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Top Chef Houston Power Rankings Week 1: Who Is The Beefmaster?

Top Chef is back, and it feels like we didn’t even have to wait that long this time. I don’t know about you, but I’m more than ready to go back to pretending restaurant dining is the most prestigious and important industry in the world. I did my duty, bravely spending 40% of my paycheck on takeout to keep these eateries alive and now it’s time for the reward — pettily nitpicking high-end foods! Cure me in ceviche! Cover me in delicate seafood foams! When I die, just lower my casket into a vat of créme fraîche!

This season takes us to Houston, Texas, a city bypassed in each of the last 18 seasons, including season eight, which was set in Texas, with locations in Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio. All this despite Houston being the nation’s fourth-largest city and a diverse, eclectic culinary destination. So unfair! Eh, it’s still hard for me to think of anything in Texas as any kind of an underdog, on account of Texans can never shut up about being from Texas. That’s probably rich to hear coming from a Californian, but what if we make a deal: we ban the Red Hot Chili Peppers from making any more songs and you shut up about everything being bigger and not messing with you and blah blah blah for a while. Seems more than fair.

Anyway, the whole judging gang is back — Tom, Padma, Gail — minus Graham Elliot, whom I must assume the producers left out specifically to deny me the joke fodder. A man in a tailored madras muumuu with white frames and a pastel bow tie is just too easy. Joining them is Dawn Burrell, last season’s… uh… well, last season’s highest-finishing competitor not to get #metoo’d immediately following the finale, I guess. True, Shota was also a runner-up, but the point is, Dawn is from Houston.

This year’s crop of contestants includes eight Michelin stars and numerous James Beard award winners and nominees. The Top Chef producers always take pains to make sure we know how be-accoladed all these contestants are, and it’s kind of a big-dick move on Bravo’s part. They always choose contestants who theoretically don’t really need this, but will still drop everything to be on the show because Top Chef publicity still really is that big a deal. “Aw, but I wanna eat da food from da TV!” I often find myself saying, stupidly.

For this episode’s quickfire, which Padma described as “a silent killer” (so, in other words, “silent but deadly?”), the contestants were broken into teams of three for a relay race, of sorts. They would have “30 minutes to incorporate all your styles into a single dish,” with each member of the team having only 10 minutes to cook. Already being completely impossible and quite insane, to add absurdity to sadism, they also stipulated that the chefs wouldn’t be allowed to speak to one another during the challenge. Sadism does make for good TV, and this challenge brought us a dropped succotash, some lost pork, and the first painfully foodie phrase of this season: “serrano chili créme fraîche.”

For the elimination challenge, the contestants would retain the same teams, for a three-course challenge highlighting, what else, BEEF. In every course. That’s right, these judges would have to taste 15 courses of beef. Please pray for their colons. Each team would have to choose from a maxicut — rib, loin, chuck, sirloin, or round — then butcher and serve their coursed meal.

Such a beef-centric challenge would seem to eliminate the Top Chef contestant’s favorite preparations: the ceviche and his gallic cousin, the crudo. Trust me, there’s nothing these fuckers adore more than cutting shit into tiny cubes and serving it raw. Would we be denied this?

Ah, but friends, fear not, this is why French Jesus invented the tartare. Or as I like to call it, Beef Ceviche. Were there any tartares? Oh, you better believe it. And yet, not one carpaccio. Unbelievable. The cube-shaped-meat bias of this show is downright sickening. I guess if I want some shaved beef I’ll have to call… you know what I’m not even going to finish this joke.

RESULTS:

  • Quickfire Winner: Yellow Team (Buddha, Monique, Jo).
  • Quickfire Top: Brown Team (Jackson, Robert, Sarah).
  • Quickfire Bottom: Blue Team (Ashleigh, Luke, Sam); Red Team (Leia, Stephanie, Jae)
  • Elimination Winner: Brown Team (Jackson, Robert*, Sarah)
  • Elimination Bottom: Red Team (Leia**, Stephanie, Jae)

*Winner
**Eliminated

15. Leia Gaccione (Eliminated)

Leia Gaccione Top Chef
NBC Universal

AKA: Skepticat, Far Side

Hometown: Passaic, New Jersey

Early Contestant Conceit: “I think that I have a very bad bladder infection.”

Leia, who resembles to me a skeptical feline, was one of two wounded warriors™ in this episode. But while Jackson bravely (citation needed) battled back from COVID-induced nose blindness for multiple top finishes, Leia’s bladder infection kept her first from partying with the rest of the chefs and later from putting too much thought or effort into the beef appetizer that got her sent home.

Leia’s red team chose last in the elimination challenge, leaving them with the round, the toughest part of the cow. Somewhat inexplicably going with an Asian theme, Red Team put Leia on appetizers, for which she served a Vietnamese spring roll full of tough meat (great penile nickname, incidentally). A contestant named Gaccione from New Jersey on beef appetizers?? This was a prime carpaccio opportunity!! A carpaccitunity, if you will!

You blew it billy madison
billy madison

Which is to say: Leia was the only chef who didn’t choose a raw or rare preparation in the appetizer round, and she ended up being the one to go home. Coincidence?? GO RAW OR GO HOME, LEIA!

Once again it seems no points are awarded for the chefs who try to be agreeable team players during team challenges. Or maybe expecting the judges to bite through grilled round inside a spring roll was just a bad idea in general. Yet another high-risk, low-reward dish. How many times have you been blown away by a fresh spring roll?

Either way, it looks like we probably won’t get to see how Leia can cook while 1. not on this team and 2. while not battling a bladder infection. Was it a bad dish, or did Leia just get… A RAW DEAL.

Famous Last Words: “I can’t turn a top round into a filet mignon.” (Great, maybe don’t try to then? I feel like the judges could’ve been way harsher about not a single chef on team round braising their meat. Round doesn’t seem like a grillin’ cut, but what do I know).

14. Jae Jung

Jae Jung Top Chef Houston season 18
NBC Universal

AKA: Seoul Food

Hometown: Seoul, South Korea

Jae says she describes her style as “Korean-New Orleans,” which sounds amazing, and in my heart I think she’s ranked much higher than this, but I have to keep these rankings at least nominally performance-based. Thus I’m forced to acknowledge that Jae almost went home for a subpar bibimbap that was basically one giant unforced error.

Jae decided to cook “her idea” of what a North Korean dish would be like, even though she’s never been there or eaten it, and while the show could’ve been a lot clearer about what made her bibimbap specifically North Korean (“I’ll have the bibimbap with extra Juche, please”), it seems clear that the dish just wasn’t very good. Which is weird, because bibimbap always looks and sounds pretty good.

I initially blamed Jae for her team’s Asian theme, on account of she seemed to be the only team member who specializes in Asian cuisine, but in rewatching their brainstorming sesh it seems like Leia just asked Jae what she wanted to cook and Jae said “a rice soup with some Asian flavors…” At which point both her teammates instantly volunteered to cook Asian food even though they didn’t want to and weren’t good at it. And then they whined about it the whole time. This is basically the root of every bad group idea ever conceived — something everyone inexplicably agreed to that no one wanted. I feel like this is how the last four Batman movies were made.

Leia and Stephanie seemed like worse team members, but food-wise it seemed like Jae whiffed something that should’ve been solidly in her comfort zone.

13. Stephanie Miller

Stephanie Miller Top Chef Houston SEason 18
NBC Universal

AKA: North Dakota Jolie, Grumbles

Hometown: Bismarck, North Dakota

Early Contestant Conceit: “Have I mentioned I’m from North Dakota?”

“Did you use oil while you were cooking?” is not a question you ever want to hear a Top Chef judge ask.

It was hard to believe that Chef Stephanie didn’t go home this episode, considering she indeed got that query. First, she hammered her team’s pork in the elimination challenge (apparently she thought there was oil in the marinade, even though there wasn’t — also, I blame this on whoever chose a pork chop in the first place, since cooking a non-dry pork chop in 30 minutes is an insanely high degree of difficulty, a classic high-risk/low-reward situation), then she forgot the bok choi. Finally, she served an apparently boring seared top round in the elimination challenge. And yet… she’s still here.

Anyway, Stephanie and her excellent makeup (hence North Dakota Jolie) spent most of her time whining (hence Grumbles) that her team had chosen an Asian theme, when she’s just a simple girl from North Dakota who knows nothing of the world’s largest, most populous continent. She just wanted to serve some nice meat and potatoes, y’all! I feel like people from the Midwest don’t get nearly enough credit for being super annoying about being from the Midwest. When anyone does something slightly dorky and or WASPY passive-aggressive they’re like “Only in the Midwest!”

Mmm-hmm, yes, tell us more about your excessive politeness and noble values. Which is in no way negated by the constant bragging! Isn’t it great how humble we are? No one is as humble nor as genuine!

Anyway, Grumbles’ food did look kinda good (oxtail demi-glace, yeah baby), even if it was out of place and she whined about it the whole time. It will be interesting to see what happens when she’s not on a team, or on a different team, and more able to “cook her own food” (Top Chef cliché alert). Then again, if her comfort zone doesn’t extend beyond baked potatoes she may not flourish in a show designed to celebrate Houston’s diversity.

12. Luke Kolpin

Luke Kolpin Top Chef Houston Season 18
NBC Universal

AKA: Liddell. Ho Ho Ho. Hook.

Early Contestant Conceit: The guy who worked at Noma.

Luke here looks like he’d be in Conor McGregor’s entourage. Like, I can’t see the tailored suit that’s extremely tight around the calves but I know it’s there. I’m calling him Liddell, because he has tattoos on his head like Chuck Liddell, and also Ho Ho Ho, because he looks like a henchman who would get killed by Bruce Willis in Die Hard. And he’s also Hook, because he served the judges empty plates and they had to try to imagine the food like Robin Williams in Hook.

Anyway, Luke has the big Noma pedigree but managed to get ZERO FOOD PLATED in the quickfire challenge. This was followed by a steak none of the judges seemed to like in the elimination round, which definitely makes it seem like Luke on the chopping block. A shame because I feel like I could come up a lot more nicknames for this guy.

Notable Critique: “Luke got lost in how to put together flavors. This has no umami, no salinity, no depth of flavors.”

Obnoxiously Foodie Phrase Alert: “I’m making a black garlic miso water reduction.”

11. Damarr Brown

Damarr Brown Top Chef Houston
NBC Universal

AKA: Catchphrase. James Beard. Office.

Hometown: Chicago

Early Contestant Conceit: Being the glib guy?

I’m calling this guy Catchphrase, because I get the sense that he’s going to be the producer’s go-to guy for glib commentary on various situations. And also “James Beard” because he looks like a guy who should be named “James Beard.” James Harden should also be named “James Beard.”

Anyway, still way too early to make any assumptions here, but Damarr’s roasted rare sirloin with mushrooms marinated in a beef-fat vinaigrette was one of those dishes that sounded like a really good idea until it came out covered in a film of congealed orange fat. At which point it sounded like a terrible idea.

Maybe he still should’ve known better? I dunno.

Notable Critique: “Is Damarr’s dish risky at all? No, it isn’t.” (Damn right! I want all my food to feel like I’m shooting speed between my toes while BASE jumping!)

10. Nick Wallace

Nick Wallace Top Chef 19 Houston
NBC Universal

AKA: Domingo, Candyman.

Hometown: Edwards, Mississippi

I’m calling Nick here Domingo, because he reminds me of Colman Domingo. Not necessarily the look, but definitely the voice and way of speaking. I feel like this dude could sell me a time share and somehow make it sound genuine.

Anyway, Nick made a beef stew with sweet potato dumpling dish that sounded really good (adding the word “dumpling” to anything makes it sound at least 80% better) but was apparently dry. One of the judges said he should’ve made it with oxtails. Lesson learned???

Dry Guy Gif Workaholics
Workaholics

Notable Critique: “Nick’s was the right dish, just the wrong cut.”

9. Sam Kang

Sam Kang Top Chef Houston 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Ness, King Of The Beef

Hometown: Gardena, CA

Notable Soundbite: “You can taste crazy in food.”

I’m calling this guy “Ness,” which may resonate with anyone who played a lot of Super Smash Bros in college. And “King of the Beef” because that’s a joke Sam made about himself.

Anyway, Chef Sam seems super low-key, to the point that his teammates thought he wasn’t taking things seriously enough (let the man be Zen, damn you!) and it’s hard to imagine him fighting with anybody, so maybe “King of the Beef” will become an ironic nickname, like when you call a Fat Guy called Tiny.

In the elimination challenge, he made a “roasted striploin with kampot peppercorns and bread salad,” and like a lot of the chefs in the middle of the ranking, it’s hard to know how to handicap him just yet.

8. Monique Feybesse

Monique Feybesse Top Chef Houston 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Giggles. Pebbles Flintstone.

Hometown: San Francisco

Notable Soundbite: (Upon hearing Buddha’s plan to make Spotted Dick) “How do you spell that?”

I honestly couldn’t tell whether Monique was making a joke when she asked Buddha how to spell Spotted Dick. She spent the next 10 minutes giggling, either at the idea of a food called “spotted dick” or at her own joke about spotted dick. Either way, she seems fun.

Monique made some beef tartare, but honestly who didn’t this episode? Watching this episode, you’d assume that raw beef served with egg yolks was absolutely flying off the restaurant shelves. Is the supply chain okay? Are we going to run out of small beef cubes?

7. Jo Chan

Jo Chan Top Chef Houston
NBC Universal

AKA: Sarge.

Hometown: Palmdale, CA

Jo has a buzzcut and seems to cook with military precision. Her Jonathan Waxman-approved salsa verde helped her team win their quickfire challenge, scoring them immunity in the elimination challenge, where Sarge’s black garlic-rubbed ribeye won mostly positive reviews but was largely overshadowed by Buddha’s suet pudding. I get it, man, it’s hard to compete with a fatty dessert. Jo is flying under the radar for now.

6. Evelyn Garcia

Evelyn Garcia Top Chef Houston 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Cuddles

Hometown: Houston

Early Contestant Conceit: The Hometown Girl

I’m calling Evelyn Cuddles on account of she seems like she’d be a good hugger. I have no evidence for this, it’s just a feeling. Anyway, I might be ranking Evelyn too highly but she’s the lone chef actually from Houston, AND she cooked a tri tip in this episode, the quickest way to any Central Californian’s heart.

Tri-tip is one of those things that’s so simple and so delicious (I usually end up cutting it into medallions and eating it with my fingers) that it’s kind of hard to “chef up.” Evelyn’s “charred eggplant with chili jam” seemed to do the trick though. One of the dumbass judges wanted her tri-tip to be “more medium-rare.”

Vince Vaugh Erroneous
Wedding Crashers

Yeah, yeah, man, everyone loves a rare steak. But tri-tip has some connective tissue in there that needs some heat to break down. You can sous-vide it to a perfect-looking red-in-the-center look, but it’ll end up chewy as hell. It’s not the right cut to cook super rare! Cook it to a nice medium, medium-rare that’s just pink in the center and it melts in your mouth. FIGHT ME!

5. Ashleigh Shanti

Ashleigh Shanti Top Chef Houston 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Moonjuice.

Hometown: Virginia Beach

Early Contestant Conceit: “Afro-lacchian.”

Ashleigh strikes me as someone who makes leather jewelry for fun. She works in Asheville, North Carolina (crystal capital of the world!) and describes her cooking style as “Afro-lacchian,” which is easily the best fusion food portmanteau I’ve ever heard on this show. Anyway, it’s a little early in the competition to know what to make of Ashleigh (or really anyone), but the judges seemed to love her kitfo with egg yolk sauce and red rice crumble. Conceptually, that was a great way of doing basically what everyone else was doing (a tartare) while being able to call it something else. Classic recipe for success on Top Chef, and basically for food in general. “Can you give me what I already like but somehow make it new?”

Notable Critique: “It has a ton of flavor, it has great texture… and it’s not timid.”

4. Sarah Welch

Sarah Welch top chef houston 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Stephanie Izard, the squeaquel.

Hometown: Ann Arbor, Michigan

Sarah is playing it pretty close to the vest so far. Most of the clips of her in this episode sort of reminded me of that Alonzo Mourning gif:

Alonzo mourning thinking gif
NBA

Sarah did everything right in this episode and received high marks for her “tallow-seared beef with eggplant puree, agrodolce shallots, and caperberry relish,” even if none of her dishes screamed CATNIP FOR FOODIES like some of the chefs ranked a little higher.

3. Robert Hernandez

Robert Hernandez top chef houston Season 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Damian. Butterfingers.

Hometown: Downey, California

Robert, who is giving me major gay-best-friend-in-a-rom-com vibes, opened this episode by dropping some succotash on the floor and hiding his pork under the grill, so it’s safe to say that initially, things weren’t looking good. But then he served up some gnocchis that, to hear the judges tell it, were softer and fluffier than a pillow for an angel’s balls! TRIPLE REDEMPTION SCORE!

I had to drop Robert down to three because of the lackluster quickfire performance, but pot roast with gnocchi and parmesan cream with castelvetrano olive tapenade sounds like the dish of my dreams.

2. Jackson Kalb

Jackson Kalb on Top Chef
NBC Universal

AKA: Leghorn, Andrew Lunk, Magoo, Where’s The Pork?

Hometown: LA

Contestant Conceit: Lost his sense of smell and taste from COVID and still doesn’t have it all back.

I’m calling this guy Leghorn on account of he kind of looks like a big rooster. The show was building up Leghorn here as some kind of underdog on account of his smell and taste loss, but he ended up on a top team in the quickfire and on the winning team in the elimination challenge, so I have to think he’s a favorite. Considering Stephanie prepped scallops for the team and Robert cooked some pork chops and Leghorn used (*checks notes*) none of those in the final dish, and still made a runner-up dish in 10 minutes, it’s hard not to conclude that he’s got some skills.

I was actually yelling at the TV during the quickfire when Leghorn couldn’t find Roberto’s pork and chose instead to cook… eggplant. Eggplant?? In 10 minutes?? I used to grow eggplant in my garden but I stopped, because while I love to eat it, it’s always a huge pain in the ass to prepare — the salting, the draining, the patting dry, etc. — but apparently you can just throw it the fuck into a wood-fired oven and have it cooked and plated in 10 minutes. Who knew? That’s it, I’m getting a wood-fired oven in my kitchen, I don’t care what my wife says.

Lots of people made tartares this episode, but Jackson was the only one who made one combining tuna and potato chips. That seems like the kind of terrible brilliance that will serve him well on this show.

1. Buddha Lo

Buddha Lo Top Chef Houston Season 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Mr. International. Shakes.

Hometown: Port Douglas, Australia

Buddha is an Asian-Australian who worked in France and now lives in Brooklyn. His hands were shaking during the quickfire, but that and everything else he cooked this episode seemed perfectly conceived. Buddha made a beef fat spotted dick (STOP. GIGGLING.) for the elimination challenge. Putting beef fat in a classic English dessert feels like something designed in a lab to be irresistible to the sensibilities of a Top Chef judge. Something classic and historical, but also super weird and original.

Also, “suet pudding with beef fat caramel and miso ice cream” is one of weirdest dish descriptions ever conceived on this show. Kudos.

Notable Critique: “This is the most exciting one and the most balanced one, as far as I’m concerned.”

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