We all knew a barbecue challenge would be coming eventually — this is Top Chef HOUSTON, after all. Five episodes in feels… tasteful. It’s like the producers didn’t want to seem too eager, but they didn’t want to drag it out too long and make the waiting feel like a whole thing either. This was the themed challenge equivalent of arriving fashionably late to a party.
So yeah, it was barbecue week on Top Chef, and in Texas, you know what barbecue means: brisket. Brisket makes a great subject for a barbecue challenge because it has probably the lowest floor and the highest ceiling of any barbecue meat. Bad brisket, which is easy to find, sucks. I’d rather eat an average hamburger than bad brisket. If I’m at a barbecue joint I’ve never been before with an unknown reputation, I’m ordering pork ribs over brisket every time. They’re just way harder to screw up. Here in Central California, I’m going for tri-tip, which takes about 20 minutes on a grill rather than a full day in a smoker and tastes consistently pretty damn good.
But a good brisket, long-cooked, perfectly seasoned, and juicier than my thighs after a brisk jog (I’m sorry), is hard to beat. For this week’s elimination challenge, guest judge Brooke Williamson took the contestants on over to J-Bar-M to choose, trim, and season their meat. Which would then go in a J-Bar-M smoker for 12 hours. Their challenge would be to then incorporate that brisket into a dish, something that “flips the script on what barbecue can be,” to be judged by Greg Gatlin and 20 of Houston’s top pitmasters.
There were a couple interesting decisions here. Chief among them being to standardize and outsource the entire smoking process. On the one hand, that made it a lot easier for the contestants. This probably isn’t “true barbecue,” since all they had to do was trim, rub, and wait, letting someone else handle the fire. But on the other hand, true barbecue or not, it did save us all the time that would’ve inevitably been spent watching the contestants sweat over their coals, relight wood, try to keep the smoker going, and blah blah blah. There are at least 10 barbecue shows covering this already, and honestly, zzzzzzzz.
Ditto having them make a brisket dish, rather than just serve a brisket. Barbecue judging is almost painfully codified and rigid these days, and if they’d made us sit through 25 minutes of sweaty guys in plaid shirts pontificating about smoke rings and tenderness tests I would’ve put a gun in my mouth and blown my brains all over the back wall of my TV room (fine, I exaggerate slightly).
Yet just when the contestants thought they could take a deep breath and settle in for a nice long chill sesh while the smoke did its thing, Brooke blew the Top Chef shofar announcing a SURPRISE QUICKFIRE! This one was dedicated to Texas Toast. Texas Toast, as we were informed in Brooke’s important historical anecdote, is a Texas delicacy that, legend has it, was born when someone in Texas accidentally bought some big toast. “But… this toast is TOO BIG!” whined the small-minded.
That was when famous free spirit Augustus Toast piped up and said “Nay, the big toast is just right. Grill and serve it with Arby’s new Texas Beef and Cheddar with extra horsey sauce.”
Thus a legend was born, or something like that. Honestly, I spiced it up a little, because otherwise it was the world’s most banal origin story. “Someone bought some big toast one time and the rest is history.” Anyway, the chefs were tasked with serving up a bread-based appetizer. Was Carrie Baird not available to guest judge? It almost felt like they were going out of their way not to use the words “Fancy Toast.”
Anyway, if you’ve ever had bruschetta, pan con tomate, any kind of pintxo, or probably 20 other regional specialties (shrimp toast!), you know that bread-based appetizers have been a thing for a long time. Which is great. I watched this week’s episode right before mealtime and almost everything in it, from the bread-based apps to the brisket-ensconced mains, had me feeling hungry as hell. Easily the best food porn episode of the season. This one really showed the meat going in.
- Quickfire Top: Nick*, Jo, Jackson.
- Quickfire Bottom: Luke, Monique.
- Elimination Top: Buddha, Evelyn*, Jackson.
- Elimination Bottom: Monique, Ashleigh**, Jo.
10. (-3) ((Eliminated)) Ashleigh Shanti
AKA: Moon Juice.
This week, Ashleigh said she was anxious to finally “put myself on a plate.” DING DING DING! (That’s me ringing the “Top Chef cliché” bell).
For the Quickfire, Chef Ashleigh prepared a “Texas Toast pizza roll-up,” which looked like it involved toast that was rolled out with a rolling pin, rolled up like a taquito with some cheese, then deep fried and served over tomato sauce. Honestly, pure genius. The judges should’ve carried her out on their shoulders after that.
For her brisket, Chef Ashleigh dreamed up a “kitchen pepper” spiced brisket (kitchen pepper apparently being a Caribbean-influenced mixture of allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, and maybe some other stuff too) influenced by “chicken and slicks,” a variety of chicken and dumplings. Hers would include brisket and sweet potato slicks, served in a cream of collard soup. I’m an absolute piggy for chicken and dumplings and really dumplings in general (I actually have a unified theory of food that says that if you’re trying a new and unfamiliar cuisine, always order the dumplings, which almost always combine the best of that cuisine’s stock spices and are generally prepared lovingly by the elders of the kitchen), so everything about that sounded pretty good.
“Hard to eat,” raved the judges. “I can feel my arteries clogging,” said one of the pitmasters.
It’s generally a bad sign when a professional barbecue man with elaborately styled facial hair worries about the health of his arteries. Turns out Ashleigh compounded her mistake of underseasoning her brisket by serving said brisket in giant meaty chunks immersed in a creamy soup. Nobody wants to eat soup with a knife and fork. Is it soup? Is it sauce? Are you trying to choke Tom Colicchio? This is a dish fit for pelicans! Ashleigh’s UX designer is fired.
Putting yourself on a plate is all well and good, but maybe smaller chunks next time? It’s hard not to feel for Ashleigh here, spending a full day smoking brisket, preparing dumplings, creaming collards, etc. only to go home for the very simple-yet-obvious sin of not cutting the meat small enough.
9. (+1) Jo Chan
AKA: Sarge. Smiles.
Sarge opened this episode lamenting “I haven’t been able to really cook my food since I’ve been here.”
Chug your drink! Sheesh, the Top Chef cliché bell is really getting a workout this episode.
Sarge was actually sitting pretty after the quickfire, serving up a mushroom toast that landed her in the top three. She tends to thrive when she keeps it simple. Which is exactly what she didn’t do in the elimination challenge, serving up a confusing pappardelle in brisket melange. Did I see corn kernels in there? What the fuck, man.
I tend to think Sarge probably should’ve gone home instead of Ashleigh this week. Ashleigh’s mistake was arguably more basic, but it would’ve taken a lot more to unfuck whatever was happening with Jo’s.
8. (even) Luke Kolpin
EMTs almost had to come to my house and revive me with the defibrillator paddles after Meekus managed to go an entire episode without once mentioning that he lives in Europe. Incredible! And there were so many openings for it! “Texas Toast? Interesting, in Denmark we call it an Aalborg flatty.” “Smokers? Curious. At Noma we wrap the briskets with foraged seaweed and leave it to steep in the trunk of a Volkswagen.”
Otherwise, Luke was back to his old ways, which is to say looking like a guy who was about to go home. First he served up a ciabatta covered in a crawfish-pancetta emulsion (three words I’ve never combined before) that was so salty that Tom abandoned his usual poker face. “This is a salt lick,” he said to Brooke. DISGUSTED is the only way I can describe his reaction.
Yet Luke rebounded from that, managing to totally redeem himself in the elimination challenge. This with his brisket in onion-based barbecue sauce served with a coriander and lime stem salad that everyone seemed to mostly enjoy. How does he keep doing this? Luke has become the darkest of dark horses.
7. (-1) Monique Feybesse
AKA: Pebbles Flintstone. Henrietta Hawk. Stretch.
Every episode this season has included at least one shot of Minuscule Monique having to climb atop a shopping cart or stand on top of Jo’s head to reach something on a high shelf. It’s like she only shops from the high shelves. Monique and Jo should have to compete as one chef, with Monique on top of Jo’s shoulders inside a big chef’s coat.
For the quickfire, Monique told us that she’d be cooking something that, upon first utterance, sounded a lot like “MILF loin.” Mmm, love a MILF loin. I only eat the tenderest MILF loin, pounded flat and stuffed.
Turns out she was actually saying “mille feuille,” a french dessert with layers of pastry and custard. Monique’s version combined untoasted bread, buttercream, and mushrooms, which apparently tasted as weird as it sounded. Tom questioned the untoasted bread, but Monique pointed out that she didn’t want her buttercream to melt. And sure, you definitely don’t want to serve mushrooms with melted buttercream. You want the buttercream nice and congealed to really hold all that mushroom flavor.
Monique went trés Fronch again in the elimination challenge, with an onion soubise, beef fat potatoes, and a bone-marrow honey glaze, which had the judges raving “bland potatoes,” and “a proper cut goes a long way,” and “this felt like a culinary school dishes, where the student presents a random combination of techniques they’re trying to master.”
What did we learn? Well, it seems we learned that a cube is not the best way to present a brisket.
6. (+3) Jae Jung
AKA: Noodles. Jae West. Hilaria.
Jae continues to be a bit of an enigma. This episode didn’t feature any interviews of Jae getting weirdly horny about food or laughing her ass off at her own jokes, which was a bit of a disappointment, if we’re being honest. Instead she delivered decent food and solid puns. Her shrimp-lobster toast and “K-jun-style brisket” (a play on Korean and Cajun, get it?) had “a ton of flavor” though neither landed her in the top nor the bottom of either challenge. All of which… leaves me no closer to knowing where the hell to put Jae in these rankings. She’s up, she’s down, she’s getting horny about cheese… she’s everywhere!
5. (-2) Buddha Lo
AKA: Mr. International. Big Pun. Asian Ben Mendolsohn.
Buddha seemed to cement his fan-favorite status during the quickfire, when he said that he was hoping he would win the $10,000 prize so that he could afford eye surgery for his pug. What’s wrong with his pug’s eyes? “They’re shit, he’s gone blind,” said Buddha, in perhaps the most succinctly Australian description of all time.
Has there ever been a pug without eye problems? Honestly, if it’s functioning body parts you’re after, you should probably consider a different dog breed. Pugs are mostly animated loaves of bread that wheeze. Very cute though! Aw, poor pugs. Can you believe these things used to be wolves? We turned them into hideously malformed furry jesters. Mankind is incredible.
Anyway, the editors would’ve had us believe that Buddha was style-biting Monique for most of this episode, copying her idea for a MILF loin in the quickfire and then going similarly French in the elimination challenge. Buddha did her one better in both instances, however, staying out of the bottom in the quickfire and then landing in the top three in the elimination challenge.
Buddha’s “play” on beef bourguignon had onion jam, a beef fat potato croquette, and plating so unabashedly artistic that it nearly single-handedly rehabilitated the entire concept of serving brisket in the form of a cube. Pretty impressive when you can get a group of grizzled dudes in leather vests raving about your culinary Mondrian.
“Well I’ll be dipped in shit, I ain’t never seen a sumbitch make such a tasty brisket Rothko afore.”
4. (+1) Evelyn Garcia
The other top contender for fan favorite, Evelyn, came into her own this week. Being the only local this season also meant that she risked embarrassing herself in front of all the Houston Homeys from the BBQ scene. Not only did she avoid embarrassment, she rose to the challenge with a “Texas brisket curry,” that included brisket over rice in a pool of curry topped by a “burnt ends crumble” — the garnish I never knew I needed. Pure brilliance.
She did the pitmasters proud, had Tom calling it “destination food,” the kind of signature dish people travel from far and wide to eat, and got notorious curry queen Padma so excited that she called it “the curry I’ve been looking for.”
Damn, Padma normally only throws around compliments like that when she’s liquored up. Evelyn took home the win, and for good reason. She managed to serve brisket to pitmasters and curry to Padma simultaneously and please them both.
3. (-1) Jackson Kalb
AKA: Magoo. Andrew Lunk. Leghorn. Lurch. Bateman. Big Bird. Big Nerd. Napholeon Dynamite.
I keep wanting to sandbag Big Bird on account of looking like an ostrich and sounding like Napoleon Dynamite, but I can’t really deny him at this point. The dude stays winning. He made a shrimp toast in the quickfire. That landed him in the top three.
The editors then did their damnedest to make us believe that the Big Magoo was making a catastrophic error by planning to grind up his 12-hour-smoked brisket to stuff inside a pasta. Which, to be fair, absolutely did sound like a terrible idea. Nothing highlights the gorgeous texture of that meticulously smoked meat like just grinding it up like so many discarded hog snouts and beef buttholes, right??
The ground brisket would be for his “scarpinocc,” which, if you had as Spanglicized an upbringing as I did, sounds exactly like “scarred panoche.” Which I believe translates to something like “scarred mangina” in California Spanglish slang. Who doesn’t love a delicious scarred mangina?? The scars really allow the flavors to penetrate. The fear lets you know it’s delicious.
Sorry, I digressed a little there. In what turned out to be a wild misdirect, Big Bird’s brisket manginas in what he called “beurre-BQ sauce” (credit for another pretty good pun) turned out to be a huge hit. The old pitmaster salts, shockingly, absolutely pissed their Wranglers for Jackson’s ground brisket in buttery barbecue sauce. Who could’ve predicted this?? Well, Jackson, apparently. He didn’t quite win, thanks to Evelyn’s home run curry, but he landed in the top three. Thus giving the man-sized rooster yet another feather in his cap, another thing to crow about, another…. (too many bird puns? Whatever, f*ck you).
2. (+2) Nick Wallace
AKA: Domingo. Chocolate Mormon. The Count.
The Chocolate Mormon had me questioning my high ranking of him these past few episodes, but he really brought it home this week. First he won the quickfire with his take on a BLT, a take that included pancetta, roasted tomatoes, and a cheese spread made from melted cheese and pancetta fat. Hot damn. Can you see why I love this guy?
Of course, this week was for brisket challenges, and Nick just seems like kind of guy you look at and imagine he probably knows his way around a smoker. He went on to make a rub which he described as “12-14 different spices.” Not to be confused with “Nick’s 26,” his proprietary blend of seasonings invoked a few episodes ago. Does this man always count his seasonings? Thank God someone in this competition is actually giving me useful nickname fodder.
Aside from Nick’s 12-14, his brisket included a pork neck and collard greens gremolata. Gremolata is just an Italian version of a chimichurri, but anything this man makes with pork necks sounds good as hell. I know he didn’t make the top three, but the more confident Nick gets with his pork necks, the higher his stock goes, in my mind.
1. (even) Damarr Brown
AKA: Catchphrase. James Beard. Screech.
I’m calling Damarr “Screech” as an ironic nickname because he might be the most low-key, soft-spoken man on Earth. Damarr didn’t land in the top three in either challenge this week, but… didn’t it seem like he should’ve been? It feels like when people like Olivia Colman or JK Simmons don’t win Oscars, because at a certain point you just expect them to hit home runs and then they do, and it doesn’t feel that noteworthy. This was Damarr’s quickfire dish, a bomb-ass pizza toast:
Then he made a brisket with giardiniera, braised cabbage, and Worchester consommé that had Tom raving “This is fantastic.”
I can only conclude that the only reason they left him out of the top three was because Damarr being a finalist is basically assumed at this point and they’re trying to keep things interesting.