Bravo’s Top Chef returned tonight, kicking off a new season in Houston, Texas, and with such a lively culinary scene in the city, there’s a lot to live up to. Although Top Chef has been consistently fantastic since its first episode aired in 2006, the series is making a comeback after a rough ending to season 18, in which allegations of misconduct by the eventual winner, Gabe Erales, were revealed. Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi called for investigations into the allegations, clarifying that the Top Chef and Bravo teams were unaware of any misconduct during filming. With that scandal looming, there’s a lot of pressure on season 19. But if tonight’s cooking is any indication, we’re in for a real treat. In one of the most challenging season openers to date, the 15 contestants are thrown headfirst into the deep end, competing in groups for both of tonight’s challenges.
As with last season, a different Top Chef All-Star will be brought in to judge each challenge. For the first Quickfire, Dawn Burrell, runner-up of Top Chef: Portland and a Houston native, joins Lakshmi as a judge. Burrell gushes about her city, describing Houston as a “true melting pot” where many cultures can thrive. “The food is really delicious, and it is the reason why I love living here,” she says with a smile.
After arriving in the glossy Top Chef kitchen, Lakshmi interrogates the group to suss out everyone’s credentials. With $250,000 and other lucrative prizes at stake, the competition is always stiff, but never have chefs with such accolades entered the fray. As always, there are a handful of James Beard Award nominees and winners, but this season boasts eight chefs who have worked in Michelin-starred restaurants. With the bragging and self-promo out of the way, the chefs prepare to compete for the first time.
“I hear Padma, but what I see is that knife block,” says Evelyn Garcia, the one and only Texas native among the contestants. Of course, her instinct to be worried is warranted. For the Quickfire Challenge, the chefs draw knives and are immediately put into teams of three and tasked with creating a single cohesive dish — their fate resting in one another’s hands. As if collaborating with two complete strangers weren’t stressful enough, the team members are prohibited from speaking to one another, and each chef has only ten minutes to work on the team dish. Unable to communicate with their teammates, they are left scrambling to figure out where the dish is heading. More than bragging rights are at stake — chefs on the winning team are granted immunity at the Elimination Challenge.
Some chefs play well with others, and some do not. This is an especially difficult way to make a first impression on Lakshmi and Burrell, but the challenge is generally impressive. Unfortunately for the blue team, which includes two chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants, it commits the ultimate Top Chef sin: failing to plate the dish. Thirty minutes goes quickly in the Top Chef kitchen, but clearly ten minutes goes even faster. Luke Kolpin, whom Lakshmi previously revealed as working in “the No. 1 restaurant in the world,” Noma in Copenhagen, is the final chef for the blue team and fails his teammates, Sam Kang and Ashleigh Shanti, by not plating even a single element. The brown team is off to a rocky start too, but with its last-minute decision to add eggplant to the dish, the meal makes it to the top two. This is a relief for Jackson Kalb, who confesses he just got over COVID and still lacks his senses of taste and smell. This kind of curveball is what I live for. How will Jackson continue to compete without the senses most integral to cooking?
Ultimately it’s the yellow team — Monique Feybesse, Buddha Lo, and Jo Chan — that comes out victorious and earns immunity. “I worked in France when I was 17 years old, and I couldn’t speak any French at all,” says Lo, an executive chef living in Brooklyn. “Sometimes, the best form of communication is not communicating.” His team completes a delicious and unified meal and thoroughly impresses Lakshmi and Burrell.
With the first Quickfire out of the way, the chefs are relieved to be finished working as a group. Well, at least until it is revealed that these same teams will be competing against one another in the Elimination Challenge, too. The guest judge for this challenge is Kristen Kish, winner of Top Chef: Seattle. Kish arrives in the kitchen alongside head judge Tom Colicchio — who now seems to spend most of his time tweeting about NFTs. For the Elimination Challenge, each team has to produce three cohesive dishes from a single prime cut of beef. Because they were victorious in the Quickfire, the yellow team chooses first and picks the ribs. It’s also kind enough to allow the blue team to pick the loin second, hopefully setting the team up for redemption after that embarrassing Quickfire blunder.
Joining Kish as tonight’s final guest judge is Robert Del Grande, executive chef of the Annie Café, which is where the chefs present their meals. The brown and yellow teams ride their highs from the Quickfire and put up impressive shows. The brown team presents its meals first; Jackson made tartare for a starter, which is followed by Robert’s gnocchi and pot roast, and finally Sarah’s seared steak. Lakshmi, Colicchio, and all the guests rave about the brown team’s expert use of the cut of beef and the well-integrated menu. The yellow team took big risks because of its immunity, and Buddha positions himself as the clear front-runner for the season. Doing what few Top Chef contestants are confident enough to do, he made a dessert — at a beef challenge! It’s a hit, but at the judges’ table, the brown team overcomes the yellow, and Robert is crowned winner of the entire challenge. According to Lakshmi, Robert is the “only chef who really brought out that inherent beef flavor.”
While it seems as though each squad works well enough together, it’s obvious that the green and red teams are struggling the most. Demarr Brown, Nick Wallace, and Evelyn have a hard time coming up with an idea to tie their dishes together. They ultimately choose the sirloin cut, but by the time they get to Whole Foods for the rest of their ingredients, it doesn’t seem clear which direction they’re choosing. After a stressful cooking period, the green team receives the most cutting comment of the challenge, as Gail Simmons describes Demarr’s dish as “cold and slick with congealed fat.” Ew. Nick’s meal, inspired by his grandmother, is dry, but even with these criticisms, the green team makes it through the judges’ table unscathed. Ultimately, the red team’s uninspired dishes put it at risk of elimination.
Made up of Stephanie Miller, Leia Gaccione, and Jae Jung, the red team similarly struggles to unify its meals, attempting to put an Asian spin on its cut of beef. The round proves tough, however, and Stephanie, who’s from North Dakota, is uncomfortable cooking with these flavors. After leaving braised bok choy off the plate, which was intended to give Stephanie’s sweet-potato dish an Asian kick, she’s nervous about the possibility of being sent home. But her dish being different from Leia’s and Jae’s saves Stephanie in the end. Jae’s attempt at a North Korean dish she had only studied leaves the judges baffled by her decision to cook something she had never prepared or even tasted. Leia’s “summer roll” is also a swing and a miss, with Kish noting that the only thing making it Asian inspired is the rice-paper wrap. Thick cuts of tough beef in an overstuffed roll result in Leia being the first to pack her knives and go.
Top Chef: Houston is off to an impressive start and promises an intense season. Will a Michelin-star-winning chef pull off the win and take home the Top Chef title? Or will an underdog upset the so-called best of the best? With Last Chance Kitchen a possibility for our eliminated chefs, it’s still anyone’s game.
Musings From the Stew Room
• Robert’s win this episode is made even more impressive by the fact that he hasn’t worked in a restaurant since 2018!
• A proper shout-out for Buddha’s spotted dick. Not everyone has the balls to attempt a beefy dessert.
• “Congratulations! You’ve survived 15 courses of beef!” Padma Lakshmi and also probably Kanye’s publicist.
• Not to harp on it, but I cannot express my distaste for Tom’s NFT Twitter enough.