“And then there were eight,” Padma Lakshmi tells a lineup of some of the best chefs in America at the beginning of this week’s Top Chef. “You know what that means.”
They do. Everyone who watches the show does. It means Restaurant Wars.
For 14 seasons, Restaurant Wars has been the high-stress, high-profile centerpiece on the Bravo reality series. In this signature episode, two competing teams start their own pop-up restaurants (buying everything from the produce to the furniture), serve the judges and guests and then shut down just as quickly. The weakest chef on the losing team will go home.
“This is universally the fans’ favorite episode because there’s a lot of drama inherent to opening a restaurant on such a compressed schedule,” cohost Tom Colicchio says an hour before the first service. “It can take a year to figure out a restaurant, so doing this in two days is fun to watch.”
It’s the challenge that most closely approximates what these contestants do in their day jobs—bend chaos into top-tier fine dining—and what they’ll go back to doing when this season is over. Colicchio is sitting at an upstairs table in the soaring, cavernous Lagunitas TapRoom in Charleston, South Carolina. The top floor of the restaurant has been converted to a catering area for Top Chef’s staff and crew and ready rooms—big, rectangular tents like in a 1950s beach movie—for the hosts.
“The chefs who come out of Top Chef are real professionals,” he says. “They win real awards. The run multiple restaurants. This episode gives you that.” Restaurant Wars comes midway through the season, when the field has been cut in half from 16 to eight. He goes on: “The remaining chefs are starting to feel the weight of possibly—getting to the finale, possibly winning. It’s a turning point in the season, and it has become a real point of pride to win Restaurant Wars.”
Colicchio, Lakshmi and Gail Simmons have been the core judging panel for Top Chef throughout its 14 seasons over the last 11 years. The show is compelling the way The West Wing was compelling: You’re watching talented, temperamental professionals invent and compete on the fly. There’s no fake drama or hair-pulling (except for that one time with Marcel Vigneron during Season 2) of the sort you see on a lot of reality shows. On Top Chef these people mean it, and Restaurant Wars is a good place to see those dynamics at work.
“We’re at a telling moment in the competition,” says Simmons, sitting in her dressing cubicle amid a swirl of stylists and production assistants. “We’re down to eight chefs, and this is when they start to get really tired. Restaurant Wars is exhausting and we’ve been at it almost a month.”
The episode is broadly the same from season to season, with minor tweaks along the way like last season’s double duty of dinner and lunch services. This season, Restaurant Wars is back to just dinner, but the time to execute it is even shorter.
“Both teams are working in the exact same space,” Simmons says. “One team gets 24 hours to create a restaurant and cook a full service, and then the entire thing comes down and the next team gets 24 hours to do the same. Every season, we’re trying to focus more and more on the experience of trying to create a restaurant.”
Simmons and Lakshmi are coming out of hair and makeup, and an audio producer mikes them up ahead of the short trip to the restaurant, where the first group’s service is already underway. When Lakshmi steps out of her dressing cubicle in a periwinkle gown, the energy in the room picks up a perceptible charge. Producers and publicists move around her like electrons, and a group who won a charitable event to get to meet her are giddy. I’m giddy. She’s six feet tall and luminous.
“This challenge is about doing the restaurant that you would do if someone invested the money in your enterprise,” Lakshmi says. “You’re getting 50 plates that have a lot of different components, and you’re trying to get them all out at the same time. It’s a skill, and it’s a different skill than just being creative or being able to make delicious food. This is an attempt to simulate as much as possible what being a chef in the real world is like.”
As the hosts leave to board a sedan that will drive them about a hundred feet to the restaurant—the only thing I saw in two days of taping that was rigged for TV—I duck out to watch the rest of the taping with the producers. The last time I was in the space, it was Charleston icon Sean Brock’s Minero, a tiny Tex-Mex restaurant that had recently moved to a larger space next door. Now it’s full of giant TV monitors and people talking into their wrists like secret service agents.
On one bank of monitors, there’s a nervous beehive of activity in the kitchen, with chefs navigating the tiny cook space and servers rotating in and out. On another bank of monitors, there’s a relatively placid dining room full of people eating and drinking. The director in the control room is talking to the producers and camera operators inside the dining room, and everyone else in the control room is zeroed in one task or another on laptops and tablets. It’s like a symphony with no sheet music and all of the instruments in the next room.
“I’ve helped your ass all fucking day,” one chef says to a teammate, and the producer chatter picks up for a moment.
The other chef replies, “The only way we’re gonna make it is if you cut that stuff out.”
The camera operator is poised to capture the exchange, which will definitely make the cut. The spat has been brewing for a while, and it plays out in this episode. Colicchio, Lakshmi, Simmons and two guest judges enter the restaurant space and get seated.
Let the battle begin.
Top Chef airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Bravo.