Reeling off from last week’s big win for Houstonian Evelyn Garcia, I had high hopes that this week would bring a repeat. In this latest episode opener, the chefs met with Top Chef alums NiNi Nguyen and Chelsea Barnard Clark. But, of course, host Padma Lakshmi and those eerie omens of hers said there’s one more person who would be part of the quick-fire challenge.
My assumption was that another guest judge would help add context to the challenge. While the idea seems pretty on-brand for the show, one thing that Top Chef is great at is keeping the chefs — and viewers — on their toes. Lo and behold, the extra addition was actually Ashleigh Shanti, who we said goodbye to last week after her brisket failure.
This week’s quick-fire was a challenge involving flavors, but when you have a show based in Houston, isn’t every challenge centering on a unique kick? Chefs picked either a sweet or salty ingredient like pineapple and watermelon, or olives and miso. But we saw a collective confusion among the chefs — it’s not easy to pick what you need if you don’t know what you’re cooking. After everyone made their picks, the chefs were tasked to pair up and create a sweet and salty dessert.
Contestants drew inspiration from Talenti’s gelato and sorbetto pairings — which are known to combine two unlikely flavors. This week’s challenge was make-or-break — the winners received a $10,000 cash prize and double immunity. Plus, masters of the quick-fire challenge will inspire Talenti’s newest gelato flavor.
Shanti and Chef Nick Wallace teamed up with ginger snaps and pork rinds, creating a ginger snap bundt cake with a brown butter pork rinds mulberry crumble (I’m no fan of pork rinds, but it sounded delicious), and Garcia and Chef Jo Chan went for salted almond bunuelos with candied peaches and basil ice cream. Judge Clark said Garcia and Chan’s dish smelled like the State Fair, “in the best way possible,” but Wallace and Shanti’s ginger snaps and pork rinds combo took the cake, literally. In addition to their win, Talenti also donated another $10,000 in the chefs’ honor to Chef Chris Williams’ nonprofit organization, Lucille’s 1913.
I didn’t think that we could get anymore Texan after last week’s barbecue brisket challenge, but this week topped it. The elimination challenge focused on trailblazing Texas women. The chefs chose knives with high-power names like Barbara Jordan, Ann Richardson and Bessie Coleman, and were challenged to create a dish influenced by each of the pioneering women. The food was served to a room full of she-roes who doubled as guest judges, including Suzette Quintanilla, Selena’s sister and drummer, and WNBA Comets star Sheryl Swoopes, at Brennan’s of Houston.
In a beautiful coincidence, Garcia lands Selena Quintanilla, a seemingly perfect match for the Houston native, who proudly celebrates her Mexican and Salvadoran heritage each week. Garcia took her Selena inspiration to the next level, modeling her dish after one of her favorite Selena songs, “Como La Flor,” which means like a flower. Garcia presented to the judges a snapper with Asian pears, chives, avocado, orange zest and aguachile with chipotle chili olive oil, which, indeed, looked like a flower.
At the judges’ table, once again, our sole Houston native shined, having one of the three favorite dishes of the evening. Garcia was praised for her personal connection to Selena and the thoughtfulness placed into her dish. To my satisfaction, Garcia’s efforts placed her at the top, marking her second big win of the season.
We said goodbye to Chef Monique Feybesse, leaving only nine chefs remaining. Next week, though, we’ll get a blast from the past as the chefs get Jurassic in the Bayou City.
Watch Top Chef every Thursday night on Bravo.