Welcoming Chef Hung Huynh as a guest judge, tonight’s episode of Top Chef focused on various Asian cuisines. When the chefs arrive in the kitchen expecting to compete, they’re met with an unusual sight. Rather than serving as the location for tonight’s Quickfire, the kitchen has transformed into an Asian night market. While the chefs try to scope out what’s going on, Padma reveals there will be no Quickfire this week. This means no immunity for anyone and guarantees that everyone will be putting in maximum effort on tonight’s Elimination Challenge.
For this Elimination Challenge, the chefs have to serve 100 guests at their own night market. For the first time, each contestant will be judged individually on the quality of their dishes. About a fifth of the population of Houston consists of “several large and vibrant Asian communities,” Padma explains. The chefs draw knives to determine which cuisine they’ll be exploring. In keeping with the focus of the season, this challenge is designed to inspire the chefs and expand their idea of Houston cooking. After each chef learns what they’ll be cooking, they get the chance to speak with local chefs who specialize in these cuisines. More importantly, they get to eat the food they’ll try to emulate, straight from some of the best Houston chefs. The chefs are all excited about getting fed instead of doing the feeding for once, but they’re also nervous about cooking food they maybe aren’t familiar with.
For Jo, this challenge is especially inspiring and nerve-racking. By chance, she pulls a knife that reads “Filipino.” It’s a treat for her to cook the food of her heritage, and she describes coming to love Filipino cuisine as she grew up. Jo explains that it was hard for her to feel proud of her family’s food when she was a kid, an experience shared by many nonwhite Americans. “When your mom is frying up sardines and serving banana ketchup with French fries at your house, you’re not gonna have a lot of friends,” she says. But with adulthood comes perspective, and Jo’s pride in her culture is evident. This challenge is a chance for her to continue this journey of finding love in Filipino food.
In addition to Jo, Robert will also be cooking a Filipino dish. Demarr and Nick choose Japanese; Jae, Ashleigh, and Monique draw Chinese; Sarah, Jackson, and Evelyn get Vietnamese. That leaves Buddha, Luke, and Sam to cook Indian — for Padma Lakshmi. This is a running challenge in Top Chef history, and it’s a difficult one. Padma is a fair and thoughtful judge, but how can she resist being a little more critical when chefs present her with Indian food? Luke is very wary of the challenge, and his lack of experience cooking any Asian food is worrisome.
Naturally, Luke is not the only chef anxious about tonight. Once again, Jackson’s lack of a sense of smell becomes problematic. He claims his taste has basically returned at this point, but it’s still incredibly difficult for him to pinpoint the Vietnamese flavors without that other sense. Both Demarr and Nick are nervous about cooking Japanese cuisine too. Luckily, the food at the night market is inspiring and delicious, relieving a lot of the initial nerves. The chefs are presented with vibrant dishes, and Buddha takes the opportunity to ask lots of questions regarding Indian cuisine.
Everyone reacts with joy when Padma tells the chefs they won’t be shopping at Whole Foods for this challenge. Instead, the chefs head off to specialty Asian markets. There, they can find produce and spices not typically available at American supermarkets. The move away from the Bezos-owned grocery giant is a welcome change for both contestants and viewers, and the focus on local is worthwhile. At the market, Evelyn continues to have one of the best personalities of the season. As Sarah wanders around looking vaguely overwhelmed, Evelyn brings her back on track: “Girl, that’s American shit. Come here.” Jo also guides Robert in the right direction, pointing him toward Filipino products to use in his dish. While most of the remaining chefs have bright personalities, these women are especially bubbly and have a strong, positive presence in the kitchen.
With just an hour to cook at the venue, the prep time in the Top Chef kitchen will be invaluable. It’s during this prep that Sam makes a tragic mistake. Tasked with creating an Indian dish, Sam chooses, unsurprisingly, vindaloo. He’s feeling pumped about his “Sam-aloo,” but in the excitement of packing up, he forgets his potatoes, boiling on the stove. We’ll never know how our favorite potato-loving chef could make such a blunder, but one thing’s for sure: There is no vindaloo without potatoes. It’s quite literally in the name. Sam tries not to panic, but this is a massive problem.
At the event, the judges and guests are blown away with almost every chef’s dish. Joining the judges and Hung tonight is Kiran Verma, executive chef at Kiran’s in Houston. Evelyn’s Vietnamese chicken salad is a hit, as is Nick’s Japanese-inspired fried chicken. Robert makes a tasty-looking chicken-and-rice dish with a “funky” shrimp paste and peanut sauce. Luke’s samosas come out delicious despite his nerves, earning high praise from Padma and the other judges. But especially by comparison with Luke’s, Buddha’s samosas fall short. Having specifically asked Chef Verma how to cook them, he went against her suggestion that he bake them and used the deep-fryer, leaving his puff pastries greasy and undercooked. Sam’s dish also suffered without his potatoes. Struggling to find a way to integrate this key ingredient in the limited time and space available at the event, Sam decides to grill potato wedges to top his curry and rice. Rather than being the star of the dish, the undercooked potatoes seem extraneous.
After an exciting night of Asian dishes, the chefs arrive at the Judges’ Table. Although many of the chefs pulled off inspired and delicious meals, only three receive recognition as tonight’s top dishes: Jae’s, Evelyn’s, and Jackson’s. Evelyn tied her Mexican roots to her dish, incorporating an avocado crema that all the judges agree brings the dish to another level. Jackson, despite his lack of experience cooking Vietnamese food, produced a spring roll that really impressed both the guests and the judges. However, Jae, successfully balancing tons of spices and ingredients in her noodle dish, pulls off the win. Although the judges seem overwhelmed by her chaotic workspace, her meal was exceptional and earns her a surprise reward of $10,000. Jae has struggled a bit so far this season but has such a great personality, and I’m happy to see her so overjoyed and proud of this win.
Unfortunately, two of the three chefs who made Indian end up at the bottom tonight. Buddha’s gummy samosas are heavily criticized, as is Sam’s severely lacking vindaloo. Ashleigh rounds out the bottom three for her tough meat and ill-conceived Chinese dish. All three of these chefs miss the mark, but Sam’s mistake in prep lands him at Last Chance Kitchen. This is a huge loss for Sam, who has been such a fun character to watch. Personalities are big this season, but Sam had such a fun vibe, and I was sad to watch him pack his knives. Hopefully, this experience doesn’t turn him away from potatoes for good.
Musings from the Stew Room
• Extremely bleak that Jae is so excited to pay her rent with her prize money. A huge relief to her, I’m sure, but a win for landlords nonetheless.
• Oh, Sam. His depressed “woooo!” as he leaves the kitchen without his potatoes is brutal.
• I’m rooting for Sarah, consistently in the middle-bottom of the pack, to figure out how to succeed in the Top Chef kitchen. I found myself oddly moved by her conversation with her fiancé, in which she worries if she’s only a good teammate and not a good chef. You got it in you, Sarah, I know it.