At some point during the ten seasons of Top Chef, the annual Restaurant Wars episode became an even bigger deal than the finale. The appeal of the challenge is obvious. Not only does the task force our chefs to step out of their comfortable roles at the midway point of the season to complete the seemingly insurmountable task of building a restaurant from the ground up in a day, but it’s also one that’s rife with the type of explosive drama reality show producers crave. Orders need to be placed! Flatware need to be classy! Padma’s cleavage must be acknowledged the second she walks in the door!
You have to assume local chef Sara Johannes wanted more fireworks in her mostly stagnant season of Top Chef, but I can’t imagine she wanted to make the impression she made on tonight’s episode, which unfortunately saw her exit. This was cringe TV at its worst (best?), an hour of television that made me wince on more than one occasion.
Things just didn’t go well for Sara’s team from the start. Based on names alone (Nina, Shirley, Carlos, Justin), the team appeared poised for victory from the beginning, but quickly became derailed over a lack of commitment on their restaurant’s theme. Naming themselves Found, the team’s idea was to center their menu on “Modern America,” an all-encompassing melting pot that would effectively allow each chef to stay within their chosen style of cooking. The other team took a more direct approach with Fin, a seafood restaurant that was unified by both style and flavor profiles. Travis is praised as the best front of the house person in Restaurant Wars history, while Nicholas wins for combining black drum and oxtail. That's hardly the story in this episode, however, but congrats to them both.
I have no idea why Sara decided to be such a martyr in this challenge, but I was practically screaming at my TV when she volunteered to not only take the front of the house position, but to also make a dessert. Restaurant Wars is never an easy challenge. There’s absolutely no need to make it as hard on yourself as possible.
I’ve written before that Sara’s sleepy yet direct approach can come off as slightly condescending, but dealing with Justin (who also volunteered for his role as Found’s executive chef) in a productive way couldn’t have been a walk in the park. Justin showed a petulant side during last episode’s judging panel, and it’s an attitude he’s now made his calling card. From tantrums over Nina buying the wrong plates to his sharp words to Carlos at Whole Foods (apparently they went shopping before solidifying their menu? Why?), Justin was in bad spirits the entire episode, an attitude that surely contributed to the chaos in the kitchen. At one point Sara rightfully points out that they don’t have a big enough coffee maker to serve 120 people and his retort was to say “Can we be positive?” in the least positive way possible.
But Sara’s just as guilty, if not more, for Found’s failures. It’s expected that there will be some backlog in the kitchen and some unwanted waiting time for the VERY IMPORTANT Chase Sapphire Preferred diners, but Found didn’t even seem to have a shell of an ordering system in place. Meals went out in random segments, wrong plates went to the wrong people, and Sara apparently broke a dining taboo by issuing a “verbal fire” for the judge’s appetizers instead of submitting a formal ticket.
The judges were impatient, especially Padma, who was absolutely dismayed by Sara’s very strange choice of not formally introducing or explaining the dishes. She offers no details for three of the dishes, is prompted by Padma to explain one, and then remembers to explain her own, a choice that struck Padma as conceited. Sara was clearly frazzled despite her icy demeanor (and killer blue dress with matching head scarf), but all of this was truly bizarre to behold.
Found had a few good dishes (Shirley’s poached cobia and Nina’s pork tenderloin drew judges’ praise, as usual) but the rest of the restaurant was dragged through the mud. Carlos’ fish wasn’t cut properly, Sara’s nectarine brown butter cake was missing its crucial mascarpone ingredient (the emulsion broke due to the kitchen’s high heat) and Justin revolting-looking rabbit drew an audible laugh from Tom Colicchio.
I didn’t expect Sara to survive this week due to how weird the vibe was at Found, which is why I actually wanted this to be a double elimination. Sara and Justin both let their sides of the restaurant down, while also delivering subpar dishes. Executive chefs often go down with their sinking ships. That wasn’t the case here, but I at least hope Justin’s stock is severely diminished after his display in this week’s challenge. 95% of the viewing public blamed the loss on Sara’s attitude (more of that bossy bitch narrative I can’t for the life of me grasp), but Justin was the one who had a clear lack of faith in his team from the onset and was a bit too eager to blame them for their loss in front of guest judge David Chang.
Unfortunately, Sara wasn’t able to defeat Louis in Bravo.com’s Last Chance Kitchen tonight, which means her Top Chef career is officially over. Sara might have gone home in pretty mortifying fashion, but at least she did it on an episode where she got to show off a Twin Cities area code t-shirt, proudly emblazoned with both “612” and “651.” Minnesota is still proud.
We’ve officially reached the halfway point of this season’s Top Chef, and while we’ve well established that hometown chef Sara Johannes hasn’t quite risen to the top level of competition yet, an equally pressing concern remains unanswered: Why don’t viewers like her?
That’s not to overblow the amount of ire Sara faces from the online trenches. She’s nowhere near as hated (she’s not even hated, per se) as Top Chef: Texas' resident bully, Heather, nor is she as divisive as John Tesar, the know-it-all jackass from last season who embodied the coke-bloat of the 80s dining scene with every fiber of his being. But Sara definitely isn’t loved, which might have more to do with a systematic problem of the long-running Bravo series’ current season than it does any of her actual actions.
I appreciate that Top Chef producers don’t feel the need to manufacture as much fake drama as any version of The Real Housewives franchise would, but I’d also bet you’d be hard pressed to find any dedicated Top Chef fan who would rank this season as one of their favorites. There are a number of problems: few chefs outside of Nina have broken away from the pack, challenges have been middling at best, and very little kitchen drama outside of a grill fire has been generated. With creepy Michael and pretty boy Jason eliminated after just a few episodes, this has turned into the Top Chef season without a true villain, which might just have made Sara one by default.
But what has Sara really done to deserve the rude online comments and tweets? Her personality troubles seem to have festered in the fourth episode, in which the chefs were asked to work in teams to create Vietnamese dishes. It was in this episode that show editors started threading together their very flimsy “Bossy Sara” narrative, a label that originated when Sara’s barking orders in a supermarket rush apparently ended with a key ingredient being left out of the cart.
The fact that Sara had her worst showing in an Asian challenge (Shoyu, where Sara is an executive chef, is a modern Japanese restaurant) also lost her viewer support. Following the episode, Television Without Pity commenter Gagic wrote in the site's forums, “Sara was awful as well. So controlling and know-it-all because she works at an Asian restaurant. Then she screws up cooking rice. Her stupid hair and fake crying can't cover up her lack of basic cooking skills.” Yikes – and that’s before the next commenter accuses her style of Asian food of being like a “fancy Panda Express.”
Since then, Sara has been shown voicing a few strong opinions about food and offering Louis some unwanted advice about how to butcher a pig. Could these moments be read as bossy and rude? Objectively so - but Sara’s sour notes thus far appear to come more from dissatisfaction in her own performance than they do spiteful jealousy or pot-stirring. I don’t consider a cheftestant a true Top Chef villain until they start claiming winning dishes actually sucked or insisting that they’re more talented than anyone else in the competition, regardless of what the judges have to say. Sara hasn’t done anything of the sor yet, which is why the “Sara as antagonist” narrative just isn’t sticking to the ribs.
Still, without a top three showing since the first episode, a good chunk of the hostility and/or ambivalence around Sara could just be viewer impatience in anticipating her elimination. If Sara wants to gain some fans, the first and easiest step is to impress us with some high-caliber dishes.
Top Chef: New Orleans airs Wednesdays at 9 pm on Bravo.
Sara starts this episode of Top Chef complaining about how she thinks she’s become the gooch of the season. Urban Dictionary informs me that this word apparently actually means something far too crass for print (even internet print!) but Sara uses it in this context as a summation of her growing sense of unease in the competition, namely her fear that she’s bringing bad luck to all of the team challenges. As she has in weeks prior, Sara laments her fading success in the contest thus far, noting her singular early brush with the top and reminding us just how much she hates landing firmly in the middle of the pack.
So where does Sara wind up at the end of this week’s elimination challenge? Well, the middle, but let’s not lose the forest through the trees here. Yes, Sara is once again absent from the better half of the judge’s table, but it also occurs in a week that Tom Colicchio calls one of the best in 11 seasons of the show and one where even all three of the dishes in the bottom have elements to them that are universally praised. There’s not a lot of attention placed on Sara or her dish this week, but we can safely presume from the blanketing praise that her dumplings were more than impressive. That’s not a bad place to be in at this stage, at least not when the crucial component of confidence comes into play. Sara still can’t trump the Ninas of this season, but knowing that she’s still capable of scoring a hit is hopefully all it takes to push her into overdrive.
My criteria for weighing the success of this season has been how much the individual challenge components speak to New Orleans culture, and this week delivers a one-two punch. First up is a supremely entertaining (and refreshingly simple) Quickfire that has jazz legend Dr. John asking the cheftestants to make him a hot sauce. Actually, he asks for a hot sauce with a “hip tang” to it and continues to use words and phrases like “flavorocity” and “Trinidadily too hot,” much to the contestant’s chagrin and my sheer and utter amusement. It does not get more N’awlins than Dr. John.
There’s a lot of flavors in the air here including pineapples from Shirley, apricots and coffee from Nicholas, and anchovies from Justin, but ultimately it’s Brian who wins for his green jalapeno and serrano hot sauce with lime and yuzu juices. I’ve criticized Brian before for being too eager to skate by on complacency, but two weeks of immunity in a row have made him into a bit of a dark horse, even on a topsy-turvey challenge that saw Nina land in the bottom for seemingly no concrete reason other than the seemingly random whims of Dr. John. At one point he uses “clipped my wings” as a method of praise, which practically throws all my bad middle school poetry asunder. We don’t get to see Sara’s (or Travis’) hot sauce on TV, likely because those precious seconds were needed to lovingly linger on shots of Dunkin Donuts coffee and Keurig machines. Sigh.
The main challenge starts immediately when a 300-pound dead pig is wheeled into the kitchen. It’s a pretty grotesque image that feels strangely fitting of NBC’s Hannibal, but the contestants are downright giddy to start hacking up the ill-fated oinker as part of the New Orleans tradition of boucherie, in which members of a community come together to butcher a pig and utilize every single one of its parts. There’s a bit of drama involving Sara when Louis accuses her in a talking head segment of being bossy without contributing to the butchering, but it also appears that Sara didn’t pass Justin’s “raise your hand if you’ve butchered over 10 pigs like I have” test to actually get her hands on a knife like she clearly wanted to. Justin is increasingly grouchy and later almost burns the entire set to cinder.
Each chef is responsible for a different part of the hog and will have to prepare an individual dish for 250 outdoor diners. As already mentioned, Sara’s har gow (a type of Chinese dumpling served in dim sum) with pork, shrimp and crab barely gets any screen time, but it looks delicious and Tom calls it “really good.” As tasty as it is, Shirley also makes dumplings out of freaking pig kidney and upstages Sara. Shirley ends up in the top 3, a place I always want to see her. Nina’s also up there with her roasted pig’s head ragu, which Tom says should be the national dish of “Ninastan.” Carlos ultimately gets his second win for his pozole verde with fried chorizo tacos. Tom wants the recipe. If Sara doesn’t make it to the end, the combination of Shirley, Carlos and Nina is probably the ideal top three scenario.
Stephanie, Justin and Louis are the night’s worst three dishes (although Travis justly gets called out for not making his own ramen noodles), despite the judges finding something to like in each of them. Justin is absolutely incredulous that his pork breast is called dry (worth noting that Padma seemed much more mad about this than anyone else) and releases a string of expletives about it in the Stew Room. The judges love the flavor of Stephanie’s brodo (broth) but felt her pork belly was overworked and that the dish was missing a few ingredients. And while Tom says that a good dish is going home no matter the outcome, he didn’t seem to like any component of Louis’ pork leg except for the pork, critiquing both the texture of the melted corn and questioning the addition of popcorn to the dish. Louis goes home feeling he didn’t get to leave a mark of his own on the competition, which is probably what happens when you make people cook with cream cheese for entire challenges. If you’re following Last Chance Kitchen, Louis is the first person to beat Janine, so there’s a chance we could be seeing him again. I keep forgetting he has a Michelin star.
Next week – Restaurant Wars! Sara is front of the house, a position that should send a shiver down the spines of any veteran Top Chef viewers.
After last week’s embarrassment of a cream cheese challenge (I actually skipped over the bagels on my grocery list in protest), this week’s Top Chef rebounds nicely (mostly) from that ill-conceived advertorial to deliver a pair of challenges that actually had something to do with this year’s host city. A jazz-themed challenge was an inevitability for this New Orleans season, but it’s certainly not unwelcome, especially when you throw jazz great Kermit Ruffins into the mix.
This week’s Quickfire Challenge was so fun to watch unfold that I barely noticed how utterly flawed it was in concept until the winner was announced. Basically the challenge is musical chairs with chef stations instead of chairs and knives and loose electrical wires instead of sanity and sound decision-making. The concept is that - like jazz musicians - chefs should be able to improvise on the spot, which is why each chef ends up changing food stations four times, searching for dish continuity along the way. It’s fun watching chefs wander around to the sound of trumpet music (Sara did a jaunty dance!), most likely while pondering why so many jazz musicians are named Kermit, but ultimately this challenge just isn’t fair. Justin (who’s slowly turning into this season’s resident grouch) starts out nicely at the quail and flounder station but later gets stuck at the finishing point with tofu, a microwave and Patty’s lame attempt at couscous. There’s really no justice here.
Sara gets royally screwed here as Brian ends up winning the challenge and immunity for the Asian-inspired duck and mussels dish that Sara worked on for half of the four rotations. Brian is rightfully excited, but also a little embarrassed, as his self-admitted contribution to the dish was mainly centered on the plating. Earlier, Brian avoided making a big move by sautéing vegetables instead of dealing with frog legs, a dish Louis unfortunately got saddled with. Sara’s good-natured about not scoring a win on what’s essentially her dish, but I’m less even-tempered as I think Sara’s confidence really needs a boost at this stage. She serves a trout dish that was initially Carrie’s. It goes over well. Luckily, Sara is never at risk of needing immunity in this week’s big challenge, but Brian's win still stings.
Speaking of, the Elimination Challenge this week is also jazz-themed as the chefs are asked to work in groups (under the thin veil of jazz quartets or something) to make food for Kermit’s potluck. Puerto Rican chef Patty has never heard of potlucks before, but Midwestern girls Sara and Carrie (an Iowan native, if you need a refresher) have a much better grip on the concept, but still don’t exactly want to put their best ambrosia salad or tater tot hot dish recipes forward.
The groups get to pick their teams (or “bands,” as Tom Colicchio was forced by producers to say) and Sara picks a pretty solid one in Shirley, Justin and the momentum-gaining Louis on Team Blue. Less together are Team Gray, who are not only saddled with the immune Brian and iffy Patty and Travis, but also Nicholas, who had to sit out the Quickfire due to a possible case of strep throat. He’s back before he’s forced out of the competition, but not before doing his entire ingredient shopping via Travis and a cell phone.
Despite the paradoxical nature of the challenge (is a catered potluck really a potluck?), there’s a lot of fun to be had in watching jazz musicians (A Marsalis! A Neville! That guy Steve Zahn essentially plays on Treme!) shoot the breeze and eat the most uniformly good food the show’s had in weeks.
Sara’s team plays it smart by aiming at the local crowd with food that’s both comforting and indulgent, including grits, okra and beef. The teams ends up in the middle, with most of the praise falling on Louis’ grilled and pickled vegetables with sunflower seeds and mustard vinaigrette. Justin scores some love for his super-buttery grits, but also gets nailed for not having enough as much seasoning as the locals are used to. Sara splits her work with her BFF Shirley on a glazed beef with charred onions, melon pickles and a pickled ginger vinaigrette. At judge’s table, it’s called a bit dry, but all the scenes of the diners eating it appear to be positive. All in all, not a bad week for Sara, especially since I’ve rewritten that Quickfire in my head to be in her favor. Her makeup process continues to stun me.
The Green Team wins with their Italian-style dishes. Nina gets kudos for her gnocchi despite making gnocchi three times already, which is frankly kind of irritating. Carrie went weird with a nectarine, pistachio and goat cheese tiramisu that involved microwaved sponge cakes in a way that I still don’t understand. It’s beautiful, but not a resounding success. Instead, the winner is Stephanie, who surprised the judges with a nice fried artichoke dish with preserved lemons and anchovy aioli. Stephanie says she hasn’t won anything since “Most Improved” in high school basketball and I continue to love everything about her.
The losers are the gray team, who underwhelm despite Brian’s stellar fried chicken. Nicholas (who did most of the prep work, drawing a good-natured accusation of performance enhancing drug use from Stephanie) fizzles with a bland and unevenly prepared barramundi fricassee, while Travis gets knocked a few rungs down the ladder for putting too much rub on otherwise well-prepared caramel-glazed BBQ ribs. That means Patty finally goes home for another indifferently prepared dish. Her tomato watermelon salad (so much watermelon this season! Can this be the end, please?) is called bland by the judges, who also note that it really needed a savory element added somewhere along the way of its uninspired genesis. Patty was canon fodder since week one, but her hair was always very lovely.
Next week Sara appears to draw the ire of Louis during a horrific-looking pig butchery challenge. I’m concerned.
Man alive, those Bravo editors can just be cruel sometimes. Having finally whittled the number of contestants down to one that the producers can actually juggle, this episode of Top Chef immediately gets to work sketching in some of the character beats that we’ve been sorely missing so far. Although we actually get to learn a lot (lovable Carlos gained the majority of his cooking skills working for free in kitchens after he crossed over from Mexico, Nina is besties with Travis and Bene, Sara has a cute boyfriend), what most sticks out about these scenes is just how much this show expertly avoids playing into audience expectations of how episodic narrative arcs for reality contestants should normally operate.
Of course the show can’t resist the nice obvious symmetry of Nina’s best bud, Bene, leaving the competition right as she’s on another major upswing, but if you’re invested in Sara’s journey the way most of you reading are, the pacing of this episode ends up being a real heartbreaker of denied gratification.
Initially, the time spent on Sara early on in this episode appears to be setting up a redemption arc. All the ingredients are there – she admits to the disappointment of falling to the middle of the pack in recent weeks, she admonishes herself for her “sh---y attitude, she gives us a boyfriend back at home as her primary method of motivation, and most importantly, even offers a manifesto of positivity to guide her through the week’s challenges. We expect a turnaround immediately. Instead, we get a Quickfire Challenge in which Sara’s dish doesn’t even warrant 5 seconds of screen time. It only gets worse from there.
The first challenge (make a dish using Creole tomatoes for guest judge Chef John Besh in 20 minutes) is actually a good one, as it’s entirely free of gimmick and gives the chefs one of their first real chances to show off their individual styles. Louis breaks free of his “file not found” status to impress with a tomato seed bouillon, while Carlos also makes an impact with his use of edible flowers. Ultimately, and rather unsurprisingly, it’s Nina who gets the win and immunity for her chilled watermelon soup, a dish that earns extra praise due to Nina’s ability to keep it cold on what appeared to be a very sweaty day. Resident quote generator Stephanie appears ready to self-flagellate after failing to woo John Besh with her too-simple tomato steaks. She says it best: “I made the worst impression on someone I think is a stud.” I think I’ll cry when Stephanie goes home.
Continuing with the Louisiana farm theme, this week’s actual elimination challenge is a complete and utter bomb, for a whole variety of reasons. Top Chef has never had a subtle relationship with product placement (Sara’s such a trooper for delivering that RAV4 name drop with only the slightest bit of self-loathing), but most of the time it doesn’t actually interfere with the integrity of the show. The same can’t be said for this week’s challenge, which requires each dish to prominently feature Philadelphia Cream Cheese. I actually gasped. There’s some talk about also using fresh ingredients from a Louisiana farm (and no butter whatsoever, although none of the chefs seem derailed by a twist that’s delivered as a bombshell), but other than that, this week’s challenge bares almost no relevance to New Orleans. Worse, we don’t even get to see the chefs complain about the awful challenge, as any comments about the inherent grossness of main component cream cheese would draw the ire of the financial backers. I don’t like it at all.
With only 90 minutes, there’s not much time for the contestants to prepare a family-style meal for eight of Besh’s executive chefs at La Provence. Time management is the main issue for almost everyone, hurting even those who eventually end up in the top. Sara’s hit especially hard, as her idea of stuffing lamb chops with an island-themed curry is hindered by the time it takes to get the filling out of uncooperative piping bags. With not enough time, the lamb is severely undercooked (“mine was not red, it was blue,” says Padma) and Tom’s face contorts at the thought of curry powder combining with cream cheese.
Sara thankfully doesn’t have her vegetables called “miserable” like Gail calls Travis’, nor is her food compared to cafeteria cuisine like Bene’s is by Tom, who seems personally affronted by t. Bene goes home, which seems about right, but not without dealing what appeals to be a fatal blow to Sara’s self esteem in the process.
Which brings me back to the question of Sara’s role in this contest, at least in the minds of the show’s producers. Despite some bouts of bossiness and a weird effort this week to make her look petty and resentful of Nina’s success (Nina wins for the fourth time, by the way), she’s not at all playing the role of the show’s villain, at least not yet. In fact, every down moment for Sara as of late has come with a humbling dose of mournful disappointment, which suggests that we're not meant to be rooting against her at this point. While Travis almost always gets defensive (he apparently wanted his meat to be cut raggedy, so says he), Sara is the first to point out her shortcomings, even referring to Gail as “ma’am” tonight. I can't tell what the narrative game plan is at this moment - especially with tonight's bait and switch - but I know it ultimately comes down to the dishes no matter what. With Nina and Justin quickly separating from the pack, Sara’s going to have to keep up the positive energy if she wants to reclaim her early glory.
Do you think Sara can rebound? Are you surprised Bravo viewers only rated John Besh's hair a 5 out of 10?
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