There is no time for idle chitchat in the holding room as this episode starts rather abruptly in the TCC Kitchen. The chefs are lined up and Eden gets right to the point of the episode.
“Every chef dreams of creating and executing their own restaurant concept, but this year it’s happening a little bit differently,” she says.
This is it. It is time for everyone’s favourite episode format of a Top Chef Canada season: Restaurant Wars–or in the case of a season taped during a pandemic, Takeout Wars.
Ready the troops!
Takeout Wars - Part 1
"There’s no other way to really battle,” says Andrea, laughing.
The chef de cuisine of CinCin is absolutely right. The country was in the middle of a pandemic while this season filmed and now I'd like to think that we're at the tail end of these hellish times.
Standing beside Eden are judges Janet Zuaccarini and Mark McEwan. Mark notes that since the onset of the pandemic, “restaurant-quality” takeout has become the norm.
I would like to think that a restaurant’s takeout dishes were always of quality, but what the head judge likely means to say is that restaurants in general have gotten much better with their takeout programs. Many restaurant operators have streamlined their menus to create offerings that transport well or can be eaten in outdoor settings. This is definitely one small silver lining of the pandemic.
Janet and Mark are the judges for this Takeout Wars-related Quickfire where the chef competitors must present their ideas for a pop-up takeout concept while simultaneously serving a dish that exemplifies their proposal. The chefs have 35 minutes to get the job done.
Mark is a longtime, successful Toronto restaurateur and has made a great foray into the world of higher-end grocers. Janet owns many award-winning concepts in Toronto as well as L.A. In this Dragon’s Den-type challenge, I’d be hoping for her approval above all else.
She knows who and what to invest in to find success. If you don’t believe me, see the long lineups (during “normal” times) to get into Felix in Venice Beach, L.A. for details.
The competitors get to cooking and conceiving. Josh is doing something “light and fresh” with seafood while Andrea is looking to produce some elevated comfort food. Aicia, no surprise, is opting for an Italian concept focused on seasonality while Erica leans into brunch.
As the executive chef of the restaurant inside of the Elmwood Spa in Toronto, Erica is likely no stranger to brunch and I applaud her for (surely) liking the early mornings that would go along with it. Certainly not for me.
Alex is doing a “plant-focused”–not plant-based–concept because he says it is both of the times and that it generally travels well. The downside is that he hasn’t run a kitchen in 5 years, so he’s not sure he’s up to the task for leading a full-on takeout service.
Kym explains that they have spent much of the pandemic conjuring up dishes for their restaurant, Pidgin, in Vancouver and sounds ready for what’s to come. They are opting for an Asian fusion concept that boasts bold, fresh flavours.
Moving onto Galasa, he recognizes that he has been in the middle of the pack for the competition thus far. He is hoping that an idea centred around contemporary Ethiopean food will be just what the judges are looking for.
This portion of the episode is exciting because we finally get to see Aicia make some fresh pasta. She says it is one of her best skills and she uses it to create a ricotta cavatelli with summer squash, parm rind and basil.
Janet seems to enjoy Aicia’s presentation and, most importantly, plate of pasta, though she calls the idea for an Italian restaurant “ubiquitous”. This is hard to disagree with and also one hell of a great descriptor.
Galasa pitches next, explaining that his takeout concept would be named after the African tribe his parents are from. He makes a whole wheat injera with doro wat (Ethiopean chicken stew) and frisee.
The judges do not seem to love the dish and wish for a more robust flavour. It’s hard to know without tasting, but at this moment I wish Galasa had served his Quickfire dish from episode one in this challenge.
An “infinite paradise” is the inspiration for Emily takeout operation and to embody that, she serves a karaage-marinated chicken thigh with a mango and grilled cabbage slaw. The dish itself seems like bit of a mish-mash and the chef seems to struggle when trying to explain the connection between the food and the name.
Kym follows and explains that Dashi is a concept that will offer pan-Asian fare that is clean and balanced. This will not be like “typical” Chinese take away. They are serving a plate of koji orange radishes with a hondashi emulsion and it garners much positive feedback.
When pressed with clarifications on the potential operation, they also answer quickly and soundly.
Josh’s idea is titled “Bin” and focuses on fresh seafood dishes that are delivered fully prepared or partially, allowing customers to finish the dishes themselves if they desire. Somewhere between a takeout dinner and a meal kit.
“I want you to impress your Tinder date without taking time away from the Netflix and chill,” he says.
What a line. Bravo!
His dish is a seared tuna caesar with lemon dressing, grilled romaine and frisee. Though the judges seem enthralled with his description and dish, a seafood-centric idea is not the most consumer friendly according to Mark.
To me, this is the most creative idea of the bunch.
Alex provides an overview of Root, a plant-focused concept that still offers some meat dishes. He plans to keep the vegetables the star of the plate while offering meat in his side dishes.
The judges are intrigued and love his dish of cauliflower two ways. Janet seems especially impressed by the depth of umami found in his shitake xo sauce.
Erica choosing to do a brunch takeout concept seems like a miss for this challenge and it’s the first time we see the chef really falter. Though she has a charming story behind the business name– a childhood nickname her grandma gave her, which I do not want to attempt to spell–brunch seems like a hard sell to two restaurant emperors looking for a successful model.
Regardless, her upscale Middle Eastern-style brunch–truly the best type of brunch and where are my Cafe Medina fans at?–manifests as French toast with stewed plums, rose water, whipped goat ricotta and toasted pistachios.
It looks heavenly and a far cry from the French toast that was presented in last week’s Elimination Challenge...which Erica did not cook.
Andrea’s pitch yields a lukewarm response, though the name is kind of cool (Revival) and her miso-glazed sablefish with dashi, quinoa, carrots, bok choy and scallion oil appears enticing enough.
It’s time for Mark and Janet to select the best pitches of the morning. Janet announces that she is placing her faith in Kym’s concept Dashi because Pan-Asian cuisine generally travels well and she enjoys Kym’s twist on the culinary genre.
Mark backs Alex (Root) and remarks that a vegetarian program with minor meat elements is interesting. I’m curious to see how this menu comes together as the idea surrounding it feels more broad stroke.
Eden mentions that the decision for who picks their first team member was decided by either a coin flip, arm wrestle or by drawing knives off camera (not verbatim) and Kym gets to go first.
They pick Josh and Alex immediately opts for his Calgary pal Galasa.
The real question now is: will Kym pick Erica?
They do not and I am assuming everyone watching at home is as shook as I am. This seems like an intense challenge to slip up the Karbelniks!
Kym selects Andrea and Alex quickly snatches up Erica.
Erica is not pleased and in a diary session says that she feels “backstabbed”.
“It’s a competition, it is not about choosing friends,” says Kym. When you’re competing for $100,000, this is very fair.
Their final selection is Aicia and, sadly, Emily is picked last.
It goes without saying, but it is usually not a great sign to be selected last during a team challenge-themed week like Restaurant Wars.
With the teams decided, Eden goes on to say that the judges’ takeout dinner will take place at Janet’s house with special guest judges Nuit and Jeff Regular, co-owners of Toronto’s Kiin and Pai. The team that serves the most delicious takeout dinner will also get a $5,000 cash prize courtesy of Interac.
Will Kym get to add more money to their Top Chef Canada piggy bank?
Takeout Wars - Part 2
Team Root sits down to chat amongst themselves and help Alex bring an idyllic menu to life. While the chefs talk back and forth, Alex’s diary sessions continue to reinforce how unsure he is about leading a team in this challenge. At this point, it feels like the writing's on the wall for Root.
Erica is making corn arancini, Galasa is getting creative with eggplant, Emily focuses on beets and Alex will create a dessert with chocolate and avocados.
“30 avocados, all ripe!” Alex says to Erica as she inputs the online grocery order.
In what world does one wind up with 30 perfectly ripe avocados? In what world?
On the other end of the spectrum, Kym says they are comfortable working with this size of time. Aicia is assigned to making dumplings. Andrea to braised meats, Josh to fish.
The team also decides to tackle the dessert course together.
Andrea says she can really learn something working with Kym and seems eager to help see Dashi through to the end in the best way possible. It sounds like a fairly ambitious menu and takeout wars will only make things more difficult.
Things move swiftly from menu planning and ingredient ordering to full-on prepping in the TCC Kitchen.
We find out more about Galasa’s eggplant-centric dish that he is making for the Root menu. He is preparing eggplant steaks with chermoula and marinated quinoa.
He appears to be applying as many culinary applications as possible to the eggplant. It is first cured then dried in the oven. Next, he grills it and finally, braising it. It’s meant to look like a steak and taste like a steak.
It isn’t unusual for plant-based dishes to require multiple techniques applied to one vegetable to alter its structure in hopes of becoming more “meaty”, so this doesn’t seem too out of sorts.
Kym is prepping their dish and explains that they are using their own scallop salt–made of scallop skirts, MSG and salt–that they brought with them from Vancouver.
Aicia is making Chinese dumplings, which are not normally in her wheelhouse, but she is clever and channels a Sardinian type of pasta dough that is soft and elastic like dumpling dough. She is forming each dumpling beautifully.
Janet and Mark pop into the kitchen and chat with their respective teams to boost morale and provide some advice.
“If it doesn’t taste great, make it taste great,” says McEwan. The Mark McEwan equivalent of RuPaul’s famous saying: Good luck...and don’t fuck it up.
Sage advice, indeed.
An unexpected addition to the Takeout Wars challenge is that the teams also have to take their own food photos. This does not appear to have any bearing on the judging, but it is a fun little scene to watch.
I do think this element of the challenge reflects the expectations of chefs in today’s world. Most have to be able to do their own food photography to some extent.
After what I’m presuming was a night off, the two teams head to their respective restaurants where they will finish prepping and executive their dinner services.
Team Dashi is setting up at Gusto 501 while Andrea asks Josh if he will be in the doghouse if their team wins Takeout Wars.
I live for Andrea’s commentary each episode. Despite the pressures that a barrage of challenges continues to present, she always seems to be having a good time.
Dinner at Janet Zuccarini's home
We cut to Janet’s home where she welcomes Eden, Mijune, Mark, Nuit and Jeff. Eden happily holds a bouquet of flowers for the gracious host while Mijune hands a bottle of wine to Janet.
A wine with a twist off top for Janet Zuccarini? I don’t think so. I smell a future episode sponsor in this exchange.
After sitting down, the group analyzes the Dashi menu. Janet seems very excited about the set menu and how it reads. Once the food arrives, they unbox each dish one by one.
Everything about Kym’s dish of kombu-cured salmon and tuna tartare seems impressive. From the ingredients she’s incorporated to the presentation in the takeout container and the judges can’t say enough glowing things about how it tastes.
“This is a wow for me,” Janet gushes.
They also love Aicia’s dumplings, especially the bright fermented mushroom broth and the dumpling handiwork. Josh’s curry is deemed not bold enough–though I’d argue that a typical Japanese curry isn’t overly intense–but doesn’t seem like a total wash.
Andrea’s furikake rice, a side dish for the curry, is apparently undercooked, but her braised and grilled pork belly with Asian pear kimchi and tea egg appears to be the sleeper hit of the menu.
The “team effort” mango panna cotta with coconut and lime tapioca pearls leaves the table divisive. Some love it, others wish it was more sweet.
I’d say that comes down to personal sweet tooth preferences more than anything.
Root is cooking out of one of Mark’s restaurants, Fabrica.
“My fire is lit,” says Erica adamantly. She seems beyond feisty in her diary sessions this episode.
The corn arancini and huitlacoche aioli starts the Root takeout dinner experience off right. Being an expert in Italian cuisine, Janet seems in awe of this unconventional spin on arancini. Guest judge Nuit calls it a “gem”.
I would just like to take this moment to say that Nuit Regular is one of the most lovely chefs in the Canadian restaurant industry and it is so wonderful to see her on this show. She also lends her talents to Wall of Chefs, so make a point of watching her on that series too. There is great diversity to be found on its judging panel.
Saying Emily’s plate of beet hummus, shaved and cooked beets (I think?), king oyster mushrooms, feta mostarda and orange segments looks vibrant is an understatement, but it also sounds really busy.
To make things a touch more confusing there are also teeny chunks of guanciale in the dressing of this salad-type creation.
The judges do not seem to enjoy the dish and knock it further for its menu description not mentioning the cured pork.
Erica also made Root’s side dish of vadouvan carrots with cardamom yogurt and hazelnuts. It’s praised as tasty, but similar to Emily’s dish, it loses marks for the hazelnuts not being noted on the menu.
Allergies, people. Allergies!
Root’s dinner ends with Alex’s well-composed chocolate avocado pecan tart with candied pecans and a parsnip date caramel.
“As far as delivering a plant-based dessert, this is a 10/10,” says Janet. She is clearly competing with Andrea for my imaginary award for best commentary this episode.
Erica looks like she’s vibrating when Eden walks into the room and asks for the chefs of Dashi to come to Judges' Table.
“If we’re bottom, I am honestly shocked,” she says.
Well, she is about to be shocked because Kym, Andrea, Aicia and Josh are informed that they had the winning dinner experience of Takeout Wars. The four have a nice little group hug before the judges rain praise on the four for their creativity, cohesiveness and teamwork.
It's nice to see Aicia get a little bit of the positive limelight and it feels like Andrea has begun to hit her stride in this competition. Though Josh had the weaker dish of the team, he seemed to be an integral part of the dinner service when it came to calling orders.
The winning team heads back to the holding room and Erica is not pleased. She almost seems like she is in disbelief while standing in front of the judges and hearing that Root did not measure up in today's challenge.
Though, much like Kym in episode two, Erica is showered with compliments–for both the corn arancini starter and her vadouvan carrot side dish–while Emily, Galasa and Alex receive the brunt of critiques. While Erica seems satisfied with the praise despite the overall loss, the other three chefs look worried.
At this point, I feel like it is a toss up between Galasa or Emily going home. Though Alex was the team leader, his dessert received plenty of accolades so it would seem like an odd choice to bid him adieu.
“This is not the end of Galasa and I know Canada is going to see me soon," says the chef.
Until next time...but wait a second. The episode five teaser comes on and we quickly realize that “soon” means next week as Galasa is back in the TCC Kitchen for what I assume will be a Quickfire Challenge, of sorts.
The just-eliminated chef will cook against Siobhan and Jae-Anthony to get back into the competition. It’s not quite Last Chance Kitchen, but I’ll take it!
I think Galasa has more to give, so here's to hoping he winds up back in the competition after the cook off at the beginning of episode five. I also think Jae-Anthony has more to give too, so I'm curious to see what happens.
Why isn't Stéphane part of the cook off next week? Did he already hop on a plane back to Nova Scotia before the producers made the decision to have the eliminated chefs compete again? I have questions!
Last, but not least, I don't think I've ever seen a chef on Top Chef Canada as visibly upset as Erica during Judges' Table this week. She was not havin' it and because of that, you can tell she wants really wants to come out on top.
Top Chef Canada airs on Monday nights at 8 p.m. MDT / 10 p.m. ET on Food Network Canada.