As the last few weeks have finally picked up in excitement, Top Chef Houston is going out with a bang. This is the last episode before the finale, and with no Quickfire challenge this week, the five chefs dive right into a grueling elimination challenge. After the beach-based challenges last week, they aren’t heading away from the water just yet. Instead of hosting a Quickfire, Tom waits for the chefs at a marina with Dawn Burrell to lay out the challenge: The chefs are going fishing, and will have to cook what they catch. They’ll serve two fish dishes to the panel of judges, which includes the one and only Daniel Boulud. In addition to their haul from the Gulf, they’ll have a mere $200 to spend at the fish market and Whole Foods. Even just feeding seven people will be tight on that kind of budget.
This isn’t the first time Tom’s taken a group of chefs fishing. In Top Chef: All-Stars, he brought the group out off the coast of Montauk to reel in their own fish. It had mixed results but for the most part, the chefs were able to draw a lot of inspiration from catching their own ingredients, and this time’s no different. It’s not just a grocery store product, it’s a real living creature they’re pulling right out of the ocean themselves. Although the chefs are allowed to buy other fish at the market, Evelyn is adamant about showing off her haul. After everyone struggles for a few hours, luckily no one is going home to Houston empty-handed.
The highlight of the trip is definitely Demarr’s excitement and nerves about the whole thing. He’s from south of Chicago and has never been fishing in his life. He’s clearly worried about the impact his lack of experience will have on his performance today, but it works out for him. Gluing himself to Tom’s side, Demarr follows his lead and catches a massive redfish. “Yanking an ingredient out of the ocean like that … I’ve never felt anything like that before,” he says proudly.
Fittingly for the conclusion of a season packed with so much talent, the final five are all equally worthy of making it to the finale. There’s no weak link, no one who managed to scrape by and float to the end. Evelyn, Buddha, Nick, Demarr, and Sarah are all amazing chefs who have fought hard to make it here, but the final challenge in Houston brings out some nerves in everyone. The pressure is increasing with each passing challenge, and Evelyn — a front-runner for nearly the entire competition — is slowing down. She has the added pressure of being the only one from Houston, and while that was motivating her in the early stages of the season, it seems to be weighing heavily on her now.
After shopping at the fish market and Whole Foods, the chefs head home. Tomorrow, they’ll cook at Aaron Bludorn’s eponymous restaurant in Houston. As the chefs talk about what dishes they’ll be making, I think Sarah nails exactly what her problem is. For weeks, she’s been competing in Last Chance Kitchen, essentially winning a string of Quickfires. In these rapidly paced challenges, there’s no time to overthink it. There’s no time to worry about what you’re doing wrong; you have to just go with your gut and not look back. But Sarah takes this realization and turns it into two high-concept dishes that stun the judges.
For her first dish, Sarah makes a “pseudo crudo.” Served with a hot broth to pour tableside, Sarah presents a mostly raw preparation of her fish. It’s a balanced and impressive meal, but her second dish is the real showstopper. Inspired by a pastrami sandwich, she presents a whimsical and delicious dish. There’s not a single negative comment to be heard around the table. Cooking for Daniel Boulud is a high-pressure challenge, and though she was incredibly nervous, Sarah absolutely killed it.
It’s certain that Sarah will be on top by the time we get to Judges’ Table; guest judges tonight are Boulud and Top Chef: Chicago winner Stephanie Izard. Joining Sarah with similarly high praise is Buddha, who presented a play on fish and chips inspired by one of Boulud’s own dishes. Although it didn’t come out exactly as he planned it, the meal is applauded for its ingenuity. They all instantly recognized the inspiration and Boulud himself was very impressed by it. Between the pastrami sandwich and fish and chips inspirations, it’s clear these chefs are thinking hard about new ways to address classic flavors. Both chefs are rewarded for their thoughtful and creative dishes. But even with Buddha’s near-perfect meal, Sarah edges him out. Finally getting a proper win, Sarah can hardly believe it. It’s the last challenge in Houston, and she has finally proven to Padma that she’s worthy of being here. Tom looks like a proud dad watching his kid graduate. His smug little smile says, “Yeah, I told you she was awesome.”
Evelyn’s nerves really got to her, and although they liked her soup, her taco was just fine. Padma’s unimpressed, and not because it tastes bad. Sometimes a dish is just okay. More problematic than that, she thinks Evelyn played it safe. Of course she can make a tasty taco, but what about a taco is surprising or inventive, something that’s key this late in the game? But luckily it’s still enough for her to join Buddha and Sarah in the finale.
That just leaves Demarr and Nick. Demarr got worked up about making a papaya salad, but when he couldn’t find any papaya, he struggled to reconceptualize his meal. His crudo was bland and attempting to flavor his dish with only a sauce didn’t work out. His dishes are described as “fine” and “timid.” Not ideal. On the other hand, Nick’s downfall was timing. He was rushing to get a fishcake made, forgot an important ingredient, and the resulting meal was more mush than cake. Despite the flavors being there, it’s an unappetizing presentation and not the textures he was going for. Nick also made a taco, but he overcooked the fish, the kiss of death in a fish challenge. In the end, Demarr manages to pull ahead of Nick and make it on to the finale.
Seeing the Mississippi Baker leave the game is a very sad moment. Everyone’s crying, especially Demarr. Nick has a great chance at winning fan-favorite this season. His positive attitude and encouragement kept the other chefs going even when it was bleak. He was like a big brother, and it’s going to be very sad to watch the finale without him there. If there’s ever another all-stars season, I hope Nick is in consideration for it.
Next week is the first episode of our two-part finale, and excitement is brewing about where the chefs will travel to. The answer is surprising. Am I the only one who didn’t know Tucson had an iconic food scene? Only the top three will get to present their culminating meal in Arizona, so the next episode is sure to be a doozy.
Musings From the Stew Room
• “If I’d known it felt this good to win, I would’ve done it a lot sooner,” Sarah says. Spoken like a gal with a real inferiority complex. Ride this well-earned victory to the end, Sarah!
• On the way off the boat, Tom gets a ton of laughs, saying, “Rock out with your fish out!” I fear that implies our Dad has bellowed, “Rock out with your cock out,” at least once in his life. I cannot picture such a statement, but I’m amused just thinking about it.
• I think the disappointment in Evelyn’s dish tonight will motivate her to put up some mind-blowing dishes next week. She’s an amazing chef and rightfully confident, and my money’s still on her to win.