Things have been going pretty well for Justin Sutherland on “Top Chef” so far this season.
The St. Paul-based chef has consistently fallen into the middle of the pack. He’s made some standout dishes, had the first win of the Quickfire Challenge, and he’s never landed in the bottom three facing elimination. But he could certainly stand a few more wins to rise above the others.
So is he getting a little too confident in his odds at the $125,000 prize? Last night’s episode of “Top Chef” seems to make that case.
First, the Quickfire Challenge. Chefs have to each create an amuse bouche, a single-bite dish to tickle the palate. We don’t get to see Sutherland cook, but he puts together a bite of fried chicken with apple, fennel, radish and chive in a champagne vinaigrette with chili.
Guest judge and former “Top Chef” contestant Karen Akunowicz (who’s from my hometown in New Jersey – hey, Karen!) smiled when she ate it, but that’s all we learn about how Sutherland did. He’s neither the worst nor the best.
Then, host Padma Lakshmi pulls a surprise on everyone. This Elimination Challenge is the show’s legendary Restaurant Wars. That’s when the remaining contestants team up to create and run restaurants, from the kitchen to the front of the house. Usually, Restaurant Wars occurs later in the season, with just two teams of chefs, but this time there are three.
Sutherland winds up on a team with Nini Nguyen (two-time winner of the Elimination Challenge), David Viana (frequent Quickfire winner) and Kelsey Barnard Clark. It’s a pretty standout group, so there’s reason for Sutherland to be excited, to be sure.
The teams have two days to conceptualize, design and execute the restaurant, according to the rules. Sutherland’s blue team comes up with a southern concept called Third Coast. So the chef at Handsome Hog and Pearl & the Thief, both southern restaurants, is pretty much coasting at this point.
The teammates divide into tasks and Sutherland takes the helm of the crew. “I’m a great executive chef,” he says. “Two restaurants, I have 100 employees.” Good move there.
The foursome meets with a design team and come up with an Antebellum mansion-style look, then have an hour and $3,500 to shop for groceries. It’s a whirlwind day, and they end it by soaking in a hot tub with champagne and toasting to their impending victory. Does anyone want to at least knock on some wood or something?
(On the other hand, if that’s how Sutherland conducts business meetings, someone get me a job there.)
The next day, as the chefs prep, things are still going the blue team’s way. Meanwhile, the other two teams are already melting down in panic.
But things take a turn when it’s time to train the servers. Nguyen, who took on front of house duties, seems to be failing at her job and the desserts she promised to make. Sutherland, who barely kept it together two weeks ago when his corn dropped on the floor, lets his temper show.
“Come on!” he shouts and stalks off when he realizes his servers don’t know what they’re doing. Later he delivers a bleep-filled rant. He starts barking at Barnard Clark, “Tell Nini to…” and trails off, finally restraining himself. “I’m just gonna smile,” he says.
That’s right, Minnesotan, swallow those feelings and be nice!
Just before the first part of this two-episode challenge ends, Tom Colicchio comes in with news: Restaurant Wars is going to end with a double elimination. What a cliffhanger!
Tune in next week to see the restaurants in action and find out who’s sent home. Will it be Sutherland, who’s presumably costing the network a fortune with his bleeps?
Fashion check-in: Once again on a Whole Foods shopping trip, Sutherland’s taste in shirts really gets to shine. This time he’s in a button-down with tigers on it.
Best Justinisms: Not a lot this episode. But I liked his description of Third Coast’s design. “Like Forrest Gump’s mom’s house, you know, like, white, big, but like, 2.0.”