This week’s Top Chef: Houston episode opens with my favorite dairy delight, CHEESE, and lots of it. As the episode begins, we see a selection of cheddar, gouda, and even fondue cheeses. Judge and host Padma Lakshmi stood alongside guest judge and Houstonian Irma Galvan, who’s known for her delicious Mexican cuisine and her restaurant, Irma’s Original.
The diverse tower of cheeses from around the world was an immediate indicator of the chefs’ first quick-fire challenge: queso. The challenge may seem like a simple one but, of course, it’s Top Chef — the chefs were doubly challenged to utilize an appetizer other than tortilla chips for dipping.
Our lone Houstonian, Evelyn García, says she was “raised on queso,” but thought avant-garde for the challenge, creating adobo con queso and taro chips. She wowed the judges with her dish, receiving high praise from Galvan for plate presentation — García served her queso in a cast-iron skillet and plated the taro chips on a yellow-edged dinner plate. Lakshmi enjoyed the taste, saying she understood the “gooeyness, heat and crunch.” Although Garcia received positive feedback, she lost the quick-fire challenge to her once-teammate Damarr Brown for his mild cheddar queso with pickled serrano chiles topped with bread crumbs and smoked paprika. But the competition was only just heating up.
Chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly Hospitality returned as a judge this week to kick off the elimination challenge: Friday Night Bites, which pays homage to the rich football traditions that we have in Houston. The chefs were divided into two teams of seven, the Wildcats versus the Cougars. The teams were coached by Chef Dawn Burrell for the Wildcats and Sam Talbot of Top Chef Los Angeles for the Cougars. (As a graduate of the University of Houston, and to support Chef Evelyn, I naturally had to cheer on the Cougars; sorry, Chef Dawn!)
Each team was required to make seven dishes, loaded with carbs (think bread, beans, potatoes, and pasta). With each team member responsible for one dish, each plate would go head to head with a chef from the opposite team. Keeping it in the spirit of the Bayou City, the elimination challenge was shot on the turf at the Tomball ISD football stadium.
García had planned to create a dish of Tumeric Seabass with a Tamrin Rice Noodle. She planned the concept well, but her uncertainty with her overcooked noodles led her to pivot to another dish, with teff, quinoa, Farro, and Israeli couscous. Her last-minute change made things look dicey for the hometown favorite. She went up against Chef Sam Kang, who’s previously worked in two Michelin-star kitchens. His dish, a roasted sweet potato, brushed with brown butter, white soy, and garlic with yogurt dressing, won over the judges, pushing the Wildcats ahead 20 points.
Garcia’s dish fared well with the judges, but she was told that it was too busy. Lakshmi called it “one too many things in a bowl.” Luckily, the dish was tasty enough and helped her avoid elimination.
So far, it seems as if my prediction was right — Brown, who I called the season’s underdog on last week’s episode, is becoming one of the show favorites. Brown was named the MVP of this week’s challenge, after stunning the judges with Dirty Farro, Ndouja with chicken thighs, and chicken liver, a meal inspired by his mother.
Next week, we’ll see the first two eliminated chefs, Leia Gaccione and Stephanie Miller, battle it out on Last Chance Kitchen. Till then, we’re still rooting for Chef Evelyn, with hopes she’ll continue to make H-Town proud.
More information on Bravo’s Top Chef here.