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A Longtime ‘Top Chef’ Writer Experiences Restaurant Wars First Hand

After 17 seasons, Restaurant Wars is still Top Chef‘s signature challenge. This year, after covering the series for years, I had the chance to actually attend it. Okay, so “this year” is a bit of a misnomer, considering it was filmed last October, but that’s TV magic, baby! Finally, I’d gone Hollywood.

I arrived to The Row, a cluster of new restaurants, in Downtown LA, in early afternoon. Being LA in October, it was a hot, sunny day and still felt basically like summer — already I was sweating through my “upscale casual” button-up and knew I’d have to wear my jacket over it to avoid being photographed with giant pit stains. There was a line of people waiting to check-in at a tent, and eventually I was led to a table in a little cafe where I met my tablemates for the day.

Media events like these are always a little awkward because you usually get seated in a group of strangers. To make matters worse, we would be eating family-style, which I have enough trouble with when dining with actual family. Family style is a challenge for us prodigious eaters, who have to weigh the opportunity to sample more food against the constant low-level shame of worrying about eating too much and looking like a rude pig.

“Do you want the last one? Do you? Oh okay then, if no one’s going to I’ll just take it.”

Luckily there was free-flowing alcohol. My group was seated in Kann, which six months later I now understand was Chef Gregory Gourdet’s Haitian food concept. Our first “course” was a signature cocktail — soursop with guava and a rum floater. It basically had two flavors, pure rum and pure guava. That is, the second half tasted like pure guava, but that could’ve been because of all the straight rum at the top. Critique worthy from the judges, maybe, but it was exactly what you want when seated awkwardly amongst strangers — something strong. I was happy.

Our waiter turned out to none other than Shenanigans, aka Chef Brian Malarkey, who I recognized at the time, but not quite the way I would now after having watched him for half a season. My personal experience of Malarkey was… well, mostly exactly what you see on television. He’s one of those people whose personality you can tell is “a lot” from 30 or 40 feet away, whose atoms seem to swirl at a higher speed than everyone around him. He puts your fight-or-flight censors into standby mode.

Malarkey was dressed, as usual, like a flamboyant stretched out leprechaun, in clear round wrist beads, disconcertingly high high-water pants, and a straw boater hat. He makes an almost unnerving amount of contact when he talks — both eye and hand. That being said, he was so cheerful and nice that I couldn’t help but like the guy. He seems like he’d be hard to live with but fun to have a drink with. Which is to say, an ideal party host.

Things were moving slowly, but again, free booze. Eventually, the judges took their seats at a long table a few tables away from ours. Gail was seated next to a handsome man with his shirt unbuttoned dangerously far down his torso. “Must be European,” I thought. A member of the staff set a bowl of pickly, kimchi-type stuff at the table. It was sitting atop a cafeteria-style tray and no one told us what it was or what we should do with it, so we were a little unclear on whether it was a dish or garnish. It was sort of like salsa with no chips. Naturally, we tried it anyway, cautiously. It was very spicy. Sort of like… salsa with no chips. There should be a German word for getting exactly what you expected and thinking “…I don’t know what I expected.”

We found a hair in the kimchi stuff (pickliz, we know now) but we were a few drinks in by that point and didn’t especially care. Eventually, someone else returned to take the tray from underneath the pickliz. Tray rescinded! No tray for you!

After about 45 minutes, the appetizers finally appeared. Fried plantains, twice-cooked pork, salt cod patties (basically like an empanada), and a salad with a habanero dressing and lots of crispy stuff. They say hunger is the ultimate spice, but I think this all would’ve hit just as much even if I hadn’t been 45-minutes-worth-of-drinks-with-strangers hungry. The salad was full of delicious small crispy things and the toughest thing about it was knowing that it probably isn’t socially acceptable to tilt the plate up in the air and pour them down my gullet. Salt cod probably wouldn’t have been my first choice of patty filling, but it worked.

Afterward, Malarkey came over to apologize for the wait, putting a hand on my back and telling us it was because we got stuck behind the judges. But the entrees are coming and anyway, we’re on island time! Again, he talks more loudly and directly and touchily than most of us are probably used to, but it kind of works. He puts you just a little off-guard, forcing you to lower your defenses and chill out.

It was another decently long wait for the entrees, but worth it when they arrived. We got a whole snapper in a broth with veg on top, and a braised chicken thigh, with some rice and a bean sauce. Once again no one really told us how to eat this stuff, but the beans and rice being sides seemed like a safe bet. Chicken thighs are one of my favorite foods in the world while whole fried fish at restaurants — no matter how cool it looks when it comes out — is always dry. This meal flipped the script. I went for seconds on the snapper (is snapper the best fish? discuss). As for the chicken I jotted down “not bad, but honestly, I do better chicken thighs than this.”

Vince Mancini

Seeing the menu I can now surmise that the fish being so good probably had something to do with it being roasted rather than fried (one of the few situations I don’t prefer the fried thing). As for the chicken, the judges on the show loved it. Maybe it was over braised by the time it got to us? Or just overshadowed by the fish? It was fine, just not a showstopper.

We got to the dessert, a pineapple upside-down cake with a fruit salad, ice cream, and caramel sauce on top. Tom will say it “eats a little sweet” on the show, but as I’d always suspected, this is an insane criticism for a dessert. It was perfect. I’m not a really a cake person, but it turns out if you remove all the sickly-sweet frosting and add butter crisp, they’re wonderful. I jotted down “Why aren’t all cakes upside down? New rule: no more right-side-up cakes.”

Vince Mancini

We luxuriated in the meal for a few minutes, by this point pretty chummy all around. I don’t want to wax overly philosophical about food (and booze) but a good meal always seems to have this effect. You were strangers before the food came and you’ll probably be strangers again tomorrow, but for now, in the glow of a full stomach, you’re just like old friends. Remember that snapper? Yeah, that was great.

A small camera crew stopped just after the dessert. They guided us a bit, basically having us recreate the conversation we’d just had about the dessert. Eventually, I’ll make my Bravo debut as the slightly unkempt-looking guy who says “I could eat like five of these.”

Vince Mancini

Are you proud of me now, Papa?

As they shot us discussing our extravagant meal, out of the corner of my eye I noticed the boom guy loudly munching on some Pringles. Quite an image. I can’t imagine having to shoot so many loving close-ups of gourmet food without being able to eat any of it, though I had sort of the same problem as a waiter. At least there I could occasional sneak unfinished food off plates on the way back to the kitchen.

After dessert, the publicist took us behind the scenes where some of the rest of the crew (152 in total, I’m told, presumably good union jobs) were humming about, doing various other things. We got to stroll through the “food porn” room, a giant lightbox for shooting the food closeups.

Vince Mancini
Vince Mancini

By the time it was all over we’d been there about three hours. Under normal circumstances, I’d say that’s about twice as long as I’d ever want to devote to lunch. But we had good food, good drinks, and a flamboyant whimsical elf man assuring us that we were on “Island Time.” Believe it or not, this actually worked. It really did feel like the kind of chilled out long lunch you’d have on a tropical vacation — somewhere you just sit and listen to the waves crash, not worried about your sightseeing schedule.

Aside from the valuable experience seeing the show I’d been covering for years from close up, I came away impressed. The food was great, almost without exception, the concept communicated clearly and casually, and the experience was relaxed and enjoyable. Overall it was a restaurant I’d almost certainly come back to (assuming it wasn’t hot and trendy and there wasn’t a huge wait — my personal opinion is that no one should wait more than an hour or so for anything). Even without eating anything from or seeing the other restaurant, I would’ve bet my whole paycheck that Kann had won Restaurant Wars.

Did I gain any special insight? Other than that the food was mostly about as good as it looked, not really. I’ve seen how the reality show sausage is made thanks to past jobs and internships (that I probably signed an NDA for) and I’ve been a video editor, so I know the kind of manipulation that’s possible. Nothing here struck me as especially manipulated.

And maybe that’s why Top Chef has lasted 17 seasons. Food content is about as evergreen as it gets and the producers seem to play it pretty straight (I stopped watching Kitchen Nightmares as soon as I realized the “resolution” always took exactly five minutes after the final commercial break). If there’s no room for spontaneity, that’s when a show is truly dead, reality, cooking, or otherwise.

All in all, it was a pleasant dining experience six months ago. Enjoyable but nothing to hold onto, other than a brush with mid-level television fame. Thinking back on it from my desk six weeks into quarantine, it’s much more precious. A small slice of the kind of life I desperately hope we can get back to.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. Read more of his cooking commentary and mom jokes in UPROXX’s Cooking Battles. For past Top Chef Power Rankings, go here.