevin says, “I’m not super proud of the work I put out there today. I believe our pacing and organization was not great. And I don’t know how much that was felt in the dining room.” He will soon find out. Karen knows the person who handles the front of the house is often thrown under the bus. “I had to walk away from my dish.” She thinks she spent too little time in the dining room and not enough time in the kitchen.


11:06 p.m. Kevin’s rather grim-faced team leads the parade into the “Top Chef” kitchen where the judges await. Tom starts off with a few compliments for both teams, concluding with “All in all, an awesome job.” Padma turns to Stephanie Izard and asks, “Which team won Restaurant Wars?” Of course, it is Kann.

11:08 p.m. Tom explains,”What impressed me about your meal is that you didn’t try to chef it up. It was really true to what you said it was going to be.” Padma says that they started really strong with their appetizers. Tom looks at chef Stephanie and says, “Dude, that patty was so good.” Padma also liked the crunch in Lee Anne’s salad and declares it “delicious.” Tom says the chicken was “damn good” and Padma adds, “The fish was better than the one that was served in the pitch.” OK, this is getting to be a lovefest. Padma also gives props to Lee Anne’s dessert, saying that people loved it.Tom gives Gregory the best compliment by saying his restaurant “makes me want to go to Haiti.”

11:10 p.m. Padma asks Kevin, “How do you think the day went for you?” He says, “I think all told, it went pretty well. I think my grandmother would have been really proud.” Gail says, “You took on a lot. Was there ever any talk of doing less?” On the contrary, he says, “There was talk of doing more, actually.” Bryan pipes up and says, “Naturally, when you are opening a restaurant in one day, you have to get a better game plan.”

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11:12 p.m. Padma says to Kevin, “Was there any dish you wished you had edited out?” He says, “There should and could have been some editing. But the monologue inside my head the entire time was my grandmother saying, “You give them everything you possibly can and then you give them a few more, because that’s what you are supposed to do with your guests.” Judge Stephanie says the Country Captain dish that was originally served was incredible, but “do you think it came out the same?” He admits, “No it did not.” Tom then tears into Karen’s mushrooms, which didn’t have a lot of flavor. Suddenly, Karen puts some blame on Melissa for not helping her out enough with her finishing touches. Gail also dings the Kevin’s dessert, saying, “I definitely wanted the banana to be softer and it felt a little bit dry.”

11:13 p.m. Tom addresses the issue of huge waiting crowds at Country Captain with Karen. She says, “People sat a bit longer than we expected them to.” He then tells Kevin, “This is your concept. It’s something really close to you. How do we not send you home right now?” To his credit, Kevin answers, “I was raised to stand in front of your mistakes and you own them for what they are. There have been times when I tried my best to save my own skin. Frankly, I couldn’t live with myself if I tried to throw anybody under the bus to save myself.”

11:14 p.m. Padma delivers the coup de grace, Kevin, please pack your knives and go.” But Tom reassures him, “You have ‘Last Chance Kitchen.’ It ain’t over yet.” And given how many challenges he has won this season already, Nini might be quaking in her boots.

Upcoming on “Top Chef”: We get  glimpses of upcoming challenges, including a summer camp, a school cafeteria line, a blind taste test and a trip to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that seems to be Olympics-related. And, for the first time, “Top Chef” is heading to Europe – Italy to be exact — for its finale.

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