After just barely avoiding elimination last week, Chef Evelyn Garcia — along with the other 10 remaining chefs, are all on edge. But instead of opening the episode with the usual quick fire, Host and Judge Padma Lakshmi gives the chefs an omen of sorts, telling them that they’ll meet Chef Brook Williamson, winner of Top Chef Seattle and Charleston, on location, which happens to be J-Bar-M Barbecue, nestled in Downtown Houston.
Having seen a sneak peek of this week’s episode last Thursday, we already know that a barbecue challenge awaits the chefs. Similar to Episode 3, though, the chefs are rushed into an elimination challenge: making Texas-style brisket.
As a native Houstonian, I know, like many of us, there is a right way to make brisket. You want it juicy, not too chewy, and full of flavor. Houston is a city where we not only know brisket, but have chefs that place unparalleled twists on the slabs of beef, like brisket pho at Khói Barbecue and brisket fried rice at Blood Bros. So it comes as no surprise that the chefs are challenged to do the same and flip the script on a typical brisket plate. Garcia shows both excitement and anxiety about the challenge. Since she hails from Houston, barbecuing is naturally in her blood, but she nervously says in her confessional, “I’m from Houston; I have to represent.”
The chefs are allotted 30 minutes to pick out their cuts of meat, trim them, rub them and place them on the Rolls-Royce of industrial smokers at J-Bar-M. We also get a cameo from local pitmaster Willow Villareal as he monitors each chef’s meat while it cooks. The bar is set even higher from the judges as pitmaster Greg Gatlin of Gatlin’s BBQ, plus 20 other local pitmasters, serve as guest judges this week. (Imagine cooking brisket for the city’s best pit bosses? No pressure.)
My bets for this week are, of course, on hometown representative Garcia, as redemption from last week’s near-fail, and on Chef Nick Wallace, a native of Mississippi. My hopes are high — he’s flown under the radar throughout the competition, and it’s time that he created something that wows the judges. And what better than some southern smoke?
Garcia channels her culinary experiences, going for a brisket curry, utilizing a rub blend of cinnamon, coriander, fennel and some paprika. Chef Jackson Kalb goes for brisket pasta (yum!), while Chef Jae Jung aims for a Korean-style barbecue.
To everyone’s surprise (including mine), after the chefs return from grocery shopping to prepare their dishes, they’re thrown a curve. The judges spring a quick-fire challenge on them: They are instructed to make their own Texas Toast, and this challenge places even more on the line. Whoever wins will be granted immunity in the elimination challenge, plus $10,000. The intensity is on as all the chefs are in a panic, attempting to spin a Texas Toast dish. Ideas fly around the kitchen between shrimp toast, a BLT and crawfish bread.
Garcia comes up with a dessert-style dish — a lemon cream-stuffed Texas Toast with spiced pecans and boozy strawberries. While tasty, it wasn’t the winner for the judges. Wallace won the quick-fire, with a BLT concept. Judge Tom Colicchio applauded him for just the right balance of bread and topping, and impeccable taste. I’m no psychic, but it already looked like smooth sailing for Wallace in the elimination challenge.
As the city’s acclaimed pitmasters begin to arrive at J-Bar-M, you see some familiar faces like Richard Orozco of Piper’s BBQ in The Heights, Scott Moore of Tejas Chocolate & Barbecue and Robin Wong from Blood Bros. Luckily for Garcia, she was among peers when serving her brisket curry to the local pitmasters. Because the chef community in Houston is so small, she said she could feel the judges’ faces light up when they saw her serving her dish, and she was the only chef given a round of applause.
Judge Gail Simmons regarded Garcia’s dish as one of her favorites, saying that the curry was “bold with flavor.” Tom cosigned, saying that she nailed her dish. According to the judges, Chef Buddha Lo, Kalb and Garcia make this week’s top 3 best dishes, and Garcia is praised once again for her approach and execution of brisket curry. Crossing my fingers as the judges announce this week’s winner, I let out a scream after hearing Garcia’s name called — our hometown hero FINALLY takes the cake, winning her first elimination challenge.
Unfortunately, we say goodbye to Chef Ashleigh Shanti, as her brisket dish was the biggest disappointment of the evening. Next week though, we’ll welcome back one of the chefs who was previously eliminated, but won at Last Chance Kitchen, plus the chefs will cook for five trailblazing women from the Bayou City.
Watch Top Chef every Thursday night on Bravo.