Top Chef Houston Power Rankings, Week 12: Reel Big Fish

Any week I get to use a ska-related headline pun is a great week for yours truly (PICKITUP PICKITUP PICKITUP…). And this week on Top Chef Houston, we were down to just five chefs (…again!). It’s the fiiiiinal chef doooooowwwwn.

For this most-crucial-of-episodes-so-far challenge, Tom Colicchio tossed the chefs some Dramamine and told them to get their asses to the docks. They’d be tossing aside the usual Quickfire Challenge like an undersized flounder and taking to the high seas, where the chefs would literally fish for their suppers, eat what they catch, teach a man to fish, and other turns of phrase. They went fishing, you get it.

In honor of the occasion, Tom Colicchio resurrected his classic comedy character, Boat Deck Tommy:

Top Chef Boat Deck Tommy Dawn Burrell

Do not adjust your TV’s jauntiness levels, folks, that really is a bandanna ascot. Bandannascot? Anyway, there are also fancy Croakies (“Excuse me, these are tactical Croakies”) and what I truly hope is a rash guard underneath it all. You do not want to get rashy while you’re reeling in a lunker. I get it.

The chefs would get to prepare TWO DISHES, using anything they caught, plus anything they bought. With a budget of just $200, to feed seven diners, including chefs Aaron Bludorn, Daniel Boulud, and Stephanie Izzard. Bludorn, Boulud, and… Izzard? What, was there no chef Bludendorf they could’ve called? Sorry, I’ve been playing a lot of Wordle lately.

Alliteration aside, we learned many things in this episode, like that Damarr had never been fishing, Evelyn doesn’t like catfish, Buddha grew up in Port Douglas in far north Queensland, and Nick pronounces Chipotle “chip-oltee.”

RANKINGS (change from last week)

5. (-1) ((Eliminated)) Nick Wallace

Nick Wallace Top Chef 19 Houston
NBC Universal

AKA: Domingo. Chocolate Mormon. The Count. The Mississippi Baker.

Dish One: Fried redfish taco with pickled peppers and smoked tomato crema.
Dish Two: Breadless seared bull redfish cake with lemon beurre blanc and mushroom ragout

Quotable Critiques:

“The crunch on the fish in the taco is fantastic and the seasoning is great.” “It’s almost tough for fish, and it’s dry, and the tortilla is dry so there’s no relief.” “It definitely needs extra sauce.” “It’s missing the herbs or something fresh.” “The pile that he gave us, it wasn’t a cake.” “Really great seasoning on both of Nick’s dishes.”


There were some eliminated competitors from this season that definitely could’ve given the show some more entertainment value — like Stephanie, the angrily provincial midwesterner booted in week two, or that grilled potatoes maniac who looked like Ness from Smash Bros who went home a week later — but Nick is the first elimination of this season that made me genuinely sad. Nick is always a calming, sincere presence, who’s so true to his “aw shucks Dad” persona that he even mispronounces “chipotle.”

Gotta love that guy, but his elimination this week was fairly anti-climactic by the time the judges’ table came around. Time got away from Nick this week, and his big boner was getting all the way down to the last six minutes before realizing that he’d forgotten his fish binder. Oh no! Now you’ll never get into fish college!

A fish cake that doesn’t look or eat like a cake is basically a fatal flaw at this stage of the competition, and as if that weren’t bad enough, it also meant he didn’t have time to get his tortillas buttoned up or his taco proportions figured out. One judge described his fish cake as “the pile that Nick gave us.” That’s usually a bad sign. By the time Padma said “well, it looks like we have some tough deliberations ahead of us” she was self-evidently lying her (surely supple supermodel) ass off.

And so we bid the Chocolate Mormon adieu, to return to his brood of alliteratively named children and what will surely be a lucrative future in the spice rub industry. I’m giving Nick a 26-spice salute to honor his memory.

4. (+1) Sarah Welch

Sarah Welch top chef houston 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Ms. Marvel. Lula Roe. Aunt Frances. Kooky Librarian.

Dish One: “Pseudo crudo” – pickled gulf snapper with silken tofu and kraut broth
Dish Two: “Pastrami Sandwich” – Smoked red drum with pastrami spice, carrot butter, and Parisian gnocchi.

Quotable Critiques:

“So smooth and silky.” “The broth is absolutely delicious.” “Every element was perfectly executed.” “My mind was blown.”


The producers opened this week’s episode with a nice Sarah flashback package, with her describing her “absurdly charismatic” sister as “fiercely loyal to her family, so she will literally murder someone if they make me cry — so watch out, Tom.”

SMASH CUT TO: Tom describing Sarah’s dish, “It just doesn’t eat well.”

Is there any more enjoyable food show critique than when something does or doesn’t “eat well?” It’s like watching Jon Gruden call someone “a real football guy” in his broadcasting days.

I do tire of Sarah’s overwrought-yet-hackneyed turns of phrase so it was kind of fun watching Tom shit on her in the most succinct, inarticulate manner possible. But that edit, along with the extended drama of whether Sarah would actually catch a fish, turned out to be a mere setup for this week’s big twist ending. Sarah won!

Obviously, I’m still sandbagging her a little at number four, but that pastrami sandwich smoked fish thing with the fried gnocchi did look good as hell. I’m just desperate for something, anything to come out of Sarah’s mouth that doesn’t sound like someone trying to be cute on Tumblr.

3. (-1) Damarr Brown

Damarr Brown Top Chef Houston
NBC Universal

AKA: Catchphrase. James Beard. Screech. Dusty. Drew Barrymahi.

Dish One: Snapper crudo with apples, radish, and coconut vinaigrette.
Dish Two: Blackened bull redfish with marinated vegetables and herb salad.

Quotable Critiques:

“It presents beautifully, but for me the fish is bland.” “I think when you have a fish this delicate, it doesn’t matter what sauce you put around it, if the fish is bland it’s gonna stay bland.” “We just didn’t get all the way there.”


I’m calling this guy “Drew Barrymahi” on account of he’s never been fished.

Yes, this week Damarr revealed that before this episode, he’d never been fishing. Fishing was one of those things that my dad desperately tried to get me into, but it turns out that ADHD and sitting quietly on a dock aren’t a great mix. Now that I’m an adult and I can mix in catching a socially acceptable beer buzz to the dock-sitting routine I like it a lot better.

I will say that Damarr’s first fishing expedition occurred under ideal circumstances. The best way to fish is on somebody else’s boat, with somebody else’s gear, with somebody else doing the rigging. Most fishing trips are like 5% fishing and 95% incredibly tedious tasks, like trying to tie a lead weight the size of a cat’s balls to an invisible rope with your large clumsy hands while jouncing up and down to the rhythm of the waves. That part sucks ass. (I also suck at video games and crafts, though I do excel at opening jars and smashing walnuts, in case you were wondering).

Aaaanyway, this was the week that finally knocked Damarr out of the top two for me. I still believe in him, but this week’s offerings honestly did look like fairly pedestrian, prototypical Top Chef dishes. A kind of bland crudo and then a fish filet with a kind of half-assed Southeast Asian-inspired slaw. No papaya! Pivot to jicama!

In my heart, I’m giving Damarr the benefit of the doubt and saying that this was a momentary hiccup. He said he wanted to show the judges “his range” (note to future contestants: no one gives a shit about your range. Be like Ilhan Hall from season two and cook the same goddamned food the entire season; if it’s good you will win), and hell, it was also his first fishing trip. Give the guy a break!

My brain says I have to drop Damarr down to number three… but I still like him the best.

2. (+1) Evelyn Garcia

Evelyn Garcia Top Chef Houston 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Cuddles.

Dish One: Caldo De Pescado with poached redfish and roasted vegetables.
Dish Two: Redfish taco al pastor with roasted redfish and pineapple chili salsa

Quoteable Critiques:

“I really love the flavor of the caldo.” “I would prefer a little more fish in here.”
“I thought the tortilla was very thick, it sucked all the moisture out of the taco for me.” “Too precious for a taco.” “Incredibly safe.”


Sheesh, what was it with all the dry tacos this week? If I wanted a dry taco I’d call my editor’s mom.

Okay, so it wasn’t exactly a dominating performance from Evelyn this week. But I also feel like the judges were kind of grasping at critiques and maybe hated on her for cooking Mexican food. Oh, was the caldo was too pedestrian for you, Monsieur Boulud? You can calgo fuck yourself. Meanwhile, Stephanie Izzard basically said, “this probably would’ve been really good if I’d been more drunk.” (A critique that frankly applies to most foods).

Luckily Evelyn did get the line of the episode: “I can’t believe Daniel Boulud ate my taco!”

Beavis and Butthead

1. (even) Buddha Lo

Buddha Lo Top Chef Houston Season 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Mr. International. Big Pun. Asian Ben Mendelsohn. The Salad Nazi. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Terminator. Moneyball. Big Data.

Dish One: Steamed bull redfish with shrimp farce.
Dish Two: “Fish In Chips” – fried flounder with vadouvan sauce and potato gribiche.

Quotable Critiques:

“Buddha’s food is beautiful.” “Fish was cooked beautiful, it was so moist.”
“Very satisfying.” “Fish does eat slightly dry but I can get over it because of this vadouvan sauce.” “I think Buddha knocked this out of the park.”


Sometimes I think Buddha is moneyballing his way through this competition using Big Data, but other times I think he’s just really f*cking good. This week Buddha attempted his own play on a Daniel Boulud classic, seabass in potato, with his own typically punny “Fish In Chips.” This was Buddha’s attempt to cook redfish inside crispy, spiralized potatoes. Even more so than usual, that seemed like a really good idea. I will eat anything inside crispy potato. Has anyone attempted a potato-based corndog? Get the scientists working on this immediately.

But Buddha couldn’t quite make his blanched potatoes work as a wrapper (“Bro, just grill them!” -Ness). He tempura-battered them and put them on top of the fish. Not quite as clever or pretty (and probably was enough to cost him the victory), but delicious nonetheless.

Buddha narrowly finished in second place this episode, but after these last few episodes it’s hard to imagine anyone beating him.


For next week’s episode, Padma announced that the show would be traveling to “one of only two cities in the US that is designated as a UNESCO city of gastronomy.”

Not for a million dollars could I have predicted the city that was about to come out of her pillow lips: Tuscon, Arizona! Ah, yes, that famous mecca of cuisine. No offense, but I always assumed most of Arizona was just Las Vegas with an associate’s degree. Arizona, the place where future porn stars go to one semester of college.

Care to try to guess the other American UNESCO city of gastronomy? That’s right, San Antonio, Texas. DUH. Go home, UNESCO, you’re drunk. (I’m allowed to say these things because I live in Fresno, California, an official UNESCO city of getting dunked on by other cities. It’s called “punching up.”).

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