After last week‘s queso and football challenges, this week on Top Chef Houston, it was time to celebrate Houston’s vibrant Asian community and Asian food scene with a good old fashioned NIGHT MARKET (also the name of favorite Bob Seger song. It’s a soulful bop about lo mein).
This celebration took the form of a kind of Restaurant Wars warm up, where each chef was tasked with cooking a dish for a hundred people from a stall at the night market, based on whatever theme happened to be on the knife that they drew — Indian, Japanese, Chinese, or Filipino.
Hung Hunyh showed up to guest judge, whom you may remember as the winner of Top Chef Miami, aka season three. Gosh, that seems like it was only yesterday. And yet it’s been… (*checks calendar*) FIFTEEN YEARS?! Holy shit this show has been on a long time. Empires have risen and fallen in the time Tom Colicchio has been nitpicking lackluster risottos.
Helping the chefs prepare for this challenge were a handful of local restaurants and popups, including Kiran’s, 7000 Islands, Himalaya, and The Fattest Cow — which my sources assure me was actually named after your mom. She’s massive in the Filipino community. Well, massive anywhere, really.
There was no quickfire challenge this episode, which in theory should make my job of handicapping these chefs easier. Only it didn’t, because last week’s underdogs seemed to become this week’s winners, and vice versa, and now the whole thing is one big pick-em jumble. Which was interesting, because this episode also had arguably the most obvious eliminee of any episode in Top Chef history. Oops, one sec, here comes Gail…
Dang, what were we talking about again? I totally lost my train of thought there for some reason. Not sure why.
- Top Three: Evelyn, Jackson, Jae*
- Bottom Three: Buddha, Ashleigh, Sam**
Power Rankings (change from last week’s position in parentheses):
13. (-3) ((Eliminated)) Sam Kang
AKA: Ness. Two Luggages. Grillmaster Supreme.
I’m not sure if Sam’s performance this week was an example of when keeping it real goes wrong, an attempt to rebrand a mistake as a personal triumph through sheer force of will, or just a method of pre-empting devastating self-criticism through clowning (the latter of which I understand particularly well).
Sam drew Indian, which was already universally acknowledged as the toughest draw on account of “cooking Indian food for Padma” being one of the most traditional paths to defeat on Top Chef, along with attempting a risotto or cooking “a trio of _____s.” Sam immediately tried to spin this objectively bad draw as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “Sure, sticking the landing is great, but how often do you get the chance to faceplant in front of a supermodel? …Right, guys?”
Sam decided to make “Sam Aloo,” aka potatoes Sam-style, a fairly self-explanatory dish that he nonetheless attempted to “unpack” no less than 17 times. “Get it? Because I’m Sam, and these are potatoes, so these are ‘potatoes a la Sam.’ I know that’s pretty ‘inside baseball’ so I’ve prepared this helpful Power Point presentation to give you some background.”
Sam cooked a medium-successful potato last episode, so I guess he figured his best chance was to cook some more potatoes. Unfortunately, he left his potatoes on the stove (I guess he was trying to par-boil them before putting in the curry?) and his prep time ran out before he could pack them up for service.
A potato curry with no potatoes?? What’s a man to do? Sam’s galaxy brain solution to this problem was to take what potatoes he had left and grill them.
Grilled potatoes! Why hasn’t anyone tried this before? Who wouldn’t want to bite into a nice semi-raw russet potato wedge with some grill marks on it? (“Russet potato, the Chef’s Potato!” Sam joked, at least I’m 90% sure it was a joke, since russets are a garbage potato offering few benefits beyond being big enough to make longer french fries and more substantial baked potatoes).
Brilliant idea, Sam! I can’t count the number of times I’ve smelled some delicious aroma wafting over my backyard fence and shouted to my neighbor “Jeez, smells incredible! Whatcha grillin’ over here, russet potatoes?”
Sam’s Galaxy Brain Grilled Potato Curry set him up for the most no-brainer elimination in the show’s history. Which Sam once again attempted (sarcastically?) to spin as a great opportunity. “I stand behind everything I did, because I’m here to learn,” Sam grinned (the grin of quiet desperation?).
Aw, and what did we learn about grilling potatoes?
Uh… I guess we learned not to do it again.
12. (even) Sarah Welch
AKA: Lula Roe. Aunt Frances.
Notable Quote: “I’m allergic to shellfish, but only the shells.”
Chef Sarah, who nearly went home for her Dessert Hummus Sadpile™ last week, received the first human interest package of the episode, a Skype call with her husband, who helpfully advised her to cook the kind of thing she’d make for herself at home, but just make it really good. Decent advice! That guy might be a keeper!
Then during the preliminary research, Sarah revealed “I’m allergic to shellfish, but only the shells.”
Hmm, are there any doctors reading this who can confirm? Is being allergic only to the shells of shellfish a thing? Moreover, how does one go about discovering this? Was Sarah just walking around eating crab shells and shrimp peels when she broke out in hives?
Anyway, Sarah, who someone on Twitter suggested reminds them of Melanie Lynskey (not a bad pull, but I make the nicknames around here), drew Vietnamese and decided to make a chicken heart banh mi. Not a bad idea! Using an unusual ingredient but making it palatable is a pretty good way to not go home on Top Chef. It’s like a Reverse Risotto.
But for some reason, she chose to serve her banh mi, which traditionally comes in a delicious mini-baguette which is basically the defining feature of a banh mi, “open-faced.” Which looked to me suspiciously like she just put some sandwich filling on top of a slice of plain white bread on a grill. To be fair, Sarah is from Michigan, and I believe a slice of Wonderbread is considered a delicacy in the Midwest.
Bon appetit! Just go ahead and fold that slice of white bread over! It’s the old “oops we ran out of hot dog buns” method. Sarah managed to stay out of the bottom three this week, but the judges seemed unimpressed.
And on that note, this seemed like yet another dubious decision that the judges could’ve interrogated further. This is becoming theme this season. Luckily for Sarah, the judges had other questions on their minds, like why the fuck Sam decided to grill russet potatoes.
11. (+2) Luke Kolpin
Luke has been looking like a lock to go home soon these past few weeks, but he bought himself some time this week with a solid B+ of a samosa. Luke drew Indian, along with Sam and Buddha, and like Buddha, opted to make a samosa. Unlike Buddha, Luke opted to just listen to the Indian lady’s advice and bake his. Hey, at least the guy can follow directions.
That alone kept him out of the bottom three, but Padma even liked his chutney. And is there a greater feelings in the world than the feeling one gets at the sight of Padma appreciating one’s chutney?
It seems that in being forced out of his culinary comfort zone, Luke, the Noma product (I think they may have forgotten to mention it this episode!) may have accidentally discovered the value of cooking recognizable food that actual humans have been known to eat. Unsurprisingly his samosa fared much better than last week’s room-temperature pumpkin disc topped with seaweed-mushroom sludge, a dish I’m still not entirely convinced that I didn’t hallucinate.
I’m going to need to see a few more actually edible-looking dishes from Luke before I’m ready to call him a favorite, but this bumped him up a few slots.
10. (-5) Ashleigh Shanti
On any other week that didn’t include a chef serving grilled potatoes, Ashleigh probably would’ve gone home for her fried square of tough beef, accompanied by large potato chunk atop undressed raw daikon. Why the giant chunk of top sirloin? Was this the only cut of meat available? And if so, why not slice it thin or pound it out? WHY ISN’T ANYONE ASKING THESE QUESTIONS?
I guess the judges got too hung up on the raw daikon, which surely would’ve sent Ashleigh home had she served it any other week as the one that included grilled russet wedges.
Ashleigh has been solid up until, now so it’s anyone’s guess where she belongs on the rankings. One thing is for certain though, she owes Sam a fruit basket.
9. (-2) Monique Feybesse
AKA: Pebbles Flintstone. Henrietta Hawk.
Monique was barely in this episode. She drew Chinese and made some rice cakes with fermented beans and pork belly, which sounded and looked really good, but the judges thought were bland. I dunno, I’m racking my brain for something interesting to say about Monique here. She didn’t yell at anyone this episode. That was a little disappointing.
8. (-4) Jo Chan
AKA: Sarge. Smiles.
I’ve been calling Sarge “Smiles” ironically because she tends to get super serious when describing her food. But this week she assured us that “anxiety makes me funnier.”
Citation needed, I guess? Also, what anxiety? Jo, who is “culturally Filipino,” according to last week’s episode, drew Filipino food this week. Shouldn’t serving food within your wheelhouse lessen the anxiety? Jo’s dish felt like it should’ve been a lay up, but instead she served a bland chicken skewer with fancy condiments. I’m expecting better food and more hilarious jokes in the weeks to come. Lenny Bruce in a chef’s coat over here.
7. (+4) Jae Jung
After a few weeks near the bottom of the pack, Jae brought home the big win this week. Her million-ingredient noodles from the Hong Kong market, combining udon noodles, Korean melon, and ramen crumble (garnish game strong) had the judges, according to Gail Simmons, speechless, and “deep in slurp mode.”
Wow, that’s crazy, I’ve always said that your mom lives life one slurp mode at a time.
Jae won the whole challenge, so you could make the case that she deserves to be ranked higher. Does she?? Honestly, I have no idea with this one. I’ve so little to work with here that I’ve resorted to cheap mom jokes and nicknaming her “Noodles” because she made noodles. Would it kill you guys to give me a storyline to work with here? Sheesh.
6. (-3) Buddha Lo
AKA: Mr. International. Big Pun. Asian Ben Mendelsohn.
Buddha, who is Malaysian and grew up in Australia, this week drew Indian. Ignoring the advice of his Indian mentor, he decided to deep fry his puff-pastry samosa rather than bake it, which led to a greasy exterior and an undercooked, partly gooey center (is gooey really such a bad thing with puff pastry?), if the judges were to be believed.
That landed him in the bottom three, much to the befuddlement of Buddha, who grew up eating deep-fried curry puffs and had received only positive feedback from his diners. He couldn’t seem to let it go, which seems like very un-Buddhist behavior if you ask me.
Buddha has been one of my favorites from the beginning of this competition, but the fact that a guy with some Indian roots couldn’t make a good samosa or chutney (Padma was DISGUSTED with Buddha’s chutney) should give us pause. Not to mention the fact that a dude raised in Australia nearly went home for what was essentially a meat pie, the national dish of Australia. I’m starting to wonder if Buddha was ever really a favorite or if I’m just biased by my own Australophilia and the fact that when I close my eyes Buddha kind of sounds like Ben Mendolsohn.
5. (+1) Robert Hernandez
Was Robert even in this episode? I know he made something with shrimp paste, which Hung described as “definitely down and dirty.” Padma and Gail were pleased, they love getting down and dirty almost as much as being in slurp mode oh god take away my keyboard. Meanwhile, Tom commented, “I liked the shrimp paste, I just thought there was too much of it.”
Well sure, yeah. You never want to be overpowered by shrimp paste. GIVE ME A MORE MODERATE AMOUNT OF SHRIMP PASTE, YOU ABSOLUTE FOOL!
4. (+5) Evelyn Garcia
After a couple of off weeks, Cuddles nearly took home the victory this week for her chilled chicken salad on a sesame crisp covered in chilis with avocado crema, which out of all the dishes this week, arguably looked the tastiest. Which is not something I normally say about cold chicken.
Cuddles is so sweet-natured that she didn’t even respond in kind to Gail’s accusation-disguised-as-a-question: “Is that fresh rambutan?”
YEAH, THE FUCKIN’ RAMBUTAN IS FUCKIN’ FRESH, GAIL. I’M NOT AN IDIOT.
That’s probably how I would’ve responded, but Cuddles is nice as hell.
3. (+5) Jackson Kalb
AKA: Magoo. Andrew Lunk. Leghorn. Lurch. Bateman. Napholeon Dynamite.
Look, I admit it, I’m basically punting on 75% of the rankings this week because these chefs are about as consistent as Kanye West on an ether binge. At least Leghorn here gives me some nickname material. Andrew Lunk the Great Magoo drew Vietnamese this week, asking his mentor, in a gloriously breathy monotone, “What are the stable herbs in Vietnamese cuisine?”
It came out in virtually the same tone of voice as “Do the chickens have large talons?”
Unfortunately, I have to acknowledge that despite his Lurch-like appearance and occasionally Napoleon Dynamite-like voice, Jackson might actually be a genius. He decided to serve a spring roll (which has had mixed results in this competition, from the highs of Buddha’s Nacho Average Spring Roll last episode to the lows of Leia’s tough meat bladder infection disaster in episode one) — which meh in and of itself, if not for the decision to present it with a dipping sauce made from reduced Pho. Even the Vietnamese restaurant owners reacted with something like “holy shit, why didn’t we ever think of that?”
And he did it all despite still lacking a sense of smell because of COVID, something he’s contractually required to bring up at least 12 times per episode. Nice job, phoker.
2. (even) Nick Wallace
AKA: Domingo. Chocolate Mormon.
Does Nick deserve the number two spot? He missed out on the top three this week, but he won last week, so… I’m just keeping him here because who the hell really knows.
Anyway, the Mississippi-bred father of six drew Japanese food, which he’s never cooked before, but was relieved when his Japanese food mentors served karaage — aka fried chicken. Nick promptly, smartly served up some Japanese-spiced fried chicken of his own, which received positive reviews all around. It’s hard to go wrong with fried chicken, one of the most universally beloved foods, which seem to transcend time and culture. I watched this episode and immediately made fried chicken. It’s a no-brainer in concept, but easy to screw up in the execution, especially when you’re cooking for a hundred. I’m keeping Nick near the top for now.
1. (even) Damarr Brown
AKA: James Beard. Catchphrase.
The eternally-fed-up-with-your-shit-sounding Damarr had the other brilliant innovation of the episode: ham hock miso soup, which had me saying “oh fuck yeah” to my TV screen. It was embarrassing, but come on. That sounds amazing. He served it with togarashi hot sauce, and I don’t even really know what the main component of the dish was there but I know I want to eat it.
Damarr is keeping his head down and cooking good food every week, though he has his guard up so much that it doesn’t always make for good TV. Nonetheless, I would like to subscribe to his newsletter.
Personalities are great, but with the relative dearth of drama, not to mention engaging characters this season, maybe it’s time for the Top Chef producers to get a little more granular with the food. How many ham hocks are in that broth? At what temperature did Nick fry that karaage? What did Evelyn put in that avocado crema? I think there’s a way to get a little nerdier here without losing the spirit of the show or turning it into Alton Brown.
Which is to say: the nitpicks can never be bitchy enough. Let’s get in there, judges, really carve these f*ckers up like a Christmas goose. Canned rambutan? You’re banished from the house! Broken rice? Get the rope! Turgid souffle? OFF WITH HIS HEAD!