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Top Chef‘s Toby Young: Get Ready for Restaurant Wars!

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Justin Stephens/Bravo

He’s not one to mince words — and Toby Young has something pointed to say about the team that wins Top Chef‘s beloved Restaurant Wars challenge which airs tonight: They opened the best restaurant in Top Chef history. A surprising bit of praise for the usually cantankerous Brit, sure, but Young says this season he’s buckling down and taking his judging responsibilities “more seriously.” Young also opens up — on the phone — about tonight’s challenge and which chefs have impressed him most. –Brian Orloff

Do you think the caliber of contestants is higher this year?Yes, it is. Certainly the overall standard is higher than it was last year and I said to the winning team in Restaurant Wars, had I been reviewing their restaurant, I would have given it three stars. The winning restaurant in Restaurant Wars was easily as good as some of the best restaurants I’ve reviewed in my seven years as a food critic.

Do you think viewers will be surprised by certain chefs’ performances in Restaurant Wars?We were all surprised by who came out on top and who came out on bottom. I think the contestants were even more surprised than us. The atmosphere at Judges’ Table when we eventually decided who to eliminate was electric. There’s never been a more dramatic moment, I don’t think, in the two seasons of Top Chef that I’ve done. It was a unanimous decision but there was a great deal of dissent amongst the losing team as to who should be eliminated.

How aware are you of the drama between the chefs and Robin?I totally wasn’t aware of the hostility that there is toward Robin until I started watching the show on television. I actually find it pretty shocking. Maybe Robin can be a very challenging person to work with but there doesn’t seem to be much that we’ve seen to justify the hostility toward her that Eli in particular has been sharing.

You seem less harsh with your criticism this year. Are you consciously toning it down?I’ve been taking my responsibilities as a judge more seriously this season and trying to produce more measured verdicts. But I’m not pulling my punches if I think something isn’t very good.

Who has impressed you most this season?Kevin strikes me as a natural. He just clearly has flair. He’s 26 and to be as accomplished a chef as he is is impressive. I predict that whether he wins or isn’t the Top Chef, he’s going to go far.

What’s the best thing about filming in Las Vegas?It’s been absolutely great. I’d love to move there. I brought my family out and it’s actually surprisingly kiddie friendly; there’s so many things for children to do there. But I guess my favorite thing was being taught how to play craps by Tom Colicchio. After Judges’ Table we wouldn’t go home; we’d just stroll over to the nearest casino and play craps. I have to say, I lost virtually everything I made from participating in Top Chef this season. Tom was very sensible; he would walk away. But by 2 a.m., I was absolutely determined to stay at the table until I’d lost every cent in my pocket. Justin Stephens/Bravo