I’ve touched on it here and there, but something’s been missing from Top Chef: Houston. It’s been brewing for the past few seasons, but it’s clear we’re getting more Great British Baking Show than Gordon Ramsey these days. I’ve been rewatching Top Chef: Boston, and I’ve concluded that we need a return of the Katsuji-type. His flamboyant arrogance plays as annoying rather than mean-spirited, and he’s always got something to say. There’s just something about the way he instantly gets under the skin of the other chefs as soon as he opens his mouth. Katsuji has such a distinct style of cooking that perfectly represents this personality, too. But Boston also had Aaron, whose frat-boy energy and deep-seated misogyny seemingly overpowers every thought he has. I can understand the desire to get away from characters like this that represent a more sinister side of chefs, but this is reality television at the end of the day. This is Bravo! Six weeks into this season, I’m still craving a bit more drama, a bit more tension. But here we are, another week, another happy-go-lucky team challenge.
Before we even get to that, let’s talk about Last Chance Kitchen! Last week I mentioned Leia’s winning streak, and, as is a running trend in these recaps, she promptly lost as soon as I declared my high hopes for her. After Ashleigh’s elimination last week, she was sent to battle against Sarah. Unbeknownst to them, this was the last round of the first half and the winner would be plucked from LCK to return to the Top Chef kitchen. Ashleigh was victorious and reentered the competition, ready to prove herself worthy of this second chance.
Even though I’m tired of seeing the same chefs working together every week, I can’t complain too much because judging tonight’s Quickfire are two of my favorite Top Chef contestants, chefs Kelsey Barnard Clark and Nini Nguyen. Both competed on Top Chef: Kentucky, where Kelsey ultimately took home the title of Top Chef. For the Quickfire, half the chefs select sweet confections while the other half select salty snacks. After making their picks, Padma reveals they’ll have to pair up to create a dessert inspired by a new line of Talenti mixed-flavor gelatos. The chefs choose their partners, attempting to marry their sweet and salty flavors. Some of our pairings are familiar, like Evelyn and Jo reuniting again to create a Marcona almond and peach dessert. Jackson and Buddha aren’t paired up for once, with Jackson joining Jae and Buddha and Luke working together. Although dessert is notoriously difficult on Top Chef, there are no blunders here. In fact, the dishes are all such successes that there’s no bottom for tonight’s Quickfire.
In addition to both chefs earning immunity for the elimination challenge, the Quickfire winners will each win $5,000 sponsored by Talenti. Oh, and $10,000 will be donated in their names to Chris Williams’s charity, Lucille’s 1913. Our top three desserts are from Jo and Evelyn, Demarr and Monique, and Nick and Ashleigh. Making a bold statement on her first challenge back from Last Chance Kitchen, Ashleigh is victorious along with Nick. Nick chose pork rinds, which seemed to throw him off for dessert, but with Ashleigh taking the lead, the chefs pulled off a win. There’s nothing more satisfying than a chef returning from LCK only to win immunity immediately. And that makes two in a row for Nick!
Tonight’s episode is titled “Texas Trailblaze-Hers,” so for the elimination challenge, each chef pulls a knife to determine which Texas icon they’ll draw inspiration from. The options are Selena, Ann Richards, Barbara Jordan, “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias, and Bessie Coleman. Two chefs will take on each of the five women. As is often the case when shows like this attempt social commentary, this episode toes the line between endearing and cringeworthy, but the challenge brings out great energy and emotion from all of the chefs. Half of our top ten chefs are women, and it’s safe to assume every one of them has dealt with the aggro, boys’-club vibe that often overwhelms the restaurant world. Each one of the inspirations for tonight’s meal made a mark in Texas history in different fields, from athletics to politics.
Judging looks a little different tonight, and joining our usual judges are Kelsey and Nini, Top Chef: All Stars alum Tiffany Derry, and a panel of women who share connections to our inspirations and who are iconic in their own right. Our guests tonight include Cecile Richards, representing her mother Ann Richards; Suzette Quintanilla, Selena’s sister and drummer; Sheryl Swoopes, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA All-Star; chef and owner of the Blind Goat, Christine Ha; Lori Choi, the co-founder of the nonprofit I’ll Have What She’s Having; and Lauren Anderson from the Houston Ballet. This all-star panel of women (and Tom) will all have an equal vote on who the winner of the challenge is. (Naturally someone makes a joke about recounts in Texas.)
All of the chefs are moved by the women, and this season, inspiration and passion have paid off immensely. Our top three tonight are our regulars: Jackson, Buddha, and Evelyn. These three have dominated the season so far, and tonight is no different. Somehow Evelyn managed to draw the Selena knife, allowing her to honor one of her favorite artists (who she even dressed up as for Halloween multiple years in a row). There’s a clear joy Evelyn gets out of cooking when she’s this inspired, and it’s so nice to watch. Every week she kills it, and it hasn’t gotten old yet. Two weeks in a row, Evelyn is the winner. Threepeat in her future?
Unfortunately, that leaves our bottom three: Monique, Luke, and Ashleigh. Despite her immunity, Ashleigh’s take on Olympic gold medalist Babe Zaharias didn’t connect with the judges, and her spot in the bottom three means she could receive feedback on the dish. This is a position Ashleigh knows too well, but there’s no risk of her elimination tonight. That just leaves Luke and Monique. Luke’s dish was influenced by Bessie Coleman, the first woman to obtain an international pilot’s license. In order to give the chefs a better idea of the women, they’re each given a dossier of information. Luke opens up about his dyslexia and the struggles he faced as a child with a learning disability. I’m sympathetic to him having a hard time really connecting with the information given to him this way. But his dish was unbalanced, and the judges agreed he could’ve generally brought a lot more flavor than he did. But it’s Monique who has the weakest meal tonight. Monique cooked in honor of Barbara Jordan, a politician described as fiery and unapologetic by those at the table. She struggled to bring this edge to her fried oysters and bean salad. It’s sad to see Monique go home on this challenge, as she seemed so interested in her subject and tried to make a dish Jordan would’ve made in her era, but it was a flop. It’s sad to see Monique’s rise and fall this season and such a strong start fall apart the last few weeks. But a weak dish this late in the game is a quick ticket out of the kitchen. We’ll see if she’s able to turn her downward spiral around at LCK.
Musings From the Stew Room
• I had a lot of fun with this week’s episode and really enjoyed the women-centric focus. Maybe it should’ve been planned for Women’s History Month in March, but that’s just being nitpicky.
• Jae’s story about chef Leah Chase was so sweet. Although she’s been a little all over the place in standings, I look forward to seeing what Jae brings to the table and loved seeing her get emotional about how her mentor changed her life. If only it translated better to her gumbo!
• Demarr has talked all season about the impact being raised by women has had on his cooking, and this was a great challenge for him to dive into that. He was solidly in the middle tonight, but I appreciate the sentiments behind his emotions here.
• As Jo March once said, “WOMEN!!!”