"Top Chef's" latest "Restaurant Wars" doesn't reach the highs of previous seasons

The fan-favorite challenge didn't seem to be too eventful (or exciting) this time around

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published May 15, 2024 9:56AM (EDT)

Daniel Jacobs, Amanda Turner, Savannah Miller, Danny Garcia, and Michelle Wallace on "Top Chef" (David Moir/Bravo)
Daniel Jacobs, Amanda Turner, Savannah Miller, Danny Garcia, and Michelle Wallace on "Top Chef" (David Moir/Bravo)

In most seasons of "Top Chef", "Restaurant Wars" is one of the biggest conversation starters of the season, often sparking healthy discourse, discussion, debate — and in some cases — outrage, like when current host Kristen Kish was booted in season 10.

This season? It just sort of . . . happened, without much fanfare. Which, unfortunately, is beginning to seem like the theme of the season.

This is not to say that there weren't some lovely dishes, of course. Dan's winning smoked fish dish, another of Manny's mgnificent moles, Savannah's chawanmushi, Danny's carrot-centric chowder, Amanda's "brilliant" vegan gumbo and Laura's tartare all sounded great. Also, very  simple, but I loved the idea of Manny's shrimp with miso butter. I also liked how the judges split down the middle and were then able to dine at both restaurants and see how consistent the service and food was throughout. 

Good on Laura for doing well (though she clearly didn’t train the front of house staff very well, hence all of the issues which messed up Kaleena’s expediting), and how odd that Michelle seemed so off-kilter? That was strange.

On the flipside, I love how Danny made pre-made tickets (Current reigning champ Buddha Lo wrote here that he did the same on his seasons). Really smart!

Here are the rest of my takeaways: 

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General mid-season rundown: Aside from Danny’s Buddha-like precision and performance, no one really seems to be “swinging for the fences,” to borrow a metaphor that would’ve fit perfectly in last week's episode.
I think Manny seems stellar — his highs are amazing  but they’re often metered by lesser efforts and tiny mishaps. Laura has had a crummy edit and while her food seems perfectly fine, she’s not the most inherently “rootable” character. I continue to love Savannah based on sheer potential, edit and that mustard greens dish, but I’d love to see her do more (though her chawanmushi sounded terrific to me, maybe sans mushrooms).
Dan, Soo, and Michelle are probably the strongest contenders outside of Danny, but Michelle’s lackluster turn in Last Chance Kitchen and her near-boot a few weeks ago dock a few points. As I previously mentioned, Amanda has some dark horse energy, but I’m not sure how she’ll fare as the numbers dwindle. Lastly, I think I might be rooting for Kevin the most? He’s such a bright, likable, positive presence on the shoe and his LCK performance thus far has been seriously impressive. I think his "Top Chef" France experience, which hindered him in the actual competition, might actually be a huge benefit in the frenzied rush-rush of LCK? 

I liked the recent COVID seasons with no front of house component and a “chef’s tasting” instead, especially because we barely see or hear any discussion of the decor anyway (and I personally could care less about that). It’s also interesting how it’s a foregone conclusion that the boot is always front-of-house or executive chef/expeditor.


I’ve always found it interesting how most cheftestants don’t just opt to be a line cook during Restaurant Wars because then there’s a 99% chance you won’t be going home.


Odd decision of the season #472: why have a Restaurant Wars with an uneven cast? Still makes no sense why they didn’t just 1) have an elimination Quick Fire or 2) bump Restaurant Wars back a week? It's pretty inherently unfair with one team one member down.


The progression for Kaleena's team still seemed odd to me, though: Why so much protein, including two different tenderloins. As a guest judge put it — and which sort of encapsulates the whole episode — there were "no clunkers, but nothing cohesive."


Laura seemed very in control to me, confident and poised than Michelle as far as FOH goes. The delays in the second seating were absurd; I'm confident that Padma would've called it out, but Gail and Kristen remained polite while Tom and Kwame seemed to get increasingly irritated. However, Gail's "well, here's a cilantro sprig" when asked to identify the Mexican component of that dish got a chuckle out of me.


It was interesting to see the chasm in opinion about Soo's rice cake dish, which was loved by one half of the judges and hated by the other. Perhaps seemingly entirely dependent on which seating they actually dined at?

Also, I reiterate that there needs to be some more consistency throughout. Why does Soo get dinged for store-bought rice cakes while Kaleena wins with store-bought pasta? Why was Laura's making her own chorizo barely acknowledged when everyone else used store-bought sausages?

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Tom seems grumpy on the show, or almost “over it,”  but very relaxed and enthusiastic on Last Chance Kitchen. It’s an interesting juxtaposition. It feels like an even sharper distinction this season especially.
I think Michelle had a strangely poor front-of-house showing across the board. Savannah did a terrific job frying the fish for her dish, though. It looked fantastic! 
Also, again, good for Laura for doing and quite well and handling the mix-ups in the kitchen and Kaleena very well. I’m starting to root for her because I feel like she’s very capable, but has been unfairly maligned with a pretty one-note edit. -

Kaleena's end-of-episode confessional seems so distinct — accomplished, pleased, content — from her Last Chance Kitchen preamble which felt . . . different. It's odd that she didn't just tell production instead of walking into LCK and throwing things into disarray.


Of course, it didn’t wind up mattering because Rasika lost again anyway, but the whole “episode” really espoused the energy of this season, which is sort of fly by your pants? David, Soo, some of the challenges, this Kaleena withdrawal and temporary Rasika reinstatement: It's just strange all around.


Rasika really sort of burned out, which is a bummer. Good for Kevin, though! He's doing such a great job in LCK. 


Lastly, Tom’s “a lot has changed in our industry” comments in response to Kaleena's withdrawal really encapsulates a ton that has relatively gone unsaid on Top Chef proper.


While Kaleena's withdrawal (and David’s lingering disappearance) just add more question marks to this already uneven season, Bliss did outline her decision further on social media.


In a post on Instagram, Kaleena wrote that "My decision to not go back into [Last Chance Kitchen] was not easy by any means. After my elimination in [episode] 4, I cried in my room for no less than [four] days because I was so disappointed in myself. I didn't feel like that this time around. I was proud of how far I had already come, and I was also mentally fatigued . . . mentally gassed if you will. I made the choice that was best for me."


She added, "When you exit "Top Chef,' you go right back into your world of work and all the stresses of a normal, unboxed life. We go back to leading our kitchens and businesses. It's not an easy transition. I made the decision that was right for me at that time in my life, and I've no regrets to this day about it. I had proved what I wanted to prove, and now I needed to take care of myself."


Bliss also said that she is "at peace" and "can't wait to watch the rest of the competition unfold and root my pals on!"

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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