We’re down to the final few challenges in Houston and only six chefs remain. Out of those six, I’d say four have a pretty solid shot at winning; Buddha, Evelyn, Nick, and Demarr have all consistently been in the top throughout the season. Ashleigh and Jae have also presented some great meals, but both women have seen pretty sporadic successes. We’re coming down to the wire of a strong — if not somewhat subdued — season, and hopefully these last few episodes will conclude with a bit of excitement. Super talented chefs plus end-of-season jitters plus LCK champ returning? The potential is there.
For tonight’s edition of Top Chef #sponcon, Claudette Zepeda and Padma meet the chefs at the Houston Farmer’s Market. Zepeda, who competed on Top Chef: Colorado and Top Chef: Mexico, is here to judge a Chipotle-sponsored fajita challenge. The chefs will have a mere 45 minutes to shop at the market and cook their fajitas. Padma teases Nick, bringing up his badass nickname, “The Mississippi Baker.” Nick has made the most dough of anyone, claiming $25,000 so far. Everyone’s amused by the nickname, but they’re also clearly frustrated. No one will express just how pissed they are, but feathers seem ruffled. Nick is very proud of it. He’s been on a roll with challenge wins lately, and racking up that money is a nice cherry on top. The Quickfire winner may not win immunity, but they will get a hefty $10,000 check from Chipotle. Do you think they guessed this episode would be airing on Cinco de Mayo?
Here’s an unprompted hot take: Farmers’ markets are overrated. They’re too overwhelming with too many colors and sounds. Maybe I’m just weak to overstimulation, but every time I hit up a farmer’s market I leave more stressed than I should be and with either way too much stuff or absolutely nothing. This overwhelming vibe definitely ratcheted up the difficulty level of tonight’s challenge. Forty-five minutes is an insanely short time to cook and plate a well-composed dish, let alone after navigating a market jam-packed with so many of the freshest ingredients.
Jae is the first to head back to the kitchen area, and everyone soon follows, but Ashleigh is still wandering around after 15 minutes. Giving herself less than half an hour to cook, she shot herself in the foot a bit in this challenge. Jae’s extra time doesn’t help her, as her gochujang crêpes — intended to act as her tortilla — are not coming together.
After a rapid-fire cook time, Padma and Claudette return for judging. On top are, you guessed it, Evelyn, Nick, and Budda. They were all pretty chill throughout the challenge, proving confidence is key! Evelyn and Buddha’s fajitas were both nearly perfect, but it’s the Mississippi Baker who claims the $10k. Even in such a short time, Nick added a bonus to his dish by hand-making his tortillas. He continues to stack his bread while Evelyn and Buddha only have a sense of pride for their hard work.
With the Quickfire out of the way, we’re on to an amazing Elimination Challenge. We’ve gone so many episodes without a single “Houston, we have a problem” joke, but tonight it’s finally time for a NASA challenge, and tonight’s guest judge, Marcus Samuelsson, is here to explain it. The chefs are off to the Johnson Space Center, a.k.a. NASA Mission Control, to have a crash course in space food. They will have to follow hyper-specific guidelines and create a dish that would be possible to eat on the International Space Station. The winner will see their dish launched into space for the astronauts to enjoy. All the way back in 2010, Top Chef had another challenge like this, and Angelo Sosa saw his short ribs sent out to space. Everyone’s excited and made nervous by such a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The two main guidelines the chefs have to follow are simple: no crumbs and no standing liquid. The chefs aren’t stuck menu planning with such vague motivations, however. After a tour around the Space Center to learn about how astronauts grow certain vegetables and what makes up a standard menu, the chefs are led into an auditorium for a stellar surprise. They get the chance to video chat with astronauts on the ISS. Even watching this on my laptop, so far removed from the experience itself, I had such chills watching this conversation. Space technology has always amazed and frightened me, and it’s sort of mind-blowing watching it being used to talk about what food they crave up there.
Once again, Evelyn, Nick, and Buddha have pretty smooth prep periods. They are focused, inspired, and have a clear vision for what they want to bring the astronauts and why. It’s no surprise three chefs all end up on top tonight at Judges’ Table. A few chefs made rice dishes, but Evelyn’s was the “best rice we had today,” according to Melissa. Her Tex-Mex pork stew was rich and heavily seasoned in the best way. Many of the astronauts mentioned a dulling of their tastebuds and how important hot sauce becomes on the ISS. She tried to make a homey, comforting dish and absolutely succeeded.
Nick went a similar route in terms of comfort food, making his famous Mississippi gumbo. With collard greens, beans, and okra, this dish was an embodiment of Southern cooking. He and Evelyn really cook from the heart, and these dishes were indicative of that primal inspiration that erupts from them both. But the big winner tonight is Buddha. And for the first time! Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, as they say, Buddha has made more than a few showings in the top three but this is his very first individual victory. Going a totally different direction from the other chefs, Buddha still made a dish that was reminiscent of one from childhood. His “spaceballs,” as Evelyn called them, were inspired by a traditional pavlova but retooled for the space specifications. Unique, creative, and perfectly executed, Padma and the rest of the judges loved his berry-stuffed white-chocolate dessert. It’s a beautiful-looking dessert, and I’m sure it tasted just as good.
This was not Damarr’s best episode. He was in the bottom for both challenges, and admits to struggling with some “chef’s block.” After weeks on his A-game, Damarr is hitting an unfortunately timed wall. He messed up the preparation of his rice and even after a second attempt it wasn’t great. His meal was lackluster and seemed flavorless, according to the comments from the guests at the dining table tonight, including multiple astronauts. But it was enough to squeeze him through to the top five. It’s down to Jae and Ashleigh, and both women created dishes that didn’t pack a punch. Ashleigh tried to have some fun with her meal, presenting a spin on tinned fish and slaw in a vacuum-sealed bag. She even serves the dish with a pair of kitchen shears, which I thought was a nice touch. This burst of creativity is probably what saved her undercooked tuna from sending her out the door. Instead, it’s Jae who packs her knives to go. Jae’s attempt at space-safe bulgogi left the judges far from satisfied. The meat was too thin, essentially dissolving into the thick barley stew that she paired with it. Jae was finally seeing some success in the Top Chef kitchen, but it was too little too late.
Musings from the Stew Room
• Ashleigh getting distracted in the farmers’ market because she says all the ingredients are reminding her so much of her girlfriend. Awww. Not a great excuse this late in the game, but very cute, IMO.
• Buddha always says “thank you, Tom” instead of “thank you, chef,” which rubs me the wrong way for some reason. I don’t even know if it’s disrespectful, I’ve just never heard anyone else do it before.
• Last Chance Kitchen finale tonight! I’m too scared to say who I want to win or else they’ll surely lose with the rest of my favorites from this season, but you can probably guess who I’m rooting for.
• Tangentially related: Melissa King at the Met Gala. I don’t love the shorts look but my god, that detail on the jewelry is gorgeous.