Episode 8 brought one of the most feared Top Chef elimination challenges, Restaurant Wars,
where the chefs were split into two teams. In the teams, the chefs transformed an empty space into a pop-up restaurant, selecting the name, theme, decor and menu.
Judge and host Padma Lakshmi and Dallas-based chef and Top Chef alum Tiffany Derry greeted the contestants inside an empty POST HTX.
This season’s Restaurant Wars were a bit different than those of the past. Instead of the chefs being assigned their teams, Chefs Nick Wallace and Jae Jung chose their respective teammates.
Jung chose our hometown favorite (and the current three-peat title holder) Evelyn Garcia, Luke Kolpin and Jackson Kalb. The foursome named their restaurant Nó Nem, pronounced “no name.” Because of Garcia’s winning streak, the team nominated her as executive chef and, naturally, the restaurant took a Southeast Asian approach.
The opposing team featured Wallace, Ashleigh Shanti, Demarr Brown and Buddha Lo. With Shanti in the executive chef seat, the restaurant had deep Southern roots, inspired by each of their mothers, and was named Matriarc.
This week’s episode had a real emotional touch — eight episodes into the season, I realized how long the chefs have spent away from their families. For team Matriarc, you can see from each of the chefs how inspired they were by the women in their lives. This episode was a tearjerker when Lo called home to his mother for her birthday.
Matriarc served a five-course tasting menu, starting with Lo, who cooked an array of Southern appetizers — Parkerhouse rolls with country ham butter, seafood tarts and fried oysters with comeback sauce. As executive chef, Shanti cooked two dishes: a salmon tartare with buttermilk pearls and shaved peaches, and the main course, a green gumbo inspired by the late Leah Chase of New Orleans’ coveted restaurant Dooky Chase. Wallace followed up with a fourth course, a strip loin with oxtail marmalade and potatoes, and Brown finished off the meal with his special carrot cake.
Luckily for myself and our lovely editor-in-chief, we got to have the experience live. We dined at Matriarc, and if you watch this week’s episode closely, you’ll get to see two familiar faces (who thoroughly enjoyed Wallace’s strip loin with oxtail marmalade).
Team Nó Nem decided to make its meals family-style for the restaurant, starting with a Pani Pure with shrimp and passion fruit vinaigrette, made by Garcia. Jung’s dish, snapper summer rolls made with papaya, citrus and avocado, would be served alongside Garcia’s. To stay within the Southeast Asian theme, Kolpin took notes from Garcia for the second course, making a choo chee curry with black cod wrapped in Napa cabbage. The team's collective dish was a barbecued nem sausage wrapped with fried Brussels sprouts, and Kalb closed out the meal with his dessert, a citrus curd shortbread cookie with whipped coconut cream.
It’s important to note the longevity that Kalb has maintained throughout the season, considering he admitted in Episode 1that after contracting COVID-19, he lost his senses of taste and smell. Now, eight episodes in, it’s honestly commendable.
I watched the judges discuss their feelings about the food at each restaurant, which was tough to witness — Brown nearly cracked under pressure working as the line cook at Matriarc, and was criticized by Judge Tom Colicchio for moving too slow. At Nó Nem, Kalb worked front-of-house duties and to all of the judges’ dismay, failed to greet the judges when they entered.
It was evident how much the judges enjoyed Matriarc in comparison to Nó Nem. Before I reached the end of the episode, I already knew who the winner was. Unfortunately, Restaurant Wars put a stop to Garcia’s three-week reign, and Team Matriarc took home a win, and Shanti won her first challenge back after being previously eliminated in the brisket challenge.
Kalb’s lack of taste and smell would come back to bite him, and Lakshmi kindly told him to “pack his knives.”
Next week, the chefs will cook for a fundraising block party and visit Freedmen’s Town in Fourth Ward.
Watch Top Chef every Thursday night on Bravo.