Are you ready for some foooodbaaaaaall? A Thursday night partaaay?
Queso and football, that’s what Houston does!
That’s right, this week’s episode of Top Chef Houston began with a queso challenge, which would test the contestants’ ability to prepare, as Chef Jackson put it, “a gooey vat of nasty cheese.”
Wow, insulting cheese on an American television show? Really angling for that “fan least-favorite” award, eh, buddy? Insult queso in this house and the only thing you’ll be tasting is the floor.
The wrinkle for this challenge (guest judged by QUESO LUMINARY Irma Galvan), would be that the chefs wouldn’t be allowed to serve the queso with tortilla chips. Which is kinda weird, I guess, but then how much do you really want to mess with queso? Tortilla chips are an ideal vessel, but I’ll use anything in a pinch. A bare finger works just fine.
Then, in the elimination challenge, it was time for a Friday Night Lights-themed challenge. Clear plates, full stomachs, can’t lose. Along with coaches Dawn Burrell (aka Legs) from last season and Sam Talbot (aka Handsome Dan) from season 2 and 14, and guest judge Chris Shepherd, the contestants were broken into two teams (the Cougars and the Wildcats), where each team would make seven dishes and then compete head-to-head. They’d start at midfield, and each vote for their side from a judge would be good for five yards (with 25 yards available in each round, because there were five judges). First team to get to the end zone wins, offense chooses which chef presents first, defense chooses which of their chefs go against them.
Dang, y’all, that’s a lot of rules! True to the spirit of American football, I suppose. We might need to get the refs out here for 10 minutes of slow-motion replays in order to determine whether this fresh fish was indeed “a catch.” Did it get two fins on the plate? Was it able to make a “foodball move” before getting slathered?
Padma added the stipulation that the food should be “carb heavy,” and it’s at this point that I have to ask the Top Chef judges and contestants what the hell is going on out there. The judges say they want carbs, and out of 14 chefs, NOT A SINGLE ONE makes pasta? Not even a fucking NOODLE? Not only that, this 14-course, entirely noodle-free menu warrants nary a mention come judges table? Or from either of the coaches? Every single competitor makes a glorified porridge and not a single judge has the wherewithal to ask why no one considered a spaghetti, a gnocchi, a ravioli, a dumpling, a chow mein?
Yes, I may be slightly biased here, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. If it were up to me, these chefs would’ve been interrogated for hours underneath a bare light bulb while being beaten with a length of rubber hose. WHERE ARE THE NOODLES! I’m putting you on notice, Top Chef.
- Bottom: Sam, Robert, Jackson*.
- Top: Evelyn, Nick, Damarr.**
ELIMINATION CHALLENGE RESULTS:
- Damarr* def. Buddha 4-1.
- Ashleigh def. Luke 4-1.
- Robert def. Jae 3-2.
- Jo def. Stephanie** 5-0.
- Nick def. Monique 4-1.
- Sam def. Evelyn 4-1.
- Jackson def. Sarah 5-0.
14. (-1) ((Eliminated)) Stephanie Miller
AKA: North Dakota Jolie. Grumbles. Palin.
Quickfire Finish: Middle.
Elimination Challenge Results: Lost 5-0 to Jo in round four; eliminated.
Grumbles spent most of last episode whinging about her team’s (admittedly somewhat inexplicable) decision to go with an Asian theme, and in the process seemed to have learned something about being assertive. When her team decided to go with a grain theme this episode, she decided that she wanted white rice and she was sticking to her guns. Good for her! Pick a different grain, fuckos!
Stephanie prefaced her food choice with, “Carbs get a bad rap, but here in North Dakota, we love our carbs.”
Midwesterners, for the love of God, stop trying to claim every mundane thought and opinion as Midwest-specific. No one is impressed with how normal you are. Sheesh, Stephanie brings up North Dakota more often than Rose Nylund brings up St. Olaf (for the people reading this whose backs don’t hurt right now, that’s a Golden Girls reference).
After she was done playing Bismark board of tourism, Stephanie choose to cook that most traditional of Midwestern carb dishes… the feijoada. That’s a meat-heavy, Brazilian black bean stew, and it actually sounded good. Emphasis on sounded though, because Stephanie made the inexplicable decision to take the meat out before serving. Supposedly so that the judges could more easily focus on the beans. Yes, it’s always important to be able to focus on the beans.
Her rice, meanwhile, which she fought so hard for, turned out to be part of her downfall. It came out broken and overcooked, and to make matters worse probably wasn’t even strictly necessary in her feijoada, which already had plenty of carbs in the form of the beans and cassava. It did allow her to play the martyr again though, as she told her teammates that her rice was “on the verge” and allowed Ashleigh to go ahead of her anyway.
Passive-aggressive martyrdom! Only in the Midwest!
13. (-1) Luke Kolpin
Quickfire finish: Middle.
Elimination Challenge finish: Lost round two 4-1 to Ashleigh.
Luke, who worked at Noma, a word we hear almost as much as “North Dakota” this season, cooks like an advanced AI bot that has been fed 10,000 hours of Top Chef dishes and is now randomly generating new ones. For the queso challenge, Chef Meekus served his queso with a “milk crepe.” Which is apparently just milk that you leave in a pan for a while, until it turns into a solid crepe-like thing. Neat trick! And all so that you could use dairy as a vessel for… uh… more dairy. Love to dip my solid milk in some cheese!
This seems to exemplify Luke’s technique-first, taste later approach to food. In the elimination challenge, Luke presented a dish that, I shit you not, began with the words “Room-temperature pumpkin.” Then when he inevitably lost the round, the look on his face said “Jeez, I can’t believe someone beat my room-temperature pumpkin.”
Talk about a crowd-pleasing dish perfect for a football game! I’ve read that the most popular last meal among condemned inmates is inevitably room-temperature pumpkin. That was my favorite scene in Batman, when he spits out his food and says “Alfred! This pumpkin isn’t warm!”
“It’s room-temperature pumpkin, sir. It’s supposed to be room temperature.”
In practice, Luke’s dish looked like an orange disc, sitting in a pool of oil (confited in walnut oil!) topped by a black gravy (which apparently contained seaweed and mushrooms), garnished with two more, smaller orange discs dusted in something. Mmm, room-temperature pumpkin, just like mom used to make! Ooh yeah, with extra seaweed sludge!
But perhaps I’m ranking Luke too low, because even serving his utterly baffling space food he still got one vote from Gail Simmons. He’s learning what hyooooo-mon’s eat, growing with every dish. He’s like one of those Boston Dynamics robots, where at first it’s funny watching them topple over like clumsy horses, but before you know it they’re scanning your retinas to see if you’re on the drone-kill list.
“You gotta go back and check your seasoning. Interesting dish, a lot going on, but just really bland.” -Tom Colicchio.
12. (-8) Sarah Welch
AKA: Lula Roe. Aunt Frances.
Quickfire finish: Middle.
Elimination Challenge finish: Lost round seven 5-0 to Jackson.
I’m re-nicknaming Sarah both Lula Roe and Aunt Frances, because I can’t decide whether she gives me MLM vibes or Frances McDormand/Kooky Aunt vibes.
Sarah TUMBLED down the rankings this week after a strong showing last week, on account of serving what must be one of the most ill-conceived dishes of all time. After kicking around ideas for pork, fish, and shrimp and grits (ding ding ding, shrimp and grits would’ve been great!), Sarah asked coach Dawn Burrell “are chickpeas a carb?” To which Dawn responded a resounding “Yes!”
I don’t know what it is about this year’s crop of chefs that they get one terrible idea in their head and suddenly that’s their unalterable blueprint for the day. Not only did Sarah figure “chickpeas are carbs, ergo a chickpea-based dish is a great idea,” she doubled down on the poorly-chosen theme by choosing to do a “celebration of chickpeas.”
Listen, chickpeas are fine. I used to joke that I was going to name my first born Chickpea if it was a girl and Garbanzo if it was a boy. But no one’s winning this competition with a hummus. True, lots of people share culpability with Sarah for this awful decision, from Dawn for not talking Sarah out of a “____ 10 ways!” dish (NEVER DO A DAMN DUO, TRIO, ETC, THAT’S LIKE THE FIRST RULE OF TOP CHEF) — which is a dereliction of duty as a coach, to Monique for talking Sarah out of cooking her own chickpeas (I feel like using canned chickpeas was way down the list of conceptual problems with this dish, but sure), to her team for sandbagging her by making her serve her dish last. The only thing that makes a hummus-based dish a worse idea than it already is? Serving a hummus-based dish for dessert.
This even after she was the one who suggested pitting like dishes against like dishes.
In any case, Lula Roe here served up a pile of hummus with some greens on it and some chickpea-based bread that she probably spent way too long on. It was a MIRACLE that she didn’t go home. I’m hoping for her sake that this was just an isolated oopsy that she’ll recover from, because she seemed pretty competent last episode. But we have to consider that this may have been a sign of her decision-making abilities.
“Did you cook your own chickpeas?”
11. (-4) Jae Jung
AKA: Seoul Food. Mae West.
Quickfire finish: Middle
Elimination Challenge finish: 3-2 loss to Robert.
More so than any other chef in this competition, Jae is a big question mark, in terms of both competence and personality. After describing her love of cheese in a manner that can only be described as “weirdly horny,” (hence the new nickname “Mae West” — not great, but we’ll workshop it), Jae actually received decent marks for her “freekeh salad,” losing by a narrow 3-2 score to Robert, one of the few chefs who actually seemed to understand the assignment and made tacos.
Not bad, especially after last week! Nonetheless, I need to see something from the weird horny cheese lady before I can rank her any higher.
10. (-1) Sam Kang
AKA: Ness. Two Luggages.
Quickfire finish: Bottom three.
Elimination Challenge finish: Beat Evelyn 4-1 in round six.
Ness here seemed to cement his “Lovable Weirdo” status as a personality this week, though his actual performance was all over the place. He got a nice little human interest package during the quickfire challenge, revealing that he had given up his apartment to be on the show and now had “two luggages” to his name. Can you imagine that? All of your belongings packed into two luggages?
His “watery” queso received poor marks (he himself described it as “sort of a mornay-queso hybrid”; never a good sign when you can’t decide on a designation for your dish) and landed him in the bottom three.
After that, he masterminded his team’s poor decision to stick Monique’s dessert into the third-to-last round in the hopes of achieving a knockout victory. I suppose it didn’t sound so stupid at the time, but it backfired when Monique ended up pitted against Nick’s strong and also course-appropriate potlikker, to which she ended up losing 4-1. That also meant their team had no dessert for the dessert course and had to serve… uh, hummus. Oops.
Yet in terms of actual cooking, Sam’s roasted sweet potato with anchovy-scallion yogurt sauce actually sounded both reasonably tasty and appropriate to the challenge. He trounced Evelyn 4-1. Who knows with this guy. He’s the wild card. Unevenness is the nature of the wild card.
“This was something alluring that I kept going back to.” -Gail Simmons
9. (-3) Evelyn Garcia
AKA: Cuddles. Rosie the Pivoter.
Quickfire finish: Top 3.
Elimination Challenge finish: 3-2 loss to Sam in round six.
The only native Houstonian in the competition proved that she can cook a mean queso (adobo con queso with taro chips, yes please), which is as it should be. But once again I have to question the judges’ lack of follow up this episode. Evelyn had planned on a rice noodle dish with turmeric-spiced sea bass (noodles! thank Christ one chef here at least considered the possibility of noodles!) but the noodles apparently “had too much bite” and were “coming out slimy.”
PIVOT ALERT! This led Evelyn to scrap the noodles in favor of using a combination of everyone else’s cooked grains. Mmm, grain melange, delicious.
My question: maybe things have changed since I worked in an Asian restaurant, but rice noodles… don’t you just… soak them in hot water? Why was she unable to cook rice noodles? And why didn’t a single judge question the idea of not being able to cook rice noodles? Was there no flour there? Was there no time to whip up some flour-based noodles? Why were noodles such a non-starter with all of these chefs and how was this not even a question come judging time?
I’m torn between ranking Evelyn higher, since this was really just one mildly poor decision and she still didn’t lose that badly, or lower because… how hard is it to cook rice noodles?
“This was just one too many things in a bowl.” -Padma
8. (-6) Jackson Kalb
AKA: Magoo. Andrew Lunk. Leghorn. Lurch. Bateman.
Quickfire finish: Dead last.
Elimination Challenge finish: Beat Sarah 5-0 in round seven.
Jackson here nearly got himself killed by calling queso “a gooey vat of nasty cheese” in the heart of queso country (GET A ROPE). His idea to dunk on the rest of these plebs was to cook a “crispy queso,” which in practice looked like an unchewable disc of desiccated mozzarella with another starch on top.
The judges didn’t get it. Irma Galvan went out of her way to say that his was the worst. Padma seemed not just disappointed, but downright offended. You better take your ass to Timbuktu if you can’t appreciate nacho cheese, man, this is America.
In the elimination round, the-still-largely-smell-blind Jackson (thanks, COVID), was one of two former Johnny Football heroes among the competitors. He also gave some Patrick Bateman vibes, silently stewing over Stephanie getting to cook with white rice rather than him. It all worked out though, as his polenta cake easily triumphed over Sarah’s Hummus Pile Dessert Disaster, even if the judges did take pains to point out that Jackson’s was only their second-favorite dessert.
“Good thing you didn’t go against another dessert.”
7. (+1) Monique Feybesse
AKA: Pebbles Flintstone. Henrietta Hawk.
Quickfire finish: Middle.
Elimination Challenge finish: Lost 4-1 to Nick in round five.
I had to Google “Foghorn Leghorn’s small loud chicken friend” to come up with Monique’s latest nickname, just to give you an idea of where I’m at right now. But you get it, Monique is a bit of a spitfire. She practically screamed “You’re gonna cook chickpeas?!” in horror at Sarah, leading Sarah to second guess herself and nearly go home (strategy?).
As for Monique’s own food, she made Biko, a Filipino rice dessert, and lost a narrow decision to one of the best dishes, cooked by Nick, probably on account of her team unwisely choosing her dessert to go before the dessert round. Other than that she seemed pretty solid, and her food sounded great. I hope she leans into Filipino food, because it seems vastly underrepresented in the American restaurant landscape.
“These were both fantastic dishes.”
6. (-3) Robert Hernandez
Quickfire finish: Bottom three.
Elimination Challenge finish: Beat Jae 3-2 in round three.
I’m struggling with nicknames for Robert here, on account of he reminds me of at least six people I grew up with but, like, “John” doesn’t really work for a nickname. Anyway, it seemed a little worrisome that the Mexican-Salvadoran guy landed in the bottom three for a queso. His Oaxacan queso with fried white asparagus sounded really good, but apparently the queso came out watery and the asparagus didn’t pair well. Seems like a forgivable mistake though, all in all.
In the elimination challenge he served up a “wild mushroom taco with butterbean puree and two types of salsa,” which, even being vegetarian, seemed like one of the only dishes well-suited to a football game challenge.
“Mushroom tacos are my favorite tacos,” Padma gushed, always a good sign.
5. (even) Ashleigh Shanti
Quickfire finish: Middle
Elimination Challenge finish: Beat Luke 4-1 in round two.
Before the football challenge, Ashleigh revealed that she used to be in “all-star cheerleading,” which makes a lot of sense. The popular kids always make the best granola hipsters later in life.
Other than that, Ashleigh is still a bit of a question mark in this competition, consistently flying under the radar while getting largely positive reviews. This week she cooked a hot farro and quinoa porridge with a teff and turkey meatball on top, garnished with a nice little salad. It looked pretty good, fit both her brand (“Afro-lacchian!”) and the challenge, and the judges liked it. Firing on all cylinders.
Of course it probably didn’t need to be all that great to beat Luke’s room-temperature pumpkin disc with sea slime on top. Nonetheless, Ashleigh seems well-positioned to take a run at the top.
4. (+3) Jo Chan
AKA: Sarge. Smiles.
Quickfire finish: Middle.
Elimination Challenge finish: Beat Stephanie 5-0 in round four.
Sarge is kind of like if Melissa King had a reverse Office Space hypnosis that made her super serious all the time. But the military precision seems to be paying off for Jo (who explained that her family is ethnically Chinese, but culturally Filipino in this episode) whose black garlic barley congee scored her an easy victory over Stephanie’s broken rice with meat-free sadbeans™ this week.
The black garlic was a late addition to the dish, which Padma went on to call “in-TEG-ral” to it. It’s rare that a last-minute spice addition ends up paying off on this show.
3. (-2) Buddha Lo
AKA: Mr. International. Big Pun.
Quickfire Finish: Middle.
Elimination Challenge finish: Lost 4-1 to Damarr in round one.
Buddha, who was a high finisher in last week’s episode, didn’t do anything especially special to warrant a number three spot in this week’s rankings, but… call it a hunch (he also revealed that “Buddha” is actually a nickname, making my nicknames somewhat redundant). How could I not like the guy who made “Nacho Average Spring Roll” for the queso round? Thank God someone is bringing the food puns this season.
That was a great pun and a decent idea (spring roll as a queso vehicle? I’m for it), but the fact that he also put guacamole in it probably kept him out of the top three. I love queso and I love guacamole, but guacamole queso? That’s gonna be a no from me, dog. Throw something spicy and acidic in there instead to cut the creaminess.
But Australians not knowing much about Mexican food is both understandable and part of their charm (I was served a chicken taco with mayonnaise in it Down Under some time in the early aughts). In the elimination round he served a mujadarra, about which I know even less than Australians know about Mexican food.
Buddha ended up losing his round to Damarr, but it wasn’t a huge loss and Damarr was the eventual winner. Buddha still looks like a relative favorite to me.
2. (+8) Nick Wallace
AKA: Domingo. Chocolate Mormon.
Quickfire finish: Top 3.
Elimination Challenge finish: Beat Monique 4-1 in round five.
Nick this week revealed that he has six children, all of whom’s names begin with the letter N, which is the most Mormon thing I’ve ever heard. Are we sure he’s from Mississippi and not Salt Lake City? Check his backyard for a trampoline (all Mormons have trampolines, you could bounce across Utah without ever touching the ground).
Anyway, if you want to charge up these rankings, scoring top finishes in both challenges is a good way to do it. In the Quickfire, Nick served beet chips with a surf-and-turf queso, made with pork belly and crab, the rare incredibly complicated queso that actually sounds good.
For the Elimination Challenge, I was sort of hoping he’d take another crack at the beef-and-dumplings dish he screwed up in episode one. Dumplings are carbs, after all, even if most these sons of bitches have apparently forgotten it. Plus I have a feeling Nick can do that dish better.
Instead he cooked some purple potato in “potlikker” (bean or greens broth, basically). Tom tasted Nick’s pork neck broth and Nick and the rest of the gang were trying to interpret Tom’s sphynx-like reaction. In retrospect, I think it was something along the lines of “Hot damn that’s a tasty pork neck!” (I use pork necks in my pozole broth, that’s your free Vince Tip™ for the day).
The other team put up their champion, Monique, but his pork neck potatoes spiced with “Nick’s 26” (yes, nick apparently has his own branded spice blend) cut through her like a scythe through stalks of wheat. Nick’s prospects are looking up.
1. (+10) Damarr Brown
AKA: James Beard. Catchphrase.
Quickfire finish: Winner.
Elimination Challenge finish: 4-1 over Buddha in round 1, Winner.
Notable Quote: “I’m putting up dirty farro against Buddha, whose probably gonna have something smoking, and floating, and invisible on his plate. “
Didn’t I tell you Damarr was going to be this season’s go-to guy for a glib soundbite? You don’t cast a guy this low-key and soft-spoken unless his quip game is strong. And clearly it is. And apparently his food game is stronger, pulling off the double win and jumping him up 10 spots this week.
Where everyone else went complicated with their queso, Damarr went simple but smart, pairing his pretty straightforward queso with a raw serrano pepper as a dipping vehicle. A move that makes people think “why didn’t I think of that” is always the best kind of innovation. It’s like when you dip a celery stick in your bleu cheese after the Buffalo wings are gone, only with a spicy kick. Brilliant. The judges loved it, the crowd went wild, the rest of the contestants carried Damarr out of the kitchen on their shoulders while he waved a poblano like a royal scepter.
I knew the elimination challenge was wrapped up as soon as Damarr said “dirty farro with chicken thighs and chicken livers.” Sometimes you just know a good dish when you hear one. Where everyone else seemed to overthink things, Damarr seems like he thought things just enough. It’s nowhere near a lock after just two episodes, but Damarr has the momentum.
Read the rest of our Top Chef Power Rankings here. Vince Mancini is on Twitter.