It took three episodes, but Top Chef finally feels grounded in Houston. In Season 19's strongest episode to date, the show on the city’s vibrant Asian community with a night market-inspired Elimination Challenge.
Instead of participating in a Quickfire Challenge, the cheftestants sampled food prepared by ten Houston chefs representing Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Filipino cuisines. Then they had to create their own dishes for a night market attended by 100 Houstonians. It's the first individual elimination challenge of the season, and the absence of a Quickfire means no one has immunity from being sent home.
Let’s break down the show from a Houston perspective by highlighting the local people and places who appeared in the episode. Then we’ll check in on the progress of local cheftestant Evelyn Garcia and keep track of the overall competition.
As always, the episode’s quick pace doesn’t give much time to identify the local chefs who participated in the night market. Let’s give them their due.
- Vietnamese: Trong Nguyen (Crawfish & Noodles) and Christine Ha (The Blind Goat, Xin Chao)
- Indian: Kiran Verma (Kiran’s) and Kaiser Lashkari (Himalaya)
- Japanese: Naoki Yoshida (Shun Japanese Kitchen) and Manabu Horiuchi (Kata Robata)
- Chinese: Cori Xiong (Mala Sichuan Bistro) and Elaine Won (Dumpling Haus)
- Filipino: Gabe Medina (7000 Islands, Click Virtual Food Hall) and Andrew Musico (The Fattest Cow)
After being properly inspired, the contestants shop at local grocery stores for ingredients specific to their cuisines: 99 Ranch Market, Hong Kong Food Market, Viet Hoa, Seiwa Market, and Subhlaxmi Grocers. We get a few amusing moments as the visitors look a little overwhelmed by the unfamiliar ingredients, but the more knowledgable contestants help their peers find everything they need to create their dishes.
Chef Verma returns to judge the elimination challenge, which takes place on the rooftop Skylawn at Post Houston. Anyone who’s dined at Kiran’s will recognize her friendly demeanor, but she doesn’t spare the contestants from criticism — calling out chef Buddha Lo for disregarding her advice not to fry his puff pastry samosa.
The Houston chefs return to evaluate how the cheftestants faired interpreting their dishes. For example, Kaiser Lashkari praises chef Luke Kolpin’s corn and crab samosa. Ha and her husband John Suh approve of chef Evelyn’s Vietnamese-style chicken salad.
Food-obsessed Houstonians will enjoy scanning the night market attendees for familiar faces. Yes, that’s Saint Arnold chief marketing officer Lennie Ambrose complimenting the texture of one dish, and Houston Life co-host Courtey Zavala taking a big bite of a dish in a quick shot. Chronicle food editor Greg Morago is in the background of a couple of the judges’ conversations, and CultureMap readers will spot this author in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment.
The Skylawn provides an appropriately dramatic setting. Filmed on a warm September night, the venue looks lush and inviting, and cameras capture plenty of views of downtown’s dramatic skyline.
How did Evelyn Garcia do
Speaking of chef Evelyn, she had her strongest performance of the season. Her gasped “I know all these people” helps establish the credibility of the night market participants. During their trip to Viet Hoa, she helps chef Jackson Kalb find the right spices for the pho dipping broth he’s making for his Vietnamese spring rolls.
During the elimination challenge, the judges enjoy her Vietnamese-style cold chicken salad with a Latin-inspired avocado crema as much as Ha and Suh do. She earns a place in the top three and narrowly misses her first Elimination Challenge victory.
Chef Jae Jung takes the prize with her Sichuan noodles seasoned with Chinese sausage, an elaborate mix of spices, and Korean melon. Chef Jackson’s spring roll with pho dipping sauce rounds out the top three.
Poor Sam Kang. The chef forgets to pack up his boiled potatoes before the allotted preparation time expires. Forced to pivot, he grills his remaining potatoes to order, but the judges find his attempt at an Indian curry to be undercooked and bland. Time to pack your knives.
Who exceeded expectations
Despite his Noma pedigree, chef Luke Kolpin has struggled in the first two episodes, but he finally shines this week. His corn and crab samosa earns praise from two tough critics: Kaiser Lashkari and Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi. Hopefully, it’s a sign that chef Luke has found his footing.