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Top Chef Houston Power Rankings: It’s The Final Chefdown

It is with a heavy heart that I must acknowledge that this season of Top Chef has come to an end. With three competitors remaining, it was mostly all over but the cooking on this episode. Which opened with each of the remaining chefs choosing their sous chefs. Would you believe that they chose from the previously eliminated competitors? Crazy, right? Has this ever been tried before?

Actually, kudos to the producers for not delivering this information like it was some kind of new twist, as they had in some past seasons. This show has been on for 19 seasons. They get it. We get it. The eliminated chefs always come back to be sous chefs for the finale.

One thing they did do a bit differently was to have just one sous chef per remaining contestant. Evelyn chose Jo, aka Sarge. Sarah chose Robert, aka Damian from Mean Girls. And Buddha chose Jackson, aka Andrew Lunk aka Napholeon Dynamite. This was actually a good reminder that, for all my Sarah bashing leading up to the finale, she was still more likable than plenty of the previously eliminated contestants. No offense to Jo, but I’m not sure what she was bringing to the table, other than a series of relentlessly milquetoast confessionals. Jackson, I mean you might not want him as your wingman, but at least he gave me good nickname fodder. God bless you, Big Magoo.

Probably we lost Ness, aka Sam Kang (you might remember his attempt at grilled potatoes?) too early, not to mention North Dakota Jolie, who got angry any time she had to cook something not made out of cows or corn. But this season felt like it was extremely long on talent and a bit short on characters. I didn’t need anyone getting called a snake or hulking out over a pea puree, say, but… I don’t know, something weird could’ve happened. Anything short of the winner being revealed as a sex pest hours after the finale.

Aaaaanyway, with the sous chefs set, the remaining contestants all headed off to the Pima County Courthouse, where the judges would now pronounce them man and food. You know what I mean. Padma told them that they’d all be responsible for producing a four-course progressive menu, for a panel of 10 judges, including Stephanie Izard, Eric Ripert, Ed Lee, Gregory Gourdet, Alexander Smalls, and more.

Edward Lee — see, now there‘s the kind of personality this season could’ve used. Edward Lee actually attempts jokes. The closest we had this season was Sarah, who sometimes says things that are sort of in the shape of jokes. Eric Ripert isn’t exactly a laugh riot, but he has one of the most soothing French accents on Earth. Eric Ripert could read my death sentence in a medieval court and I’d probably think “Mmm, sounds delicious.”

Individuals aside, I’m not sure these chefs get enough credit for having to make four separate dishes for 10 people, with only one sous chef to help. In his memoir, Jacques Pepin wrote “I believe that it is impossible to cook superlatively for more than 10 diners.”

On my stove it’s more like six. This is why I think people who have three or more children on purpose are completely insane (well, one of the reasons, anyway).

But before the dinner, the chefs all got together and ate some food that Tom Colicchio, Stephanie Izard, Padma Lakshmi, and Eric Ripert cooked for them. What was that food? Uh… I guess we’ll never know. Seriously, producers, you didn’t think to include that part? Are you saving it for the DVD?



Chef Sarah Welch’s Dinner: “The Hunter-Gatherer Mentality”

Chef Sarah said she was “inspired by the hunter-gatherer mentality,” and wanted to cook only foods that would be available in the local Tucson environment, with a theme of using things that would normally go to waste (she brought some miso paste that some chef friends made from food about to go off). It was… a pretty solid theme, honestly.

Chef Evelyn Garcia’s Dinner: Don’t Skip Goat Neck Day

Evelyn’s inspiration was, and I’m paraphrasing a lot here, to combine her Southeast Asian training with her Mexican roots and Houston upbringing. Not exactly a Galaxy Brain kind of theme, but themes are probably best not overthought.

Chef Buddha Lo’s Dinner: A Young Boy’s Strange, Erotic Journey From Australia To The US

Buddha wanted to serve a culinary representation of how far he’s come as a chef, from his roots as a Malaysian-Australian in Port Douglas to his work in Hong Kong all the way up to his current home in the US. In practice, this meant lots of tuiles. So many f*cking tuiles, bro. It was a real Night In The Tuileries.

Writer’s Verdict: Sarah. Sarah’s theme was more a statement of purpose than a statement of identity, which makes it seem more interesting somehow. Or maybe it’s just because it sounds the least like fusion cuisine on the face of it.



First Course: Scallop Crudo
Second: Crystal Dumplings With Aromatic Broth
Third: Goat Curry Mole
Fourth: Buñuelo With Cajeta, Panna Cotta, Whipped Cream and Basil


First: Hamachi with Caviar
Second: Lobster Laksa
Third: Mongolian Lamb
Fourth: Pumpkin Pie Mille-Feuille


First: Venison Tartare with Sonoran Focaccia and Smoked Butter
Second: Squash Tortellini In Corn Broth With Three Sisters Salad
Third: Rabbit Ballotine With Grains, Nuts, and Greens Salad
Fourth: Smoked Buttermilk Ice Cream with Acorn Cake

Writer’s Verdict, Whole Menu:

Too close to call. All of them have at least one course that feels like a must-order (lamb, laksa, dumplings, curry, tortellini) with a few I’d probably avoid (venison tartare, scallop crudo). I’m giving the edge to Buddha, solely because when he says “mille-feuille” it sounds like “MILF loin.” Mmm, love to end a meal with some tender MILF loin.

Writer’s Verdict, Course By Course:

One: Buddha, both for how it sounds and how it looks. Scallops are boring, venison tartare sounds adventurous, even for me, and when the dishes actually came out, we discovered that Buddha had made “sweet potato bees.” Which sounds like a random phrase Grandpa Simpson would’ve uttered in the midst of his senile ramblings. “Sweet potato bees, we ate, which was the style at the time. Gimme five bees for a tuber, we’d say…”

Two: Evelyn, again both for look and sound. Buddha’s lobster laksa both looked and sounded pretty good (frozen lobster notwithstanding — get him!), and Sarah’s tortellini was also a dumpling — my theory is that you should always order anything that’s a dumpling as a first move with an unfamiliar menu. But Sarah’s pasta looked thicc, while Evelyn’s looked clear and delicate.

Three: Buddha. “Mongolian Lamb” and “Goat Curry Mole” both sound about equal, in my mind, but while Buddha’s lamb also looked incredible, discovering Evelyn didn’t actually braise the goat necks in the curry (as virtually every judge pointed out) knocks it down a few pegs. I’m not a huge fan of rabbit (sticks to your teeth!) as it is, but Sarah first undercooking (in the circulator) and then overcooking (in the oven) hers sure didn’t help. Is this the start of a Top Chef sous vide curse?? Sarah was circulated on her on circulator! She really took a water bath on this one!

Four: Sarah. As for what sounds the best, obviously I have to go with the MILF loin, though buñuelo is an automatic win on account of being deep fried. Give me any dessert that resembles a funnel cake. Meanwhile Buddha literally served a plate of edible leaves like a demented aristocrat. But Sarah’s cake looked pretty good, and based on the judges’ feedback I have to assume that it was the best.



Nicest Compliment: “This was a three-star Michelin first course.”

Meanest/Most Petty Criticism: “It reminded me of the 80s and 90s.” “Maybe a little show off.” “That dish was a little too cleaned up.”


Nicest Compliment: “Evelyn is masterful at restraint.”

Meanest/Most Petty Criticism: “That sauce read ‘top note.’” “It needed more flavor throughout.”


Nicest Compliment: “It made me feel like a child again.” (Padma, on Sarah’s cake).

Ratatouille Childhood gif

Meanest/Most Petty Criticism: “As the dish progressed I was confused.” “The flavors were fighting.” “I think the three sisters brought along some cousins.”


My first screener didn’t have the final act revealing the winner, so worried are they about an idiot like me spoiling the Top Chef winner before it airs (honestly, fair). But it didn’t take a genius to figure out that it was Buddha. Buddha did what he did for most of this season, and performed like a machine. Speaking of geniuses, did you guys get a look at who I had as my number one chef in the very first power ranking of the season?

Budda Ranked 1

I mean, I don’t like to brag, but it must take someone pretty smart and experienced at watching Top Chef to predict the winner after just one episode. Not to mention handsome. And sveltely built. (*”You can’t do this to me, I’m a Top Chef expert,” he screamed while being dragged out of his child’s soccer game*)

Regardless, Buddha did what he’s been doing basically all season: seemingly cooked twice the amount of food with twice the amount of techniques as anyone else on the show. I’ve been calling him “Moneyball” and “Big Data” on account of his seemingly Big Data-influenced approach to this show (could’ve called him Bryson Béchemelchambeau for the golf fans out there) but as much as that he sort of just outworked everyone. Even the judges seemed to think making bees out of sweet potatoes and eight million tuiles was more unnecessary decoration than substantive cookery, but how much can you really knock someone for working too hard? Especially when the biggest mistake he made was “not quite enough maple caramel for the amount of edible crunchy leaves.”

Top Chef is the only way I could ever type a sentence like that and have it not be because I was having a stroke, and that’s why I’m still thankful for this show.

Read the rest of our Top Chef Power Rankings here. Vince Mancini is on Twitter.