It’s week 10 and we’re down to just six chefs on Top Chef Houston. Which is a shame — I feel like things are just (finally?) heating up. I’m hoping that by the time the finale rolls around, that Jurassic Park episode will seem like a distant memory. Maybe that was by design, and that’s why they stuck it in the middle like that. Maybe these producers are smarter than I’ve been giving them credit for.
Hey, I get it, sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to for the money. Just ask my editor’s mom.
Aaaanyway, this week’s episode took the contestants first to Houston’s historic Farmer’s Market for a fajita challenge, to be judged by Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins and her fancy eyeglass frames. She explained that the word “fajita” comes from the word for skirt, or girdle (just like my editor’s mom wears to hold her gut in), which originally referred to the skirt steaks that people grilled in the market stalls.
Each contestant would scour the market and create their own little girdles for Padma and Claudette to eat, with the winner receiving $10,000 courtesy of Chipotle. Mmm, that’s a lotta girdles. In exchange for the sponsorship, Chipotle received one or two fairly low-key mentions and a plug for their humanely sourced meats or whatever. Which was… nice, actually. The product was relevant to the challenge and no one had to dress up in a guacamole costume or whatever.
See? Product placement can work.
At the mention of the 10 grand, the chefs all wondered aloud if “The Mississippi Baker,” Chef Nick, would win yet another cash prize. He’s called “The Mississippi Baker,” we learned, because he always “gets his bread,” having won the two previous cash Quickfires, in episodes five and six. Hey, fuckers, knock it off, I’m the one giving the nicknames around here.
After that, it was time for a SPACE CHALLENGE. That’s right, Houston, you might remember, is the city astronauts are talking to when they say things like, “Houston, we have a problem.”
Kudos to the Top Chef producers, judges, and contestants, by the way, for making it all the way through a space-based Top Chef episode set in Houston without ever going for a “Houston, we have a problem” pun. Amazing job. Clearly, I lack that kind of restraint. The challenge was introduced by guest judge Marcus Samuelsson, who arrived dressed like this:
Let’s see… brimmed hat, stars on the jacket, some sort of bovine camouflage pattern on the pants… Oh, “Space Cowboy!” I get it.
Samuelsson was there to introduce the space-food challenge, after which the contestants all headed off to NASA to meet some astronauts and chit-chat about zero Gs and Tang and whatnot. Melissa King was there, to challenge Marcus Samuelsson to a “who looks better in a patterned blazer and Aloha shirt” contest.
I have to give Melissa King the edge here, not that I wouldn’t absolutely brain a guy at Dan Flashes for Samuelsson’s fish shirt, because I would. Is there a lady version of “Big Dick Energy?” Melissa King has it.
Anyway, the judges tasked the contestants with preparing some food fit for space, to be judged by two astronauts, whose names I don’t feel like looking up but suffice to say neither of whom were the famous astronaut diaper lady. The winning dish would “become the basis for a dish that would be served on the space station,” and the only stipulations were that the dishes should be free of crumbs and liquid. Turns out, the delicate space equipment hates crumbs and liquid.
Honestly, “no crumbs or liquid” seemed a little wishy-washy, as guidelines go. How crumb and liquid free are we talking here? Nothing but nougat?
In practice, “liquid” ended up being something of a relative term, with most of the chefs adding a roux or parsnips or okra or whatever to make their stews and braises extra thicc. And thus, presumably, not legally considered a “liquid.” I wonder if that would fly at the airport. I love to imagine myself pleading with the TSA agent, “What’s the problem officer? As you can see, I clearly thickened this Gatorade with a nice oxtail roux.” If they really wanted to control for liquidity, they should’ve had the diaper lady judge. Each chefs gets extra points for however long she’s able to drive afterward without peeing. Call me, producers, I have many ideas.
For the most part, the results shook out exactly how you might expect, had you been reading these columns. That is, with one notable exception.
Quickfire Top: Nick, Buddha, Evelyn.
Quickfire Bottom: Damarr, Ashleigh, Jae.
Elimination Challenge Top: Nick, Buddha*, Evelyn.
Elimination Challenge Bottom: Damarr, Ashleigh, Jae**.
6. (-1) ((Eliminated)) Jae Jung
AKA: Noodles. Jae West. Hilaria. Dr. Hibbert.
Elimination Challenge Dish: Bulgogi with gochujang barley.
Critiques: “I wasn’t sure what the texture was supposed to be.” “The barley was undercooked.” “Beef was very mushy.” “The carrots were the best part.”
Ah, Jae. What will we do without her? (And that is a sadly definitive “without her” this time, my screener came late this week so I actually got to watch Last Chance Kitchen before submitting this piece this week, and SPOILER ALERT, Jae didn’t win).
Jae was… kinda weird. Weird-cool? Sure. We shall miss her constant laughter and huskily voiced paeans to cheese. She was always weirdly horny for cheese.
It seemed like Jae was back on the right track after last week’s win, but as always, she seemed much more thrown by the challenge guidelines than anyone else. She made bulgogi as her take on comfort food, but thickened it with parsnips to keep it from being too liquidy, and paired it with barley for some reason, and she ended up with mushy meat over undercooked barley, the same texture as my editor’s mother’s… fine, fine, too much of this joke, I get it.
5. (+1) Ashleigh Shanti
AKA: Moonjuice. Sugar Hillcountry.
Elimination Challenge: Marinated tuna and shrimp with sweet potato slaw
Critiques: “I think there was too much of a focus on presentation, and it lacked a bit on flavor.” “It was a big piece of tuna and it was very bland.”
It was the same three chefs on top and on bottom for both challenges this week, which makes these rankings even easier than usual. If Jae’s kryptonite is not quite understanding challenge rules, Ashleigh’s is overthinking them.
Ashleigh this week took the space food challenge maybe a little too literally, serving the chefs poached tuna in a can with a bag of herbs served with a scissor. It felt like rather than cooking a dish that reminded astronauts of Earth, she was trying to make the Earth judges feel like they were in space. Look, Ashleigh, if I want to feel like I’m in space I’ll pee my pants.
The bigger problem (a weirdly pervasive one for Ashleigh) was cutting her meat too thick, as well as poaching it (not long enough) in a liquid that was insufficiently fatty (coconut water). Uncharacteristically for Ashleigh, this dish kinda looked and sounded bad to boot. Luckily for her Jae decided to make baby food beef with a side of barley starch so Ashleigh gets to stick around for another week.
4. (-1) Evelyn Garcia
Elimination Challenge Dish: Guiso Rojo
Critiques: “Had so much depth of flavor.” “Really well-rounded.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Hispanic native Houstonian did well in the fajita challenge. But then she kept it going in the elimination challenge. Like I said last week, Evelyn and Nick are so neck and neck that it’s hard to rank them. But Nick won the quickfire this week, so I guess I have to give him the slight edge. If this elimination challenge had been a menu, I would’ve been torn between Evelyn’s guiso rojo and Nick’s gumbo.
Whereas Nick’s point of view seemed pretty much fully-formed from the beginning, it feels like Evelyn is only just now learning to lean into Mexican food with Southeast Asian influences (she marinated her fajita meat in fish sauce, something something my editor’s mom). It seems to be working for her. I don’t know if that gives her the advantage because she’s peaking at the right time or puts her behind Nick by having to make up for lost time. My expert opinion is that her food looks very good and I would eat it.
3. (+1) Nick Wallace
AKA: Domingo. Chocolate Mormon. The Count. The Mississippi Baker (I can’t deny a good nickname, even if I didn’t coin it).
Elimination Challenge Dish: Mississippi Gumbo
Critiques: “Really delicious.” “Mississippi God damn!”
The Chocolate Mormon was the only chef who made fresh tortillas for the fajita challenge, a move that won him both $10,000 and my heart. For the elimination challenge, he made a “Mississippi Gumbo,” with black-eyed peas, chicken, okra, butter beans, and rice, something he said he lifted from his own menu at the Civil Rights Museum. Seems a little weird that we’re only just finding out that Nick is the chef at the Civil Rights Museum, kinda like having to find out that Sarah grew up in Jamaica from Last Chance Kitchen.
Spoiler alert, Sarah won Last Chance Kitchen, so she’ll be returning to the competition. Hopefully, she has learned to stop talking with her eyes closed.
I digress. Whatever happens, Nick has already earned himself thirty grand and created buzz for Nick’s 26, so it feels like he’s already a winner. Nick doesn’t need a win, he needs an agent.
2. (-1) Damarr Brown
AKA: Catchphrase. James Beard. Screech.
Elimination Challenge Dish: Rice with chicken gravy and hot pickled peppers.
Critiques: “The rice is very overcooked.” “Wasn’t a lot of flavor.” “I guess I was looking for something a little more.” “Underwhelming.”
Obviously the big story this week was Damarr falling off after he’s been running neck and neck with Buddha the same way Evelyn and Nick are. The judges always claim to be judging based solely on the challenge at hand, but it felt like Damarr would’ve been the one to go home, for his overcooked rice with bland gravy, if he hadn’t built up so much goodwill up until this point. Which is good, Damarr going home would’ve sucked.
Maybe I’m just overvaluing Damarr because he seems like one of the most genuine human beings ever to appear on a reality show, but I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt here and predict that he’s still a favorite.
1. (+1) Buddha Lo
AKA: Buddha. Mr. International. Big Pun. Asian Ben Mendelsohn. The Salad Nazi. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Terminator.
Elimination Challenge Dish: “Pavlova 14.”
Critiques: “It was interactive and fun and playful.” “He told a great story. And it was fun.”
Last week I made the point that Buddha seems to be at his best when he does the opposite of comfort food. You probably couldn’t invent a challenge more tailor-made for Buddha’s particular set of skills than “cook food fit for space” and not surprisingly he rose to the occasion. With a dessert made of pavlova and white chocolate meant to evoke Alan Shepard’s golf ball on the moon during Apollo 14, which Buddha named “Pavlova 14.”
Remember when I nicknamed Buddha “Big Pun” in Week One? Remember?? VALIDATE MEEEE.
Buddha even dropped a “that’s a lotta masa” after the $10,000 prize was announced in the quickfire, and it’s exactly that kind of cleverness that tends to leaven Buddha’s otherwise Michael Jordan-esque level of single-minded, borderline psychotic competitiveness. Watching him put avocados in a food processor during the quickfire challenge hurt my soul a little bit, but for the most part, I can’t help but love a cuddly Australian with a lisp named “Buddha” who is actually a food assassin.
For as comparatively lacking in compelling personalities as this season has occasionally been, the finale shaping up as a battle between soulful comfort food savant Damarr and brilliant flawless space food scientist Buddha is pretty hard to beat, as narratives go. It’s like a classic striker vs. grappler matchup in MMA.
Will Buddha choke out Damarr with a rear-naked foam?? Or will Damarr knock Buddha into next week with a thundering right ham hock?? Time will tell. All I know is that I’m going to be watching the shit out of it, possibly with JUST BRAISE painted on my chest while I flex so hard I fart a little.