Top Chef Houston Power Rankings, Week 4: The Doppelgänger Art Food Challenge

This season of Top Chef hasn’t exactly been bringing the drama, but I think my favorite part of episode four was the slowly-dawning impression that Padma got into the booze early and was mom-drunk for most of the episode. It always felt like we were just one edit away from someone at a different table having to come over to tell her to keep it down.

True, this is purely speculation on my part, but I give you Exhibit A, from Chef Melissa King’s Instagram taken on the same night:

Great photobomb, Padma. I love Tipsy Padma. Giving Padma just a little too much to drink always makes this show at least 50% better.

Anyway, the theme of the evening seemed to be “preposterously hard challenges.” In the Quickfire, that meant challenging the chefs to make biscuits — without benefit of a recipe! And not just that, but to incorporate that biscuit into a dish.

Chris Williams was introduced as the guest judge, who opened by talking about his great-grandmother, Lucille B. Smith, an influential Black woman chef who introduced “Lucille’s All Purpose Hot Roll Mix,” the country’s first pre-made roll mix, in the 1940s. To which Padma quipped, “I guess you could say she was on a roll!”

This is my Exhibit B in The Case For Padma Was Drunk Most Of This Episode. Alcohol lowers not only her inhibitions but also her ability to resist a pun.

The chefs went on to make some tasty and not-so-tasty biscuits, in typical Top Chef fashion, though here again I have to question this season’s comparatively lacking attention to detail. Where were the close-ups? How you gonna do a biscuit challenge with no crumb shots?? Show the biscuits going in! I demand thick, steamy ropes of crumb.

After that was over, Padma brought out Wiley Dufresne, the Original Nerd Of Cooking™, to present one of his classic experiments in Molecular Gastronomy. That’s a scientific term, by the way, and it means “Food That’s Kinda Weird.” He pioneered this type of thing at his New York restaurant WD50, a fact that has somehow remained stubbornly lodged in my brain even after 20 years of this show.

I never ate at WD50 when I lived in New York even though I always wanted to, but Wiley Dufresne always strikes me as the type of guy who ends up being revealed as the serial killer in the last five minutes of a Law & Order episode. It’s always just some normal-ass looking dude with glasses and a five o’clock shadow wearing a shirt that doesn’t fit that well.

Wiley Dufresne and Padma Lakshmi on Top Chef
NBC Universal

Nothing against Wiley Dufresne, who’s probably a dead ringer for your company’s IT guy, but if Nic Cage had pulled off The Machine’s mask at the end of 8MM and the guy underneath looked like Wiley Dufresne, no one would’ve been surprised.

Dufresne was in the Top Chef kitchen to present the chefs with one of his special concoctions, a bedazzled neon rope on top of some dirt accompanied by colored spots.

Top Chef-Gastro Dish

Mmm, spots! Delicious.

This actually turned out to be two different dishes, in one of Wiley’s classic diabolically delectable deceptions. One was a peanut butter rope (mmm, ropes!) over some chocolate “soil” (yes they actually call it soil); the other a foie gras rope over black sesame soil (“excuse me, waiter, I think my rope was meant to come with more soil.”).

This was meant to be the inspiration for the episode’s Elimination Challenge theme: Doppelgängers. The chefs would gäng up in teams of tü, to attempt to make two identical-looking dishes that tasted much different. Mmm, duplicious. This honestly seemed like one of the harder challenges in Top Chef history.

But also… sort of irrelevant? Is it bad if a chef lacks a flair for disguise? Probably this makes me a philistine or whatever, but I kinda prefer it when my food just looks like the thing it actually is. I don’t really need to shatter a tuile lampshade and have candied moths fly out for a dessert to impress me like I’m Marie Antoinette. I’m content with pretty much anything tender served in a nice sauce.

That being said, I admit it was fairly entertaining watching these poor chefs try to design an abstract art project that somehow also worked as food, in a decadently sadistic way. Oh my, what a very droll chausson! (*waves lace handkerchief in appreciation*) Garçon, unshackle this one’s family.


  1. Quickfire Top: Damarr, Evelyn, Jackson*.
  2. Quickfire Bottom: Buddha (too crumbly), Jae (overworked), Ashleigh (over-peppered).
  1. Elimination Top: Ashleigh/Luke. Buddha/Jackson*.
  2. Elimination Bottom: Sarah/Robert**. Evelyn/Jo.


RANKINGS (change from last week):

12. (Even) ((Eliminated)) Sarah Welch

Sarah Welch top chef houston 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Lula Roe. Aunt Frances.

Notable Critique: “Both domes are just texturally off.”

Notable Quote: [Was your shrimp mousse boiled or poached?] “It was poached and then boiled… so to speak.”

After ranking her in the bottom for the last three weeks, it was no surprise that Sarah went home this week. Teamed with Robert, she attempted a shrimp mousse that resembled Robert’s dollop of panna cotta, but in a week where the chefs apparently all brought their A-games, Sarah’s spongy mousse and Robert’s looooose panna cotta didn’t cut the mustard. Do you even dollop, bro?

Finding herself in the hot seat, Sarah tried invoking her confusing shellfish allergy once again, in an attempt to explain her middling mousse (she is kinda sorta allergic to shellfish, but only the shells or something?). Yet where sober Padma might’ve let this excuse slide, Tipsy Padma was on it like a hawk. “If you’re allergic to shellfish why the hell did you make a shrimp mousse,” she demanded.

Exactly! This whole thing was Sarah’s idea! Stand behind your dollop. This woman crumbles under interrogation faster than a day-old biscuit.

11. (-6) Robert Hernandez

Robert Hernandez top chef houston Season 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Damian.

Tough break for old Robert, who made a dessert that Gail admitted she would “eat 50 times before I’d eat Evelyn’s dessert again.” (Me-yow).

Then again, how many times do you need to see this show before you know not to make a damned panna cotta? Panna cotta is up there with risotto and duos when it comes to getting chefs sent home on this show. Gelatine is a capricious mistress, Robert. He committed the cardinal sin of not factoring in the moisture level of his strawberries, throwing the whole god damned gelatine balance dangerously out of whack and leaving him with a disgustingly loose panna cotta. This obviously combined for an unsatisfactory spooning experience. Come on, man! We want desserts that are supple and pert, is that so much to ask? Get this flan on a treadmill for fuck’s sake.

I’m going to leave Robert at number 11, even though my gut tells me that there are going to be multiple rounds of Last Chance Kitchen and Robert is going to win at least one of them.

10. (-2) Jo Chan

Jo Chan Top Chef Houston
NBC Universal

AKA: Sarge. Smiles.

Notable Critique: “Jo’s pork belly was like pork belly leather.”

Super Serious Sarge joined her partner in hilarity, Evelyn, this week for a doppelganger duo of sauce-covered pork belly (Sarge) and ganache-covered cake (Evelyn) that nearly got them sent home. Tom was practically apoplectic that Sarge had left her braised pork belly to cool dry, rather than immersed in the braising liquid. What?! Dry-cooled pork belly? GET THE ROPE.

At first it seemed like Sarge’s pork leather was dragging Evelyn down with her, but honestly it didn’t seem like the judges liked Evelyn’s dessert all that much either. Honestly, I think this team probably would’ve gone home, had it not been for Sarah’s baffling excuses and Sarah and Robert’s timid presentation.

Sarge doesn’t have that problem. Sarge can bore right through you with a thousand-yard stare that says “Yeah, bitch, I meant for my pork belly to be dry.” I don’t know if her Jedi mind tricks are going to get her much further if she doesn’t straighten up and braise right, but it was juuuust enough to save her ass this time around.

9. (-2) Jae Jung

Jae Jung Top Chef Houston season 18
NBC Universal

AKA: Noodles. Hilaria Baldwin.

Notable Critique: “Her crumbs were delicious.”

In a season that’s desperately lacking in eccentricity, credit to Jae for really letting her freak flag fly. This chick is weird, and I dig it. She makes bad jokes, like that Jae don’t bake, Jae only likes to get baked, then stares down the camera in a way that can only be described as “disconcertingly horny” before laughing her ass off at her own joke like a one-woman Def Comedy Jam. Granted, I don’t even know a second language let alone have the ability to attempt jokes in one (“cacahuates,” that’s a pretty funny word, right?), so I say this with the utmost respect.

Jae admitted she knew dick about fine biscuitry this week, and attempted to compensate by serving it with a big ass piece of fried chicken (which seemed like a pretty solid idea to me, if not quite as hilarious as Jae seemed to think it was). The judges weren’t fooled and she landed in the bottom three. Luckily she managed to redeem herself in the elimination round and stayed off the chopping block.

Paired with Nick, Sarah joked that the two were “like our parents,” a dig at their collective age. But Jae had the last laugh when Sarah got booted for a middling mousse while Wiley Dufresne went gaga for Jae’s delicious crumbs. What delicious crumbs she had! Wiley Dufresne finished that meal with crumb stains all over his face and clothes. Dude couldn’t guzzle crumbs fast enough.

8. (+3) Luke Kolpin

Luke Kolpin Top Chef Houston Season 18
NBC Universal

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

After an inauspicious start, everyone’s favorite burly Noma-n Luke has been steadily climbing the rankings these past few weeks, culminating with a solid second place finish this week. Granted, a wacky abstract art-food challenge was right up Luke’s alley, this being the same guy who gave us a room-temperature pumpkin disc topped with seaweed sludge in week two.

Still, even before that, Luke managed to serve a perfectly adequate biscuit during the biscuit challenge, despite admitting that “I’ve been living in Europe for the past eight years, and it’s not exactly a biscuits-and-gravy kind of a place.”

Oh, has Luke been living in Europe? I hadn’t heard.

7. (-2) Ashleigh Shanti

Ashleigh Shanti Top Chef Houston 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Moonjuice.

Holy shit, did anyone else catch how much pepper Ashleigh put in her biscuits? I had to rewind it to make sure I saw what I thought I did:

Ashleigh Shanti Top Chef Pepper

Yes, that’s black pepper. Mamma mia. With that much pepper, you could trade for an entire harem in the middle ages.

It was no surprise that when it came time to choose the winners, the judges virtually ignored the fact that Ashleigh’s biscuit was deep-fried (which doesn’t sound half bad, honestly) and were like “Yeah… a little peppery for me, dog.”

After that, Ashleigh paired up with Luke, matching his layered scallop with a layered mushroom in a doppelganger dish that apparently blew Tom’s socks off. Who even knows with Ashleigh, she’s up, she’s down, she’s eating onions and spotting dimes — I don’t know what the hell is going on!

6. (+3) Monique Feybesse

Monique Feybesse Top Chef Houston 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Pebbles Flintstone. Henrietta Hawk.

Speaking of people I don’t know how to rank, there’s Monique here. Monique took the no-brainer step of teaming up with Damarr for the elimination challenge, which seemed like a decent choice considering Damarr has been at or near the top of like the last five challenges.

And then she was like, “Hey, what if you made a chicken liver mousse between some cornbread, and I made an ice cream sandwich? Those look alike, right?”

Nice work, Monique. Work smarter not harder. “Hey, what if we team up on this math project? You work out the figures, and I’ll present it in this nice multi-colored clear binder.”

5. (-1) Evelyn Garcia

Evelyn Garcia Top Chef Houston 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Cuddles

Every time Cuddles feels like she has it all locked up she takes two steps back. This week, she scored a top three finish for her chorizo biscuit, which looked and sounded fantastic. Then she teamed up with her emotional foil, Sarge, and committed the cardinal sin of Top Chef. A dessert that was too sweet! Sugar?! In a dessert? What are you, an IDIOT?

4. (-2) Nick Wallace

Nick Wallace Top Chef 19 Houston
NBC Universal

AKA: Domingo. Chocolate Mormon.

It feels like it’s been forever since the Chocolate Mormon has been in either the top or the bottom of any challenge. To the point that it’s starting to feel like they just keep him around to do charming stuff like bake biscuits in the shape of Mississippi. Arguably one of the least recognizable state shapes, as applied to baked goods. Hey, cool biscuit, man. What is this? Bart Simpson in profile?

Nick teamed up with Jae, making up one-half of the Fairly Oddparents, serving up an udon doppelganger for Jae’s spiral-cut daikon. The judges seemed to love it, though Nick’s contribution apparently warranted less mention than Jae’s crumbs. What can you do, it’s hard to compete with a really good crumb.

Anyway, I have no idea where Nick properly belongs in these rankings but he’s winning the “chef I’d most want to hang out with” battle going away. Dude is like a human quaalude.

3. (+3) Buddha Lo

Buddha Top Chef Houston Season 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Mr. International. Big Pun. Asian Ben Mendelsohn.

I know, my irrational pro-Buddha bias is showing, having him ranked third this week even after botching his biscuits. But what do you expect? He’s Australian. They’ll call anything a damned biscuit over there. (Calling cookies “biscuits” has to be one of the most infuriating Britishisms, right behind calling a grilled cheese a “toasty.” I’m convinced they’re doing it just to piss us off at this point).

Yet even coming off one of his worst performances, Buddha was still the number one pick when it came time to choose teammates in the Cook Wiley Something Deliciously Deceiving challenge. Perhaps because Buddha seemed like the only chef in the competition who actually enjoys this molecular stuff (with the possible exception of Luke).

Seems like every season has at least one Molecular Weirdo, going all the way back to Marcel Vigneron in season two, the OG Top Chef Molecular Weirdo. My foams, my delicious foams!

Anyway, Buddha proved Jackson chose correctly when their doppelganger duo of… uh… Jackson’s deconstructed everything bagel paired with Buddha’s dada-ist bon-bon melange had Padma gushing “this might be the best dessert we’ve had on Top Chef.”

I swear I’ve heard Padma say some version of this like 16 times in the four years I’ve been recapping this show. She gets all loosey-goosey with the superlatives when she’s hammered. “Best fondue everr? I sure think sho! (hic).”

Anyway, I’m convinced Buddha is going to become the favorite I’ve always thought he was at some point. Aaaaany second now…

2. (+1) Jackson Kalb

Jackson Kalb on Top Chef
NBC Universal

AKA: Magoo. Andrew Lunk. Leghorn. Lurch. Bateman. Napholeon Dynamite.

Leghorn opened this episode cooking an ostrich sausage biscuit, which has to be some kind of giant-bird-on-giant-bird crime. Is there no solidarity among giant goofy-looking flightless birds? He also tried to fry some cheese again. Dude can’t stop trying to make crispy cheese happen. Luckily this is America, and we f*ckin love deep-fried cheese, so Leghorn managed to totally redeem himself with the big win and the advantage going into the elimination.

The advantage wasn’t immunity, much to the goofy lurker’s chagrin, but he capitalized nonetheless by choosing Buddha, which worked out well and won them both the big win. 10 bucks says his sense of smell comes back right just in time for some mistake that gets him eliminated.

1. (even) Damarr Brown

Damarr Brown Top Chef Houston
NBC Universal

AKA: James Beard. Catchphrase.

At this point even my 8-year-old stepson I force to watch this show with me thinks Damarr is the odds-on favorite. He landed yet another top three finish in the biscuit challenge this week, for his “drop biscuit” (great nickname for your mom’s– dammit I promised myself no bad mom jokes this week), which he served with shirred egg. Another thing I just learned about.

No, he didn’t end up winning the elimination challenge, but he was going against two separate gastronomy warlocks, all while being asked to do a savory doppelganger for a damned ice cream sandwich. So what did Damarr do? He made chicken liver mousse and stuck it between two slices of cornbread and he still managed to keep out of the bottom (that ice cream sandwich was a lot of things, but apparently it wasn’t “too sweet”). The almost pathologically low-key Damarr carries himself as if he’s vaguely annoyed that they haven’t just named him the winner already and I honestly can’t say I blame him.

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