This week on Top Chef Houston, it was time to celebrate Houston’s greatest export: the girlboss. It was a themed challenge in which the chefs were to prepare dishes meant to celebrate five Texas trailblazers.
And what better way to honor a girlboss than with a themed cooking challenge? What would Eleanor Roosevelt eat? What would Joan of Arc eat? What would Kris Kardashian-Jenner eat? Waiter, I shall have your finest BOSSFOOD, extra femininely, of course.
Ah, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Girlboss Cuisine was for the Elimination Challenge. Before we get to TALENTI GELATO that, I should TALENTI GELATO explain the Quickfire TALENTI GELATO Challenge, in which the TALENTI GELATO chefs, working in TALENTI GELATO teams, were tasked with TALENTI GELATO combining salty and sweet TALENTI GELATO flavors they’d chosen, in the TALENTI GELATO hopes of creating a TALENTI GELATO salty and sweet dessert that could TALENTI GELATO inspire the next TALENTI GELATO flavor of Talenti Gelato.
Which would win them ten thousand TALENTI GELATO cream dollars.
Did I mention this challenge was sponsored by Talenti Gelato? I feel like I should because the sponsor mentions were so subtle and seamless that you could barely tell. Meanwhile, Padma wore this:
Hmm, collar, epaulets, belt, and four pockets? Seems… a bit much. Is that a cargo dress? As Coco Chanel once said, 0ne should always remove at least one set of pockets before one leaves the house. It looks like she’s heading to The Matrix for the first time and wanted to make sure she had room for all her stuff.
NINI: On this side of the kitchen are 10 food items that are salty, like me.
KELSEY: And on this side are 10 that are sweet, like me.
I really feel like they could’ve played up this joke a little more. If Kelsey has never hucked an empty beer car in the direction of a cop I’ll eat my shirt (God, I miss her).
After that, it was time for the Elimination Challenge, which, as previously mentioned, paid tribute to famous Girlbosses throughout Texas history. Specifically, the chefs were tasked with creating dishes “in honor of five trailblazing Texas women”: Ann Richards, Selena, Barbara Jordan, Babe Didrikson-Zaharias, and Bessie Coleman. Ah, yes, good, there’s nothing I love more than receiving a history lesson from my reality cooking show contestants.
That also meant that it was TIME TO GET CONCEPTUAL, Y’ALL!
This whole challenge reminds me of that old Mitch Hedberg bit, about how in Hollywood, people are always asking if you can do other things. All right, you’re a stand-up comedian, can you write us a script? That’s not fair. That’s like if I worked hard to become a cook, and I’m a really good cook, they’d say, “OK, you’re a cook. But can you also farm?”
This is sort of like that, but even better. “Okay, you’re a cook, but can you also metaphor? Fix me up a seabass in the style of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s iconoclasm.”
Quickfire Top: Nick-Ashleigh*. Damarr-Monique. Jo-Evelyn.
Quickfire Bottom (as implied by they’re not being in the top): Luke-Buddha. Jackson-Jae.
Elimination Top: Evelyn*, Jackson, Buddha.
Elimination Bottom: Luke, Monique**, Ashleigh.
10. (-3) ((Eliminated)) Monique Feybesse
AKA: Pebbles Flintstone. Henrietta Hawk. Stretch.
When it came down to Luke and Stretch in the final two, I was convinced Stretch would be saved by virtue of not being a white guy. Surely they’re not going to eliminate a female chef on the Girlboss episode, are they?? They did!
Not a criticism, by the way. Monique here has had her ups and downs throughout the show, and for her dish honoring Barbara Jordan, the first Black politician elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction, Monique took the fairly straightforward approach of trying to use ingredients that would’ve been popular/available in Barbara Jordan’s neighborhood growing up.
This took the form of a fried oyster over beans in pancetta broth with pickled okra. I love a fried oyster and beans are whatever, but this presented several logistical issues. Would the watery broth turn the nice crispy oyster soggy? Would the oysters be too big? These were apparently Monique’s biggest concerns, which she “solved” by cutting the oysters in half (losing all the juice in the process — Tom was AGOG over this one) and skimping on the broth. Leading to a dish of bland dry beans topped by a dry fried oyster.
Beans and oysters? I dunno, man. Feels like a poorly thought-out dish. Girlboss or not, it seemed like she deserved to go home for that one.
One thing left unsaid: when this challenge was introduced, they noted that the winner would be decided by an even vote from all the attendees. Was the loser chosen this way too, or did the main judges hash it out amongst themselves like normal? A benevolent dictatorship is very ungirlboss.
Notable Critiques: “Did anyone else get a half-cut oyster in their bowl?” “The oyster was nicely fried.” “It didn’t wow me, and Barbara Jordan was a wow.” “It reminded me of a three-bean salad out of a can.”
9. (+1) Ashleigh Shanti
AKA: Moon Juice. Sugar Hillcountry.
I love that the judges pulled Ashleigh out of Last Chance Kitchen purgatory at the beginning of the show and then had her crying from their cruel critiques by the end. That kind of brutal culinary capriciousness is what keeps me watching this show.
Ashleigh opened the show strong, teaming with Nick for the gelato challenge, for which their ginger-pork rind crumble cake thingy won top honors. I think it probably helped that they had Alabama-bred Kelsey and New Orleans-raised Nini judging the dishes. Those are two girls who probably don’t mind a little pork skin now and again. “Ginger-Pork rind” honestly sounds like a pretty good combo, dessert or not.
That won Ashleigh $5,000 and immunity, flying high heading into the elimination challenge. As the producers illustrated by showing Ashleigh freestyling into the mirror. I physically recoiled as soon as the mirror rap began, but it’s a credit to Ashleigh that it wasn’t nearly as cringe as you’d expect a Top Chef contestant freestyling into a mirror to be. Takes a high degree of natural cuteness to pull that one off. Still, freestyling on a reality show is a bit like cooking chicken breast — if you’re insanely talented it might not suck, but not-sucking is about the best you can hope for out of it.
Ashleigh stuck to her “Afro-lacchian” brand in the elimination challenge, cooking candied pork with “killed lettuces” (lettuce wilted in bacon grease, which sounds pretty good, actually) and salt-and-vinegar potatoes. That all sounded so good that if this episode had been a menu, this is the dish I probably would’ve ordered. Unfortunately, it was apparently so bad that it had a blind lady complaining about the texture and prompted a ballerina to say, “Sometimes you have to be able to see someone’s baby and be able to say, ‘I’m sorry, your baby is ugly.'”
Note to producers: bring that Ugly Baby lady back as a guest judge, she rules.
They were so harsh that they made Ashleigh cry, and she wasn’t even in the room to hear the part where they compared her dish to an ugly baby. She probably would’ve gone home, except, oops! She had immunity. That was a fun twist!
8. (even) Luke Kolpin
How the f*ck is this dude still in the competition? It seems like he finishes second to last every episode!
Luke teamed up with Buddha for the quickfire, thinking their combination of miso and honey was a classic one. Yet I’ve noticed on this show that team challenges tend to go better when you team a conceptual weirdo like Luke with a homestyle chef. That way the space food wizard can up the homestyle chef’s plating game and the homestyle chef can edit the wizard’s ideas when he strays too far from Earth food. Putting Luke and Buddha together is concept-on-concept, and even after sculpting leaves out of miso gel or some shit and serving them inside a miniature zeppelin filled with liquid nitrogen or whatever, the two failed to crack the top three of five teams.
Luke drew Bessie Coleman in the elimination challenge, and after revealing his learning disability, took his inspiration from the fact that Bessie Coleman had moved to Europe early in life to pursue her career in pilotry. Hey, that’s just like how LUKE moved to Europe early in HIS career! Wait, has Luke lived in Europe? I hadn’t heard.
For his dish, Luke “cured” a salmon in seaweed and cilantro (to honor Coleman’s Native American forebears, who introduced cured salmon to the colonists) and served it with “chicken fudge,” which is apparently a compound butter made from chicken fat. There was also some sort of crumble in there. That actually sounded fairly appetizing for a Luke dish (much better than room-temperature pumpkin, certainly) but apparently, it was once again bland. Tom was all, “THERE’S NOT ENOUGH CHICKEN FUDGE HERE, IDIOT! DADDY DEMANDS FUDGE!”
Something like that. Anyway, I can’t believe Luke is still here, he never goes more than three challenges without being on the bottom.
7. (+2) Jo Chan
AKA: Sarge. Smiles.
Jo got lots of monologues this episode about how this Girlboss challenge was just so important right now, in this time and this place — one of those clichés that has become basically an instant groan from me. Amazing how the “this is the movie/show/dog food brand/condom America needs RIGHT NOW!” has seemed to crop up once a week for the past 10 years.
Not everything can possibly be this important for this long. We need to start triaging some shit before I lose my mind. Also, I don’t know about you, but a reality cooking competition show isn’t something I watch because it’s important.
Aaaanyway, they probably ginned up a soundbite like that from every contestant this week and it just so happened they used the one from Jo.
Jo drew Ann Richards, who apparently loved Thai food (a type of food that’s just so, so important right now), inspiring Jo to prepare a Thai-style gulf shrimp. To mixed reviews, unfortunately.
Notable Critiques: “It’s unfortunate that it was so sweet, because sweet isn’t what I think of when I think of Ann Richards.” “She could’ve pumped up the flavor a lot.”
6. (even) Jae Jung
AKA: Noodles. Jae West. Hilaria.
Ah, Jae, I love this weirdo. In a season lacking in eccentrics, Jae teamed with Jackson for the Quickfire Challenge, describing him as “like a little horse.” Because he’s “always jumping around. You know, like a little horse?”
Yep, horses, definitely the first animal that comes to mind when I think of a person who jumps around. Hey, are you guys enjoying the bounce house? You’re like a herd of little horses in there!
Sadly for Jae, this was an elimination challenge that prized metaphors and confident bullshitting above all else, leaving Jae at a distinct disadvantage, both as a non-native English speaker and a person who seems to speak in confusing riddles. Jae drew Babe Didriksson-Zaharias, and as she explained it to the camera, Babe was a fighter, which reminded Jae of her first boss, Leah Chase, who taught Jae to cook gumbo. That was a bit of a stretch, but a fairly coherent story!
Unfortunately, when Jae got up to try to repeat it in front of the Top Chef judges and a roomful of legends, she dissolved in a puddle of tears, and one of the few parts of the story anyone could make out was how “Leah used to tell me that if I screwed up the gumbo she’d punch me in the face.”
Haha, great story, Jae!
Notable Critiques: “I’m obsessed with this okra kimchi.” “I do feel like it lacked a bit of that depth of flavor you expect from a gumbo.”
5. (-3) Nick Wallace
AKA: Domingo. Chocolate Mormon. The Count.
I feel reasonably confident about the bottom of these rankings, but the top five are turning into a pick-’em. Nick drew the pork rinds at the top of the episode. He tried to sandbag himself like a pork rind dessert was going to be beyond him, but c’mon, Nick, no one’s buying that shit. You’re a chef from Mississippi, people expect you to know some damn pork rinds.
Naturally, he did (though technically he let Ashleigh handle the actual pork rinds) and they won, earning, as Nick charmingly described it “Five one thousand dollars.”
The Chocolate Mormon (remember, Nick has six children whose names all begin with N) drew Ann Richards in the elimination challenge, taking inspiration from Ann Richards’ conversion to healthy eating during her long struggle with cancer. Oh no! Never make healthy food on Top Chef! There is literally no upside! You idiot, you absolute fool.
Nick ended up cooking a potato-encrusted red snapper with beet risotto, kale romesco, and “mushroom-shaped potatoes.” Which are just potatoes shaped like mushrooms for some reason. It’s almost like Nick wanted to double down on the lack of upside with a healthy dish and make something with even less upside. One thing I never worry about when I’m eating potatoes is whether they’re shaped like mushrooms.
The judges mostly liked the food overall (a testament to Nick’s talent that he can make something this ill-conceived and still succeed) but Tom called those mushroom potatoes “cute,” in a tone of voice that suggested he was about two beers away from an actual dismissive wanking motion.
I like to think Tom was paying tribute to powerful women by not saying what he really meant and disguising an insult as a compliment there– I’M KIDDING, I’M KIDDING, STOP CANCELING ME.
Anyway, Nick has the goods, but he’s going to need better decision-making skills than he showed this episode.
Notable Critique: “The potatoes, you know, they’re cute.” “I have to say, my mom would’ve loved this dish.”
4. (+1) Buddha Lo
AKA: Mr. International. Big Pun. Asian Ben Mendolsohn.
Buddha, as we’ve noted, teamed with Luke in the quickfire, which seemed to only exacerbate some of his worst impulses. Buddha was just spinning around the kitchen like a Tasmanian devil where some liquid nitrogen, a foam, and edible seaweed sculpted into the shape of a bunny for some reason would occasionally fly out.
They didn’t land in the top three (putting them in the bottom two, by process of elimination) and Buddha seemed legitimately perplexed by this. He gave a look that seemed to say, What the fuck? I made you fuckers another tuile and you betray me like this?
Buddha loves tuile so much. It’s like he conceives every dish tuile first. By the way, I’ve been sitting here for 20 minutes trying to think of a new tuile-based nickname for Buddha and I’ve got bupkis. The tuiiiiiiiile in the skyyyy keeps on turrrrrniiiiin…
For the elimination challenge, Buddha drew Bessie Coleman, and showing that he’s still the king of puns (he would’ve knocked that tuile shit out in a heartbeat) Buddha prepared a riff on “poulet en vessie” (chicken cooked in a pig’s bladder), which he called “poulet en Bessie.” Which paid homage not only to Bessie Coleman’s name, but also to her early adulthood in France.
His version involved sous vide chicken breast, which he served over Paris Mash (aka fancy mashed potatoes) in a figure of eight shape, one of Bessie’s signature tricks. Yep, Buddha is a master of this metaphor stuff. He added popcorn for crunch, and when Tom asked “What does the popcorn represent?” Buddha threw back, without missing a beat, “Because when you see Brave Bessie fly, you’re gonna need some popcorn.”
Crushed that ad-lib, bro.
The judges loved his dish so much that Buddha ended up in the top three. Which is insane, because as we discussed, he made a chicken breast. Chicken breast is the highest risk/lowest reward food on earth. It’s like taking a test pass/fail knowing that 95% of the class is going to fail. The best you can do with a chicken breast is “edible.”
Buddha’s biggest weakness in this competition is his tendency to get overly conceptual at times. His biggest strength is that, other than being a pretty good chef, he’s the only one in this show who seems almost psychopathically competitive, going full Draymond every time he doesn’t win. Which is pretty funny coming from a cuddly Australian guy with a lisp.
3. (even) Jackson Kalb
AKA: Magoo. Andrew Lunk. Leghorn. Lurch. Bateman. Big Bird. Big Nerd. Napholeon Dynamite.
I keep trying to make these nicknames nicer, just in case I have to interview the winner at the end of the season. I don’t want them asking my why I nicknamed them “Shit For Brains” or whatever. But I feel like Leghorn keeps daring me to wedgy him every episode.
The Big Magoo drew Barbara Jordan this episode, who, according to Magoo, had a “lot of heart and guts.” Inspiring The Big Magoo to make a Big Ragu with chicken hearts and offal. Which he noted that he wanted to include offal, but not taste awful, a pun he underlined by fully spelling out the second homophone (A-W-F-U-L). Clearly assuming that wasn’t explanation enough, Jackson also made this face, to ensure we knew not just how awful is spelled, but what it looks like:
Thanks for that close-up, producers. Gonna be honest here, this cursed image of Drew Magary‘s Oh Face was not something I needed in my life.
But damned if this brilliant goober didn’t make a hand-cut tagliatelle that landed him in the top three. He’s going to be around at least three or four more episodes, making more faces that haunt my nightmares.
2. (-1) Damarr Brown
AKA: Catchphrase. James Beard. Screech.
Damarr somehow ended up once again on a team with Monique, once again preparing a dessert cornbread. Only on Top Chef could a person somehow manage to make multiple dessert cornbreads in the same competition. Of course, the judges loved it, and they landed in the top three.
I have to give it up for Damarr: In a kinda tryhard, kinda cringey Girlboss-themed episode of Top Chef, that attempted to position a cooking show challenge as “important” (blechh), Damarr was still so preternaturally goddamned authentic that he managed to introduce his dish in such a way that this whole thing actually felt genuine. Did I almost just choke up watching Top Chef? This was so deftly delivered it borders on sorcery. Damarr is like a Warlock of Realness. He deserves an Emmy for this.
He was also a man after my own heart, drawing Selena and choosing to make pozole, which he said he thought evoked “family.” That actually makes perfect sense to me.
The editors tried to make a big deal out of Damarr attempting homemade flour tortillas, which are indeed pretty hard — my flour tortilla game is strong, but I doubt I could do it without my go-to written recipe. He even pulled out the tortilla press (editor’s tip: never use the damn press for flour tortillas, I find it way easier to get them to the desired thinness free-hand with a rolling pin) and screwed up a few for good measure.
In the end, he did it so well that he had Padma all horned up, gushing “the tortilla was really soft and delicious and beautiful.”
How the hell did he not end up in the top three? He had this whole group crying into their cilantro broths.
1. (+3) Evelyn Garcia
How can you compete with the Texas Latina who draws Selena? You can’t. Evelyn didn’t need a damned dossier for a Selena dish, which was so firmly in her wheelhouse that she based her entree on her favorite Selena song, “Como La Flor,” which means “like a flower.”
That was the inspiration for Evelyn’s flower-shaped ceviche with aguachile broth, which didn’t sound quite as good as Damarr’s green pozole, but I wasn’t tasting it and are you really going to deny the Houston Latina in a Selena challenge? Evelyn was the only woman in the top three of the women-themed challenge and perhaps not surprisingly, took home the victory.
You could call that a lucky draw, but this was also Evelyn’s second elimination challenge win in a row with a top-three quickfire sandwiched in between. No matter how much I think Damarr is the favorite I can’t deny Evelyn the top spot after that.