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Top Chef Houston Power Rankings, Week Eight: Restaurant Wars

After last week’s cursed Jurassic World tie-in episode, we all needed to heal. Thankfully there’s one classic mid-season challenge that’s guaranteed to please, the one that Top Chef fans anticipate all season, the one some of us have even attended: Restaurant Wars. This was an idea hatched from the brain of a brilliant TV executive who years ago posed the question, “what if TV restaurant was real restaurant?”

Restaurant Wars is great, but more importantly, it meant we wouldn’t have to suffer through some guest judge in #Branded costume reading lifeless ad copy. Or at least… not as much. Judge Tiffany Derry did note that this season’s Restaurant Wars challenge would be presented by “Contactless Mastercard,” which would help to create “a truly priceless experience for your guests.”

Wait… guests?? That’s right, unlike last season’s COVID-bubble weirdness, this season, guests were back! Total strangers, coughing on the food, spitting in each other’s mouths, as per Greek tradition! (Late-breaking update: Sorry, I am being informed that spitting in each other’s mouths is not actually a Greek custom). The good old times are back!

Another wrinkle: this season, team captains would be chosen via random knife draw. Those captains would then choose teams, and the teams would decide amongst themselves who would be the executive chef and who’d be the front-of-the-house manager. They would then have 36 hours to design, plan, staff, prepare, serve and schmooze a multi-course dinner for however many diners attended.

Jae and Nick pulled the captain’s knives, and the picks broke down this way:

Nick’s Team — Matriarc: Nick, Damarr, Ashleigh, and Buddha.

Jae’s Team — No Nem: Jae, Evelyn, Jackson, and Luke.

Probably my favorite part was when Damarr called the team in their SPONSORED BMW LUXURY VEHICLE and Buddha said, in-definitely-not-staged manner, “Hold on, Damarr, it’s too loud, let me just turn you down,” and did this little air twirl with his finger.

Top Chef BMW Air Finger
Bravo

Whaaaaat? Did you know that while comfortably ensconced in your leather-upholstered BMW LUXURY VEHICLE you can fiddle with your radio like Tom Cruise in your own personal Minority Report?? What a world! I love trying to operate touchless devices while driving! So many times have I thought, while waving my hands helplessly under some paper towel dispenser in a public restroom, “Gosh, I sure wish someone could apply this same technology inside my car!”

Sorry about this, but I went car shopping last week, and I have to say to all the car designers out there that I am begging you to quit it with this shit. Buttons and knobs worked great! They’re logical and easy to replace! Most importantly, they’re very easy to operate one-handed and without looking while you’re piloting a multi-ton vehicle. I don’t need to be chasing Pokémon holograms around the dashboard while I’m trying to crank the radio down to listen for oncoming trains, no matter how cool you dorks think that would be. It’s a car! These are not upgrades! I will buy an older car specifically to avoid these bullshit 737 MAX-ass “upgrades!”

Phew. Okay, dad rant over.

Anyway, I was initially worried that Top Chef‘s producers would milk Restaurant Wars for a two-parter, but instead, they just condensed down all the boring parts — where the chefs choose chairs and silverware and all that crap (save it for HGTV, Cheech) — to a few minutes. Nice work!

Also, it seems important to note, Gonzo 247 was there.

Top Chef Gonzo 247
Bravo

Always nice to see Gonzo 247 out and about. It’s not a party until Gonzo 247 shows up, I always say.

THE DISHES:

NO NEM

First Course:

Evelyn: Pani Puri with shrimp and Passion fruit vinaigrette
Jae: Snapper summer rolls with papaya, citrus, and avocado.

Second Course:

Luke: Choo-chee curry with black cod wrapped in Napa cabbage.
Team: BBQ Nem sausage wrap with fried brussel sprouts.

Third Course:

Jackson: Citrus cured shortbread and coconut whipped cream.

MATRIARC

First Course:

Buddha: Southern snacks, Parker House rolls, country ham butter, seafood tarts, fried oysters with comeback sauce.

Second Course:

Ashleigh: Salmon tartare with buttermilk pearls, shaved fennel and peaches.

Third Course:

Ashleigh: Gumbo Z’Herbes, seasoning meat and red rice.

Fourth Course:

Nick: Striploin, oxtail marmalade, and potatoes.

Fifth Course:

Damarr: Carrot cake with coconut semifreddo.

RESULTS

Team Matriarc wins. Ashleigh named winner.

Team No Nem loses. Jackson goes home.

RANKINGS

8. (-2) Luke Kolpin

Luke Kolpin Top Chef Houston Season 18
NBC Universal

AKA: Liddell. Die Hard. Meekus. Eurotrip. The Danish Zombie. Noma… Noma… Noma gonna be in this competition much longer, anyway.

How. HOW is Luke still here? As I feel like I’ve been saying every week, Luke seems to land near the bottom of every challenge. I’m pretty sure I gave him the “Noma gonna be here much longer” nickname in week two. And yet, here he is, in week freakin’ eight.

Luke was, naturally, chosen last this episode. His only dish was a curry that Evelyn had to teach him, which ended up being the worst or second-worst dish, and had Padma saying things like “there was no salt on that fish at all.”

Give Padma some damn salt! Gail added, “I think this Thai curry took a detour through Copenhagen.” Tom said, even more bluntly, “I think Luke should go home.”

And yet, if judged solely on this episode, Jackson probably deserved to go home instead of Luke (just like what actually happened — spoiler alert). Virtually every bad idea was Jackson’s, and Team No Nem seemed to sandbag Luke at every turn, whether it was with the Southeast Asian theme or everyone else telling Luke not to add more salt, despite his consistent track record as an underseasoner. Even Jackson agreed, and he can’t even taste!

So, yeah, if you hadn’t seen any of this season’s other episodes, you might reasonably think that Jackson going home was a no-brainer. But Luke is turning into that friend who always seems to have crazy things happening to them and after the fourth or fifth one of their sob stories you can’t help but think, “I dunno, man, maybe the problem is you.”

But hey, The Danish Zombie just keeps on coming, managing to suck slightly less than someone every week, like a human version of that adage about outrunning the bear. Can’t help but love him for that.

7. (even) Ashleigh Shanti

Ashleigh Shanti Top Chef Houston 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Moonjuice. Sugar Hillcountry.

Bit of a weird episode for Ashleigh this week, the win notwithstanding. As Nick’s second pick, Ashleigh immediately put her stamp on the team, pulling a Justin Timberlake when Damarr suggested “Matriarch” as the restaurant name.

Timberlake social Network no the
20th Century Fox

“Drop the H. Just Matriarc. It’s cleaner.”

Ashleigh was then named executive chef. Though it was almost immediately clear that Ashleigh might not be the driving creative force that title would suggest. This when Buddha managed to talk her out of her own salad. “It’s Restaurant Wars, there’s 40 thousand dollars on the line, and you’re going to do a citrus salad?” mocked Buddha.

I dunno, man, a citrus salad sounded fine to me? Ashleigh pivoted instead to… a salmon tartare. Hold up, a citrus salad is too boring but a salmon tartare is a spectacle of cuisine? The one thing you’ll find in virtually every Top Chef episode of the last five years is a raw fish dish, whether it be crudo, ceviche, or tartare. A crudo is at least as hack as a citrusy salad!

Ashleigh, naturally, ended up getting dragged for the dish. “I only have two little pearls,” complained Gail. “They don’t do much,” quipped Tom. “Mine is all bitter and spice,” whined Tiffany Derry.

And yet the diners seemed to like it. Were they just Philistines? Am I to believe Gonzo 247 doesn’t know food?

Ashleigh did finally achieve those elusive universal raves for her other dish, the green gumbo. She also ended up taking home the win in the end, but I’m pretty sure that was only because she lucked into a figurehead role on a team with Buddha and Damarr, the two strongest competitors. If her team hadn’t won, she probably would’ve been the chef to go home. But as they say, if your aunt had balls she’d be your uncle (can we still say that?).

6. (-2) Jae Jung

Jae Jung Top Chef Houston season 18
NBC Universal

AKA: Noodles. Jae West. Hilaria.

This week on What Food Was Jae Weirdly Horny For: dessert! “I’m hungry, I want it,” said Jae of Jackson’s shortbread, coquettishly.

Or maybe she was talking about the menu as a whole? I don’t know, the point is she seemed weirdly horny for food, again. Jae is like Padma’s wordplay without the subtlety.

Jae got to choose first this week and noted pointedly that she was avoiding Buddha. “I don’t really like Buddha,” Jae said. “We don’t really click.”

Buddha almost immediately seemed to justify Jae’s reticence, steamrolling Ashleigh and shit-talking her salad into a lackluster tartare. (Is there a catchy buzzword we could employ here, like a foodie version of “gaslighting?”). [Dishmorphia? -Ed]

Then again, Buddha was a big part of his team’s win, and since Jae actually cooked food the judges loved this week, from her fish-wrapped summer roll to her lettuce wrap sauce, and probably would’ve earned the win if she’d been on the winning team, you could make the case that not liking Buddha cost her 40 grand and a victory. But then.. can you really put a price on having to work with some dickhead you hate? Someone ask Mastercard.

5. (-3) ((Eliminated)) Jackson Kalb

Jackson Kalb on Top Chef
NBC Universal

AKA: Magoo. Andrew Lunk. Leghorn. Lurch. Bateman. Big Bird. Big Nerd. Napholeon Dynamite. Drew Magoober.

Yes, Jackson was eliminated this week. Yes, I’m still putting him at number five in these rankings. My prediction? Jackson is going to win the second half of Last Chance Kitchen (I’m writing these before this week’s episode, so I don’t know if he’s won his first stage or not yet) and return to the competition. Possibly just in time for him to get his sense of taste and smell back, like Steph Curry in the playoffs.

All that being said, it was impressive how completely Jackson managed to fuck up absolutely everything in this episode. He was instrumental in his team’s decision to cook Southeast Asian food (despite Evelyn being the only one with experience in it), to name it “No Nem,” and also to serve family style. Yet all those poor decisions paled in comparison to the decision to name Jackson the Front of House manager, a job Jackson campaigned for. Front of the House’s job is to make the guests feel relaxed and comfortable.

For that job, Team No Nem chose the chef I nicknamed “Lurch,” who two episodes ago made this face in casual conversation:

Top Chef Houston Jackson Face
Bravo

Jackson has a lot of skills, but making people feel relaxed and cozy is not one of them. Jackson is a guy who makes you want hold your purse a little tighter and maybe take a half step backward while he’s talking to make sure you have a clear path to the door. “My goal is to touch every table and not hover,” said Jackson, breathily. “Do any of the judges have large talons?”

As FOH, a task Jackson said he’d been performing at his own restaurant for the past year, he didn’t introduce any of the dishes, leaving the judges confused about how to eat some of them, and his big idea to welcome them was having a confused waiter earning a day rate hand scrawl “WeLCoMe jUdGeS!” on a piece of scrap paper.

Top Chef Welcome Note
Bravo

Great work, everyone.

Yet for as bad as Jackson was as a Front of the House manager, he did make a great teammate in other ways. He eagerly took credit for every bad idea the judges picked on. “Whose idea was the note?” “OOH ME,” shouted Jackson. “Who decided to serve two dishes in the first course?” “ME AGAIN! OOH, OVER HERE!” Jackson bounced. He may not make a great maitre’d but he’s a brilliant grenade jumper.

Jackson’s best idea this episode was rebranding his uncuttable shortbread cake as a “cookie.” “We eat with our hands around here! We keep it caszh, live life with a lot of flair, we grip and we rip it, you know? Hey, Big Gulps, huh? Well alright!”

The judges tried to come up with some reason, any reason to send Luke home instead of Jackson, but they just couldn’t muster it. Jackson’s screwups were simply too numerous, too unavoidable, and too eagerly claimed. He ended the episode admitting to his teammates, with great gravity, that he’d been hiding his lack of sense of smell and taste from them for this entire season.

“Uh, okay, man, whatever,” everyone seemed to respond, a reaction I bet Jackson gets a lot.

4. (even) Evelyn Garcia

Evelyn Garcia Top Chef Houston 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Cuddles.

At this point, I think most of the broader questions from this season have been settled. Damarr and Buddha seem (SPOILER ALERT) like solid locks for one and two, though it’s much harder to say between them who’s number one and who’s number two. Ditto on Evelyn and Nick at three and four. Nick and Evelyn seem pretty obviously one rung below Damarr and Buddha, but Nick vs. Evelyn is sort of a pick ’em.

I’m dropping Evelyn below Nick this week because… well, she was on the losing team and he was on the winning one. Seems pretty straightforward. In fact, Evelyn was the executive chef of the losing team, a position that often goes down with the ship during restaurant wars. And she was presumably the main reason they chose a Southeast Asian theme that none of the other chefs and especially not Luke could cook.

Luckily, she was paired with the world’s worst Front Of House manager Jackson, who eagerly (and rightly, for the most part) took credit for all the team’s bad decisions, up to and including the Southeast Asian theme, which he pushed harder for than Evelyn ever did.

As for her actual food this week, Evelyn quarterbacked Luke’s disappointing curry and turned in her own “pani puri,” which looked beautiful but received mixed reviews, mostly from Padma. Who noted that “pani” is Hindi for “water,” and Evelyn’s pani puri filling was sadly dry.

A dry pani puri?? Dammit, Evelyn! Padma wants to get wet! I HATE it when Padma doesn’t get wet! (*punches fist through drywall*)

3. (+2) Nick Wallace

Nick Wallace Top Chef 19 Houston
NBC Universal

AKA: Domingo. Chocolate Mormon. The Count.

Much was made of Nick’s attempt to find oxtails this week, which felt like it might be building up to something, but instead, Nick found the oxtails and everything worked out great. Nick made striploin spiced with “Nick’s 26,” which the judges said for the umpteenth time that he should bottle and sell. Gee, you think Nick is going to bottle and sell Nick’s 26 when this season is over? I wonder.

In that sense, Nick has already won. In terms of the show, Nick seems solidly high-middle. His “oxtail marmalade” sounded incredible, but even that stroke of genius wasn’t enough to put him over Buddha and Damarr (or even Ashleigh’s gumbo) this episode. Right now, the Chocolate Mormon seems like he’s in a (pork)neck-and-neck battle with Evelyn for fan favorite. And, again, in the grand scheme of things, Nick has already won. He could go home next episode for serving a horse manure casserole and I’d still be lined up for some oxtail marmalade and Nick’s 26 wherever he’s serving it.

2. (+1) Buddha Lo

Buddha Lo Top Chef Houston Season 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Mr. International. Big Pun. Asian Ben Mendelsohn. The Salad Nazi.

I’ll tell you one thing, Buddha won’t be winning fan favorite after this episode. Holy shit, I never imagined anyone could get so pedantic and belittling over the idea of serving a citrus salad. Especially not a cuddly Australian guy with a lisp who is nicknamed “Buddha.”

Buddha strong-armed Ashleigh into doing a salmon tartare instead (again, isn’t a salmon tartare way more hack than a citrus salad at this point??), for which she received middling-to-negative reviews.

But mostly Buddha’s perfectionism seemed to pay off. He brought friendly, yet brisk efficiency to his role as front of the house manager, and simultaneously managed to pull off Parker House rolls that Padma called “the best bread I’ve ever had on Top Chef.”

It’s tempting to assume Padma was just ripped to the… uh, gills, and throwing around superlatives again, but Tom backed her up, calling the same rolls “as good as any rolls I’ve served in 40 years in the restaurant business.”

So I guess those were pretty good rolls. Which he served with comeback sauce, country ham-infused butter sculpted into a rose, a fried oyster, Damarr’s chow-chow — Jesus Christ, how many things did Buddha make?! And he was Front Of House?

In retrospect, it seems like a pretty bad call for Jae not to pick Buddha. I’d let him belittle my salad in front of my mother if he’d make me some of those miracle rolls. It remains to be seen whether his prickly intensity is going to cost him, but no matter what happens, I’d love to hear him pronounce “Gumbo Z’herbes” again.

1. (even) Damarr Brown

Damarr Brown Top Chef Houston
NBC Universal

AKA: Catchphrase. James Beard. Screech.

If Buddha’s intensity and disdain for salad are one end of the spectrum, Damarr’s unshakeable chill and low-key earnestness are the other. Only Damarr could suggest calling a restaurant Matriarch in honor of the mothers who raised them, agree to drop the H for arbitrary trendiness, and have it not come off corny.

Does Buddha deserve the number one spot over Damarr on account of his world-changing Parker House rolls? (Note: I had no idea what “Parker House roll” was before this episode). Look, you could make a case for it. But consider: Damarr realized the oven he was cooking his carrot cake in was f*cked less than an hour before service, while his cake was still inside of it, and still served up, according to Tom, “the best carrot cake I’ve ever had, hands down.”

In fact, when the judges were critiquing Jackson’s shortbread cake-cookie accident surprise, Tom’s mic drop critique was “well it’s no carrot cake, that’s for sure.”

This seems to suggest that right now, Damarr is the benchmark. Anyway, no matter who wins, I’m excited for next week’s episode, which I hope will be dedicated entirely to Gonzo 247.

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

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