We’re down to the final four “cheftestants” for this season of Top Chef, and our hometown Chef Evelyn Garcia remains in the competition. Last week marked the final episode shot in the Houston area, and the four chefs headed to Tucson, Arizona — an official UNESCO City of Gastronomy — for their final quickfire challenge.
The foursome meets up with Judge Padma Lakshmi and Carlotta Flores, the chef and owner of El Charro Cafe, the country's oldest Mexican restaurant. The family-owned restaurant is one of tradition: they still dry their meats the old-fashioned way, in the sun! The chefs got a master class from Flores on Carne Seca and were challenged to create a dish featuring the Mexican-style beef in 30 minutes. Though immunity is no longer a prize for winning quickfire challenges, the challenge winner will gain the last advantage before the finale.
Chef Sarah Welch, a native of Detroit, was no stranger to Carne Seca – while cooking, she cited that venison is a popular favorite in her hometown. She created a Carne Seca gravy over polenta with soft egg, morels, and blackberry salsa for the judges. Meanwhile, Chef Damarr Brown grilled avocado with Carne Seca vinaigrette, and a creative Buddha Lo made an upside-down tostada with Carne Seca, guajillo, and queso. As for Garcia, she wanted to think outside the box — the result? Creamy grits with guajillo, Carne Seca, and chayote relish.
This week's quickfire showcased some girl power. Welch and Garcia had the judge's favorite dishes of the day. Welch took home her second consecutive win since being back in the competition, which granted her an additional 30 minutes of cooking time in the next challenge.
The chefs met Top Chef Portland alum Maria Mazon, who, along with Flores, explained some of the culinary significance of Tucson, home to the Sonoran Desert. The desert has more than 300 species of cacti, and the only native pepper in the U.S., the chiltepin. The elimination challenge required the chefs to make two sweet and savory dishes, featuring cactus in one and chiltepin in the other.
With only two dishes standing in the way of being one step closer to the title of Top Chef, the pressure was on. Of the four chefs, three didn't have much familiarity with cooking either ingredient. Lo said he'd never seen cacti in person, and Welch said chiltepin was new to her. Of course, Garcia had already used both – but that didn't mean she had room to get comfortable. "I can't be, 'Oh yeah, I know it.' It's still a competition," Garcia said in her confessional. "These other chefs who have never worked with it are gonna be super creative, because they've never seen it any other way."
The pressure was on in the kitchen, and we witnessed a few blunders — Welch's plan for ice cream was foiled when the ice cream machine failed and she spilled her mixture on the floor, and Brown overcooked his red beans for his dish and had to puree them to improvise.
The chefs began with savory dishes. Lo and Welch came out first, and Lo made full use of the great outdoors, as his plate of Mission Garden tom yum soup with turnip-wrapped dumpling was garnished with beautiful flowers. Welch made a lamb coated in a chiltepin vinaigrette, grape salad, and smoked yogurt. Garcia made a nopal relleno with shrimp puree with raw nopal and marigold, and Brown's savory dish was a braised pork shoulder doused in a chiltepin barbecue sauce.
During the savory dish presentation, I worried that the judges seemed underwhelmed by Garcia's dish. It didn't garner the usual praise that I'm used to. Nonetheless, I continued to cheer Garcia on — our hometown favorite hasn’t made it this far for no reason. Can she redeem herself with her dessert?
For the sweet course, Welch made a cactus tart with saguaro flower ice cream and cactus caramel, and Lo prepared a "cactus with cream," an amalgamation of cactus cake, cactus seed ice cream, and prickly pear snow — something that looked like you'd order it at a museum! Brown made a prickly pear cake glazed in prickly pear with buttermilk cheese, and if it was nearly as good as the judges said his carrot cake was back on episode 8, Brown has a win on his hands. Likewise, Garcia made a sour orange and sweet lime curd with prickly pear granita.
Lucky for me, Lakshmi praised Garcia for her dessert, saying she gave her that pop of color she was yearning for in the elimination challenge. At the judge's table, the judges held their praises until the end because the judges lauded both of Garcia's dishes.
The deliberation among the judges felt much longer than usual. With each chef competing with two dishes, each had highs and lows, all of which were pinpointed by the judges. But our Houston queen prevailed: Garcia brought home another win, advancing her to the season finale. Lo and Welch would also advance, sending Brown home.
Next week, the final three will "make the best meal of their lives."
Watch Top Chef every Thursday night on Bravo.