Top Chef Houston Power Rankings, Week 11: Don’t Spit My Squid, Bro

This week on Top Chef, we were down to the top five chefs, so it was time to SHAKE THINGS UP. That meant the producers took the whole gang off to Galveston and dropped the winner of Last Chance Kitchen back into the competition. That winner was Sarah, and her arrival immediately… had the chefs settling back into pretty much the same pattern they had been in since episode four when Sarah first got booted (for not doppelganging hard enough).

Bees in a mason jar this was not, but hey, it was worth a shot. At least the favorites are interesting.

First stop in Galveston, which is an island, sorta, was of course da beach, for some gorgeous gulf seafood. For their quickfire challenge, which Padma noted was a Top Chef first (™), the chefs would be tasked with preparing two different types seafoods (one hot, one cold) for a classic “Seafood Tower.”

Hmm, does two dishes really count as a “tower?” That sounds more like a seafood duplex or something. Did they not just repurpose the old “hot and cold” challenge (which I’m fairly certain I’ve seen a few times on this show) using stackable plates?

Anyway, I digress. The important thing is that Padma finally found a genie to turn a safari jacket into a tube top:

Padma Lakshmi safari tube
NBC Universal

Between this and the motorcycle jacket dress from a few episodes ago (below) I’m getting the distinct impression that Padma’s stylist this season loves pockets and belts.

Padma Lakshmi Top Chef Houston Leather Dress

If Padma is going to dress like this, I’m going to bust out my old cargo shorts. Love that extra pocket space, I can keep my pooka shells and travel-sized ICE Spiker in there. (GRR, SKA’S NOT DEAD! PICKITUP PICKITUP PICKITUP…)

After that, Hawaii’s best and chillest chef Sheldon Simeon showed up and gave the chefs all dossiers on the mystery diners they’d be cooking for in a family reunion-themed elimination challenge. To be prepared in a fancy VRBO rental house. This for a challenge sponsored by, which, we learned through constant repetition, is allegedly pronounced “verbo.”

To which I say: hey, VRBO, stop trying to make “verbo” happen. I know it’s your company and all, but the guy who invented the gif pronounces his own invention wrong too, that doesn’t mean we have to. “Verbo” is not a website. “Verbo” is a nickname for a guy named, I don’t know, Dave Verbal, in Australia. Oi, Verbo! Fetch us a tinny, ya cunt!

The mystery diners turned out to be the contestants’ own family members, and the chefs were invited to dine with them. Which made the whole thing extremely heartwarming, right up until the moment the judges had to clown their uninspired tatakis and poorly described paellas in front of the chefs’ own mothers. Harsh! I believe one chef is actually suing Tom Colicchio, alleging that the trauma from his harsh risotto review caused his wife to miscarry.

Okay, just kidding, I made that last part up. In fact, most of the drama at the judges’ table came from the weather. Deliberations even had to be moved indoors when the wind had the audacity to blow Tom’s hat off of his head.

Top Chef Padma Tom Gail

You son of a bitch, that’s Tom’s judgin’ hat! I also like to imagine it’s the hat he uses to fan his face while contemplating a plate of artichokes while muttering “Buona cera, buona cera.”

Hats for Tom, pockets for Padma. That’s this season’s theme.

It was actually insanely appropriate for the Galveston challenge to have to be moved indoors due to hurricane weather, given that a hurricane devastating Galveston in 1900 (still the deadliest natural disaster in US history) paved the way for Houston to emerge as a major city in the first place. Yes, I like to squeeze in a little historical context between these shitty jokes about hats, you’re welcome.


Quickfire Top: Evelyn*, Ashleigh, Nick.
Quickfire Bottom: Buddha, Sarah.

Elimination Challenge Top: Evelyn, Buddha*, Damarr.
Elimination Challenge Bottom: Ashleigh**, Sarah, Nick.


6. (-1) ((Eliminated)) Ashleigh Shanti

Ashleigh Shanti Top Chef Houston 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Moonjuice. Sugar Hillcountry.

Family Guest: Her Mom.

Elimination Challenge Dish: “Paella-inspired” heirloom rice with shrimp and calamari.

Ashleigh, who acknowledged her status as “queen of the bottom three” last week, was riding high off her top three finish in this week’s Quickfire, for her peel-and-eat jerk shrimp. Top Chef judges know it’s no fun knocking someone down if you don’t build them up a little first, and as soon as they’d given Ashleigh that little crumb of shrimp-based confidence they cut her down at the knees.

In fact, they treated Ashleigh’s “paella-inspired” heirloom rice to the first Padma Spit Out™ of the season. Ew, gooey undercooked squid! Padma hates goo in her mouth!

Ashleigh explained that “the chef in my head was adamant about not overcooking the squid,” so after a brief sear, she stuck it back in the marinade. Bad move! Yet pretty relatable, honestly, I can’t imagine cooking squid for these judges and not having them bitching about it being rubbery running through your mind the whole time.

Meanwhile Gail and Sheldon double-teamed Ashleigh’s dish for not being “paella” enough. “It didn’t feel paella-inspired at all,” said Gail.

“Imagine you’re working all day, and someone tells you they’re making paella, and you come in to find this,” said Sheldon, to raucous laughter. Haha! She called the shit “paella!”

I’m sorry, guys, but you can’t just call something “not paella!” 10 times without unpacking that at all. It had rice, it had seafood, what was the problem? Though it was amazing watching Ashleigh have a heart-to-heart with her mom while the judges were five feet away going Mean Girls on her rice. A+ editing, guys.

5. (N/A) Sarah Welch

Sarah Welch top chef houston 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Lula Roe. Aunt Frances. Kooky Librarian.

Family Guest: Her sister.

Elimination Challenge Dish: Tuna Tataki

Notable Quote: “The dope peanut sauce ended up in the wrong spot.”

Chef Sarah is back, baby! …Hooray?

Every season there’s at least one chef who, in Australian parlance, shits me to tears, and this season it’s Sarah (who to her credit, punched her ticket back into the competition with eight straight Last Chance Kitchen victories). It’s hard to explain this one, but it feels like Sarah is always doing the big eyes and side-to-side head thing as if indicating that she’s making a joke while not actually making a joke. It’s like she’s doing Marvel movie dialogue IRL. “So… that just happened…”

The producers brought Sarah’s sister along for the family reunion, whom Sarah assured us was “insanely charismatic.” Which they illustrated with footage of her having normal conversations with people. Oh my gosh, look at her, standing on two legs. What a charmer!

Apparently, she and Sarah, whose parents owned a camp in Jamaica, used to get in all sorts of trouble together while roaming the island every summer as kids and teens. What kind of trouble, the producers asked? “…Nothing you can put on Bravo,” Sarah glibbed, glibly.


For her sister, who is apparently one of those people who hates mushrooms so much that she quizzes waiters about them and claims to be allergic (ugh), Sarah made tuna tataki that landed her in the bottom three. She thought it was because she made an “aesthetic” decision that separated her tuna from her “dope peanut sauce.” Or, you know, it could just be that the dish looked and sounded boring.

4. (-1) Nick Wallace

Nick Wallace Top Chef 19 Houston
NBC Universal

AKA: Domingo. Chocolate Mormon. The Count. The Mississippi Baker.

Family Guest: His mom.

Elimination Challenge Dish: Seafood pasta salad with smoked pork.

Nick couldn’t make his tortillas work in the quickfire, though his pivot to orzo revelation seemed to serve him well, with a top-three finish and a mignonette that guest judge Shota said was his favorite, in a round with at least four mignonettes in it. Ayy, check out the Mignonette Maestro over here.

Unfortunately, Nick and his mom apparently don’t share a taste in food. “I don’t connect to this at all,” Nick said of his mom’s menu, before finding out it was her. “What kind of idiot likes this bullshit? …Oh, hi, mom.”

He ended up making a seafood salad-type thing with pork croutons that confused everyone, though they all agreed that it was spiced well (Nick’s 26, anyone??). This is crazy, because “pork crouton” is the kind of phrase I lived my whole life up until now without ever hearing, and now I feel like I can’t live without it.

3. (+1) Evelyn Garcia

Evelyn Garcia Top Chef Houston 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Cuddles.

Family Guest: Her dad.

Evelyn came out of the gate fast this week, winning the quickfire for her Thai-cajun shrimp boil. Which sounds fusion-y, but here in NorCal all my favorite shrimp boil joints are owned by Southeast Asians, which sets up an interesting “which ethnicity loves shrimp boils the most” conundrum.

For the elimination challenge, Evelyn’s mystery diner turned out to be her dad. Who didn’t have Evelyn fooled at all when he named “oxtail massaman curry” as his favorite dish, adorably pandering to his daughter’s Southeast Asian-style cooking. He also showed up rocking a Panama hat with croakies and a Tommy Bahama-style shirt with the sleeves creased like a true pimp.

You may not like it, but this is what Peak Successful Southern Dad looks like:

Top Chef Evelyn Garcia and dad

In a week of cute family members, I have to think these two were the cutest. God damn, they’re cute.

Evelyn made a Southeast Asian-inspired fried whole snapper that everyone seemed to love and landed her in the top three. With a win and a top three this episode it’s clear that Evelyn is peaking at the right time, but will it be enough to put her ahead of this season’s perennial favorites? Uh… time will tell. (What am I, Nostradamus? It’s a food show).

2. (even) Damarr Brown

Damarr Brown Top Chef Houston
NBC Universal

AKA: Catchphrase. James Beard. Screech. Dusty.

Family Guest: His mentor/boss.

Elimination Challenge Dish: Green herb-crusted redfish.

Damarr stumbled, with a bottom three finish in this week’s quickfire, then roared back with redfish in the elimination challenge that seemed like it only narrowly missed out on the win. He also revealed that his mom is in a wheelchair and his aunt takes care of her, which is why they couldn’t attend. Though his mom did send a note with Damarr’s mentor telling him how much she wished she was there and how proud of Damarr she is and GOD DAMMIT STOP TRYING TO MAKE ME CRY DURING A COOKING SHOW!

This motherfucker tries harder to make me cry than the first 10 minutes of Up. I’m nicknaming Damarr Dusty because it always seems to get dusty in the room when Damarr gets a heartfelt message from his family. I gotta get these air filters cleaned out.

1. (even) Buddha Lo

Buddha Lo Top Chef Houston Season 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Buddha. Mr. International. Big Pun. Asian Ben Mendelsohn. The Salad Nazi. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Terminator.

Family Guest: His wife.

Elimination Challenge: Pasta Amatriciana, aka “‘Marry Me’-Pasta.”

Buddha went full wife guy this episode, when his very beautiful, very Australian wife showed up, apparently wearing her finest pajamas:

Buddha Wife Top Chef
NBC Universal

But hey, I’m no fashion critic, I’m just a guy who writes about Top Chef wearing sweat pants most days (they’re “joggers,” mom, it’s called “athleisure!”).

More importantly, Buddha’s wife’s arrival allowed him to tell the story of their relationship through food, specifically of the day they met, when she cooked a family meal of pasta amatriciana at the restaurant and Buddha told her it was so good that he would marry her.

Buddha must be one of the cleverest chefs this show has ever had, and it seems like every damned week he comes through with a story to explain the food as dialed in as the food itself. In that regard, this week was no different, with Buddha winning the challenge and getting rave reviews from his Oz-wife herself. Who took one bite of his Marry Me Pasta and gushed, “Bud-da, this is SAUR good.”

All I could think of the whole time was the “Australian girlfriend” episode of Flight of the Conchords. Just watch that and pretend I made some of those jokes here, I’m never going to do funnier Australian jokes than a Kiwi.

Anyway, Buddha, who I’ve pointed out in past rankings seems to be at his best when he’s at his most detached and fussiest — serving up conceptual odes to space travel and girlbosses — proved at last that he can also do rustic “soulful” food with a story about love and family. Only with Buddha could I imagine that him screwing this up two or three times and then nailing it right before the finale was all part of the plan. Everything seems part of the plan with this guy. No one has ever seemed this calculating on this show before. That’s why he’s the favorite this week and it wasn’t a tough decision.

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