It’s never a good sign when Padma breaches the sanctity of the Stew Room. Her presence here is inherently ominous and usually signifies someone’s Top Chef journey is ending. After last week’s double elimination, our chefs are totally on edge when she comes in immediately after Judges Table to inform them they’ll be meeting Brooke Williamson on location for their next challenge. With an out-of-the-ordinary visit from Padma, speculation ensues. All signs are pointing toward an Elimination Challenge, and everyone theorizes what it may be.
When the chefs arrive, it’s clear what’s happening: It’s time for the barbecue challenge we all knew was coming. Brooke is waiting at J-Bar-M Barbecue to introduce tonight’s Elimination Challenge. Everyone has been patiently awaiting the chance to barbecue in Houston, and the pressure is on. Tonight the chefs will have to put a unique spin on brisket. They’ll have 30 minutes to develop a spice rub for their meat before Brooke and pitmaster Willow Villarreal take over for the 12 hours that the briskets will smoke. The next day they will present their meals to Brooke, the panel of judges, and 20 of Houston’s finest pitmasters.
Different chefs have different strengths that come into play during these specific challenges, but Evelyn’s hometown advantage and Nick’s experience with barbecue are beneficial tonight. Beyond their knowledge, the confidence that comes along with it is key. Right off the bat, Monique is among the chefs who are more nervous about the challenge. Her fine-dining and pastry experience may be helpful in other challenges, but barbecuing in Texas is a nerve-racking business.
When the chefs return from their trip to Whole Foods, they’re in for a surprise as Tom joins them at J-Bar-M. Although the Elimination Challenge has already begun, he makes the valid point that they never said there’d be no Quickfire. Ah, Top Chef, always keeping everyone on their toes. For the Quickfire, it’s another decadent day as the chefs compete in a Texas toast battle. With brisket on the brain, it’s a test to see who can switch gears midday. Immunity is back up for grabs, but you know what they say, everything’s bigger in Texas: The winner of tonight’s Quickfire will also take home $10,000.
We’re down to the top ten chefs, and considering how consistently great the food has been so far this season, it’s no surprise we have yet another strong display in this Quickfire. But perhaps this challenge was too simple, as the chefs on the bottom offered up contrived renditions that missed the mark. Luke’s pancetta-topped toast is too salty, while Monique’s buttercream-and-mushroom toast doesn’t work, from concept to execution. On the flip side, the standout dishes are thoughtful and classic, like Nick’s winning BLT. Although Nick is confident in his brisket abilities, I’m sure it’s more than relieving to earn immunity. And hey, that $10,000 probably settles the nerves quite well.
At midnight, the chefs pack up their briskets until tomorrow’s prep time. They’ll have no way of knowing if the seasoning or tenderness of their meat is up to par until they get back to the kitchen tomorrow. This air of uncertainty hangs around the chefs while they begin prep. Some are disappointed, like Ashleigh, who is missing salt, and Monique, who doesn’t feel like her spices are coming through the smoke flavor. So there’s nothing to do besides hope the rest of your dish compensates. But in a brisket challenge, brisket is ideally the star of the dish.
Curry isn’t necessarily what you’d think of for a brisket dish, but tonight, Evelyn’s brisket curry is the clear star of the show. For the most part, Evelyn has spent this whole season at the top of the pack. I’m so happy to see her thrive and given a chance to cook for her hometown barbecue masters. She wears her emotions on her sleeve and pride radiates out of her as she presents her meal and earns a round of applause from a roomful of her supporters. This hometown vibe probably gives her an advantage over the other chefs, but Evelyn is so humble, and seeing how loved she is in Houston is a real treat. And with a killer dish, to boot, it’s no surprise she pulls off a well-deserved win here.
Garnering perhaps the highest praise I’ve heard from Padma, the dish perfectly balances classic brisket and curry flavors. “Where have you been all my life?!” Padma exclaims. Gail, always a sweetheart but not without the acute ability to make the most cutting remarks, describes how proud she is to have been able to eat such an amazing dish. I can’t imagine anyone who is not beaming along with Evelyn. Joining her at the top are some familiar faces: Buddha and Jackson. Buddha’s high-concept beef bourguignon is equally gorgeous and delicious. Always the risk taker, Jackson decided to grind up his brisket and make a stuffed pasta. As they have most of the season, his risks pay off, and he succeeds in not offending any of the pitmasters by pulverizing such a nice cut of meat.
On the other side of the spectrum, Jo, Ashleigh, and Monique are at the bottom. As discussed in other recaps, heart and soul are being rewarded heavily this season. Monique, not confident in her barbecue abilities, played it safe. With no passion driving her dish, it fell flat. Although Jackson succeeded, Jo has failed; her stuffed pasta is underwhelming. It’s not necessarily bad, and the judges don’t have much to say that she doesn’t already know. She and Ashleigh both miscalculated the season’s longest cook and prep time by biting off way more than they could chew and adding too much to their dishes. Jo’s is the least offensive of this trio. Unfortunately, Ashleigh’s tough meat and mismatched flavors result in her packing her knives. It’s sad to see Ashleigh go after finally making it out of the bottom last week. She never seemed to have enough confidence in her work to make a mark with the judges, and I’m sure that’s not due to a lack of talent and skill. Maybe Last Chance Kitchen will be where she finally finds her footing.
Musings From the Stew Room
• I pegged Buddha as a front-runner from episode one, and he is clearly talented as hell, but something about his self-assuredness rubs me just slightly the wrong way. His comment about using the Quickfire money to pay for his pug’s eye surgery was pretty adorable, though. Plus one point for wanting to put your dog’s needs above yours, now and forever.
• If you haven’t been keeping up with LCK, Leia has been absolutely killing it! She’s 3-0 so far, and I hope to see her streak continue. Anyone who is eliminated in episode one and continues to win out of spite is a favorite in my eyes.