In his opening monologue on last week’s episode of Saturday Night Live, host Jerrod Carmichael spends about five minutes saying he’s not going to talk about “it.” Carmichael never says that “it” is Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars. He doesn’t have to, because the audience understands exactly what he’s "not" talking about.
This week’s episode of Top Chef felt a little like Carmichael’s monologue. No one in the episode says the words “abortion” or “Senate Bill 8,” but it’s clearly on the minds of both the guest judges and the cheftestants. Think back to last fall, when Top Chef regulars Padma Lakshmi and Gail Simmons spoke at a rally to protest the law, which sharply restricted access to abortion.
Dr. Lori Choi, co-founder of the female health non-profit I’ll Have What She’s Having, also participated in the march. She appears in episode six alongside other famous, very accomplished women to dine on dishes inspired by five historically significant Texas women: aviator Bessie Coleman, Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, Texas Governor Ann Richards, Queen of Tejano music Selena, and Olympian and golf legend Babe Didrikson Zaharias.
“I really want to say for Houston, especially the restaurant women, thank you so much for coming,” Choi says to Lakshmi, Simmons, and head judge Tom Colicchio. “For you to come at this time couldn’t be more important.”
Everyone at the table knew what Choi meant by “this time,” because the protests against SB 8 raged statewide around the time they dined together. Whether food-obsessed Top Chef fans nationwide will also understand the episode’s context is unclear. Hopefully, they do.
Politics aside, 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.
Joining Choi for the Elimination Challenge meal are a few other accomplished Texas women: Cecile Richards, daughter of Ann; Suzette Quintanilla, Selena’s sister and drummer; Texas Tech and Houston Comets basketball star Sheryl Swoopes; and former Houston Ballet principal Lauren Anderson. Houston chef and current James Beard finalist Christine Ha joins Top Chef alum and current Beard finalist Tiffany Derry as the challenge’s guests judges.
All of the guests provide insights, with Anderson criticizing one dish by saying, “We have to be able to say, ‘Your baby is ugly.’” Ha, no stranger to reality TV after winning the third season of Masterchef, noted that being visually impaired makes her unimpressed by presentation; she — wait for it — saw through the chef’s displays and keenly detected flaws in their dishes, especially chef Ashleigh Shanti’s undercooked, overly-vinegared pork.
The choice of Brennan’s of Houston to host the challenge seems fitting, too. Both the Midtown institution and its sister restaurant, New Orleans’ iconic Commander’s Palace, claim legendary restaurateur Ella Brennan as a founder. That history doesn’t make the episode, but viewers are treated to a couple of quick exterior shots and an appropriately luxurious-looking dining room.
How did Evelyn Garcia do
Once again, the only Houstonian cheftestant shines. Luckily, chef Evelyn draws Selena, one of her favorite musicians — the producers helpfully throw in a picture of childhood Evelyn dressed as the singer for Halloween. She makes a snapper aguachile inspired by “Como la Flor,” her favorite Selena song, that has everyone at the table swooning.
“I have none left,” Swoopes declares. By a vote of the entire table, Garcia wins her second challenge in a row.
“Winning is definitely pushing me,” Evelyn declares at Judges’ Table. “This is just a boost of energy to keep going hard, staying true to me, and showing y’all what I have.”
As with last week’s barbecue episode, Evelyn is joined in the top three by chefs Buddha Lo and Jackson Kalb. Lo created an expertly roasted chicken in honor of Coleman learning to fly in France, while Kalb celebrated Jordan’s “heart and guts” by using offal in his pasta.
Considering Jackson and Buddha won episode four’s Elimination Challenge as well, the three chefs have clearly established themselves as the season’s frontrunners. The other chefs are going to have to step up if they want to have a shot at the overall title.
Who goes home
After trending in the bottom all season, chef Monique Feybesse finally packs her knives. She created a dish of fried oysters, beans, and pickled okra in tribute to ingredients Barbara Jordan might have cooked with in her hometown of Houston, but the chef’s decision to cut the oysters in half and serve the dish with an under seasoned pancetta broth confused the judges.
Chef Ashleigh, fresh off returning to the competition from Last Chance Kitchen, gets saved by her immunity from the Quickfire Challenge. Noma alum Luke Kolpin’s insufficiently cured salmon landed in the bottom three as well.
Who exceeded expectations
Chef Nick Wallace wins his second Quickfire in a row, and immunity, by collaborating with Ashleigh on a sweet and savory dessert built around ginger snaps and pork rinds. Technical flaws kept his Elimination Challenge dish of potato-crusted red snapper out of the top three, but its whimsical visual style delighted the non-chef judges.