The eyes of the culinary world will be Houston for the next few months thanks to Top Chef. The award-winning reality show filmed season 19 in the Bayou City, and it’s expected to serve as a showcase for the city’s diverse culinary offerings.
Throughout the season, CultureMap will take a look at each episode through a Houston lens by highlighting the familiar people and places featured in the show. We’ll also track the progress of Evelyn Garcia, the only cheftestant from Houston. Of course, we’ll note which chef is told to pack her knives and who looks like they’re a true contender for the title and its $250,000 cash prize.
The season premier features a tricky Quickfire, a beef-centric Elimination Challenge, and lots of prominent Houstonians.
Chef Dawn Burrell, who reached the finals in last year’s season of Top Chef, serves as a guest judge for the season’s first Quickfire Challenge. Teams of three contestants each are given 30 minutes to create a dish, but they only cook one at a time and cannot speak to each other about what they’re doing.
One team gets a little flustered and doesn’t finish plating in time to serve anything to Burrell or host Padma Lakshmi. The chef famously struggled with timing during her time on the show, so she shares a little wisdom.
“Chefs, I understand what it feels like to lose track of time in the kitchen, but please let that be a period-new paragraph moment and pick yourselves up for next time,” she advises.
The elimination challenge requires the contestants to serve three dishes made from a specific beef primal to the judges, including Top Chef season 10 winner Kristen Kish, along with a who’s who of Houston chefs: Burrell, Robert Del Grande (The Annie Cafe), Trong Nguyen (Crawfish & Noodles), Hugo Ortega (H-Town Restaurant Group), Monica Pope (Sparrow Cookshop), Chris Shepherd (Underbelly Hospitality), Kiran Verma (Kiran’s), and Chris Williams (Lucille’s Hospitality). Held at The Annie Cafe, Del Grande also appears at the judges’ table to render the final verdict.
What's a little bit strange is that the show doesn't provide viewers with any context about who these people are. The editing keeps the show moving quickly, but not to acknowledge their accomplishments may leave all but the most food-obsessed Houstonians wondering why they've earned seats at such an important meal.
Very briefly, the table included:
- Three of the four Houston chefs who have won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest in Del Grande, Ortega, and Shepherd
- Nguyen is a pioneer in Houston's signature Viet-Cajun cuisine through his restaurant Crawfish & Noodles
- Pope changed the way Houston eats by being a tireless advocate for local producers at her restaurants Boulevard Bistro, t'afia, and Sparrow
- Verma has achieved decades of success as the chef-owner of Indian fine dining restaurant Kiran's
- Williams is the chef-owner of Lucille's, the co-founder of the Lucille's 1913 non-profit that's fed thousands of people during the pandemic, and is Burrell's business partner in her new restaurant Late August.
Similarly, the show doesn't provide viewers with much geographic context. With most of the action confined to the Top Chef kitchen and The Annie Cafe, viewers don’t get to see any of the city’s notable landmarks — unless driving on one of the Museum District bridges over U.S. 59 counts as seeing Houston. Thankfully, a preview montage that includes NASA and the Houston Museum of Natural Science provides proof that more context is coming
How did Evelyn Garcia do
Overall, our local cheftestant had a solid first episode. She’s the first contestant who speaks in the opening montage, and her team acquits itself reasonably well in both the Quickfire and Elimination challenges. Another contestant quickly dubs her “the Houston girl,” which feels like it might stick.
The brown team of Robert Hernandez, Sarah Welch, and Jackson Kalb takes the victory for their dishes made from the chuck: beef tartare with tonnato sauce (Kalb), braised pot roast with potato gnocchi (Hernandez), and tallow-seared beef with eggplant puree (Welch).
“Yours was clearly one menu. That’s what stood out to all of us,” Simmons tells the winners.
Hernandez gets the individual win. The judges cite the texture of his gnocchi and the depth of flavor in his pot roast as two major accomplishments.
Leia Gaccione goes out first for a failed attempt at a spring roll made with grilled top round. Top Chef is never shy about a little foreshadowing, and Gaccione’s observation that her meat is chewy — “I can’t turn the top round into a filet mignon. It is what it is” — previews her quick departure.
Who exceeded expectations
Buddha Lo shows deft attention to detail in the Quickfire, when he not only adds a fish sauce butter to his team’s Thai-seasoned steak but also has the presence of mine to warm his team’s plates in the oven prior to serving the dish. Winning means immunity in the Elimination Challenge; he takes a risk and makes a beefy dessert: spotted dick with beef fat caramel and miso ice cream.
“I love that Buddha decided to make a dessert,” Colicchio says. “He has immunity, so why not go for it.”