Lorena Garcia wears a toga at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. Where are the guys' togas?
Game changer!! In this episode of "America's Next Great Restaurant," Stephenie (below) of Harvest Sol (formerly ComplEAT) goes out in flames in the competition held at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, where apparently the great cross-section of America is, the judges tell us.
This is why I'm NOT a betting kind of gal. Given the judges predilection for freshness, sustainability and healthfulness, as shown last week with the challenge of cooking for kids, I was sure that Stephenie would be the overall winner. She seemed to have it all going for her: good tasting, healthy food that the judges praised, and a concept driven by the judges' interests. How could that go wrong?
Well, there was Stephenie's lack of focus. What was her concept supposed
to be? She started out the contest wanting her restaurant to be about meals within certain calorie counts. Then the judges had her make changes. And more changes. What she ended up with was a concept the judges were directing. So it shouldn't have been a surprise that she became confused about the concept when the judges grilled her.
Stephenie made significant mistakes this week. First, she was confused about issues of sustainability for lamb, deciding to forgo using the meat after discovering she couldn't confirm how it was raised. Fair enough (though this was the first we had heard about sustainability as part of her concept). Her problem was two-fold: She confused issues of how calves (for veal) are raised (often in small pens) with how lamb is raised (in a pasture, we're told by Steve Ells). And she made this mistake in front of Steve, who has built Chipotle (did you know he was the founder?) with great emphasis on sourcing local foods, including humane methods of raising livestock. Big mistake. Curtis smelled blood and went for the kill as he looked at the rest of the menu: "Is the beef raised without antibiotics?" A flustered Stephenie didn't know.
Perhaps she would have squeaked by. But then she blew this week's challenge to hire and train employees so that they could operate the food stands for an hour without help from the contestant. Stephenie points out in an interview that her method of training is to give only a little guidance to employees and then let them figure the rest out by themselves. Stephenie, what were you thinking? No surprise, then, that her employees were clueless in the challenge when they had to represent Stephenie's food to others. She didn't know what her concept was about, so neither did her employees.
Find out more about Stephenie in her exit interview, as she talks about life post-ANGR, including singing in NYC, working at a restaurant, traveling to Panama and learning Spanish. The Harvard grad is a woman of wide-ranging interests, and she's married, which wasn't mentioned earlier.
Jamawn, left, of Soul Daddy was the big winner this week, scoring the popular vote with his food and with the judges for his articulate servers. He served Cajun salmon and shrimp (not something that pops into my mind as soul food, but hey, it's an evolving category) and bbq ribs (Curtis was seen licking his fingers, always a good sign). Steve says of the menu: "I think it's brilliant." Props to Jamawn, who put effort into expanding soul food into more healthy fare (remember he started out with only wings and waffles). The judges lapped it up. And they love his story (broke, out of work, trying to change his life, three kids). In the one-on-one with him later, he gets the softball questions ("What would a win mean to you?"). The judges appear to be near tears as they listen to Jamawn's story. "I could be a better provider," he says about the prospect of winning. Bobby says later, "Love him." Lorena gushes, "He has learned; he has grown."
The messages were mixed for Sudhir, below right, this week. The judges loved his food (Curtis to other judges: "I'm not going to talk; I just want to eat.") His employees were well-trained and brought the message of modern Indian food to the judges. All seemed good.
Then Sudhir appears before the judges. Steve asks him, "What's the hardest thing for you about running a restaurant?" And that's where things fall apart. Sudhir says he doesn't think anything would be too hard. Curtis leaps into the fray: "So you don't have any weakness? That's a huge weakness when you can't see your own weakness." Sudhir concedes that is true, and Steve later has the last word, "This concerns me. How can you improve if you don't know your weakness?"
Whoa. It was brutal, like last week when Curtis thought Sudhir wasn't taking things seriously because Sudhir didn't break down in tears before the judges. My favorite line from Sudhir happened last week when he responded to Curtis in this way: "I am a lucky man. I'm in the top five [last week] restaurants in the country." That's a man with a good outlook.
Undoubtedly, editing is a significant factor in this, but as a viewer we see that only Sudhir is questioned about weakness. After Sudhir has left the room, Bobby criticizes Sudhir: "He's a starter, not a finisher. In fact, that's what his career is. He helps companies start up and then he walks away ... The finishing separates the men from the boys."
Well, that didn't settle too well with Sudhir, who tweeted: "My friends know what I am made of and I can't change the distorted image reality TV puts out there." Another tweet: "OK kids - I am not as arrogant as they make me look nor do I start & abandon companies as Bobby seems to suggest - EDITING & reality TV!!!!"
Then we're on to Joey, left, of Brooklyn Meatball Co. He starts out the show noting that "Bobby Flay says I have a gift with meatballs." Not something I'd put on my resume but this is reality TV. Joey, though, has a problem this week. The judges don't like his meatballs. In fact, some of the meatballs are cold. It's panic time at the Meatball Co. "I can't argue for you this week," Bobby tells Joey later.
"But I have the mass appeal and it's a money maker," Joey argues. "I got Sophie's coin [Bobby Flay's daughter voted for Joey's meatballs in last week's kids' competition] for food. I have the passion," Joey pleads with the judges, playing to Lorena's clear preference for passion. Later, Bobby asks the other judges, "Do meatballs have legs?" (Yes, we know what "has legs" means, but it is a funny visual.) Steve asks, "Does it [meatballs] do anything positive for food culture in this country?"
Well, that's a big order for a fast-casual restaurant. Let's take it further. Would Indian food or soul food change the way we eat in America? Curiously, Curtis Stone notes earlier that, of the Final Four contestants, all but Spice Coast is American in flavor. Sudhir's food, he says, is the most "alienating" of the four concepts.
Bigger news: The show clearly states the location of the restaurants and, to no one's surprise, it's the Mall of America in Bloomington (though the show says Minneapolis). Other outlets are at South Street Seaport in New York City and Hollywood in Highland Center in Hollywood, Calif.
Next Sunday's show is the finale and, as I mentioned last week, even the finalists don't know who has won. Three endings were filmed -- so the contestants will be as surprised as we are. Which way will the judges go? I'm not making any bets.
But clearly the winner won't be having a lot of say in the restaurants, since the design, menus and employees are all wrapped up BEFORE the winner knows he has won. No date yet on when the MOA restaurant will open. NBC is keeping mum with the details until after the finale. Chipotle (did you know Steve Ells is the founder?), however, is clearly in control of hiring and, presumably running, the restaurants. Job fairs have already been held in all three cities.
Nielsen ratings this week: The show landed at #77 this week (fallen from #74 last week), with 2.6 million households watching (same as last week).
What were they serving in this competition? It was hard to tell from the editing, but here are the menus. You can vote on which is best:
Spice Coast: Curry chicken taco, cauliflower chickpea quesadilla on whole-wheat tortilla (no mention of whether chickpeas are "fresh" or canned, which caused such a ruckus with Harvest Sol a few weeks ago), mango shake
Soul Daddy: Cajun-seared salmon and shrimp, fried chicken, barbecue ribs
Brooklyn Meatball Co.: three-meat meatballs, eggplant smashed sliders (which we never saw on-screen) and turkey meatballs
Harvest Sol: Grilled Greek sandwich with lamb and zucchini, slow-roasted short ribs and honey panna cotta
It wasn't all work in Las Vegas. The three winners celebrated with the judges at Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill. And they had a little poolside time, as well, where Sudhir tells us that the Final Four (clearly stated before Stephenie was shown the door) were an interesting bunch: "We look somewhat like a very odd United Colors of Benetton ad."
Join me Sunday at 7 p.m. on NBC (Ch. 11) as we tweet our way through the finale #stribtaste.
Poll: Which 2013 Taste Holiday Cookie Contest entry do you most want to try?