It took until the season’s 10th episode, but Top Chef finally acknowledged Houston’s status as Space City. The Elimination Challenge tasked the six remaining cheftestants with creating a meal that could be served to astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
In the Quickfire, they put their spin on fajitas at the Houston Farmers Market. In other words, they cooked Houston’s most prominent culinary contribution to international cuisine — at least until Viet Cajun crawfish really takes off globally — at a setting that’s all about food and ingredients.
Ultimately, the restrictions related to cooking for spaceflight stymied a chef who had seemed to be among the frontrunners. She packed her knives for the final round of Last Chance Kitchen.
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 noted above, the Quickfire Challenge takes place at the Houston Farmers Market, the recently renovated property that combines produce vendors with the R-C Ranch butcher shop and two restaurants by chef Chris Shepherd’s Underbelly Hospitality, Wild Oats and Underbelly Burger. Of course, neither the restaurants nor the butcher shop had opened yet when Top Chef filmed last fall; since a sponsor contributed the challenge's proteins, they likely wouldn’t have been featured even if they had been in operation.
Thankfully, the market looks great on TV, with prominent shots of vendor stalls loaded with produce, species, and even some ready-to-eat snacks. While the show acknowledges Mama Ninfa Laurenzo’s role in popularizing fajitas, the episode doesn’t call on anyone in the Laurenzo family or anyone currently associated with Ninfa’s to judge the results. Instead, it’s Top Chef alum Claudette Zepeda who joins Padma Lakshmi at the market.
Similarly, celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson and Top Chef all-star Melissa King judge the Elimination Challenge. Was there not an appropriately spacey Houston chef available to participate?
Despite the episode's conspicuous lack of Houston culinary talent, the Johnson Space Center looks appropriately dramatic on television, and the cheftestants get some advice from astronauts Megan McArthur and Thomas Pesquet, who speak to the competitors from aboard the ISS. Space Center Houston CEO William Harris joins former NASA astronauts Susan Still Kilrain, Tony Antonelli, and Cady Coleman as the city’s non-voting representatives at the Elimination Challenge meal.
How did Evelyn Garcia do
The only Houston cheftestant remains one of the season’s favorites. Her papalo-seasoned fajitas are almost good enough to win the Quickfire, but chef Nick Wallace edges her out by making flour tortillas. In the Elimination Challenge, her Tex-Mex-inspired guiso rojo with pork, pumpkin seed rice, and escabeche earns praise for utilizing textural components and acidity that make the dish compelling from beginning to end.
“It was well seasoned. It was well put together,” head judge Tom Colicchio tells her. “The escabeche really stole the show. It kept the dish interesting.”
Chef Buddha Lo bounces back from a below average performance in last week’s soul food challenge to secure his first Elimination Challenge win. Taking inspiration from astronaut Alan Shepard playing golf on the moon, he created a coconut mousse sphere with a berry compote center and pieces of meringue that earned universal raves from the judges and the NASA luminaries.
“You gave us a beautiful, creative, delicious, interactive dessert,” Lakshmi tells him. “I appreciated how much thought you put into each element of that dish. You knocked it out of the park.”
Who goes home
Jae Jung won last week’s episode, but she struggled with the requirements of cooking for space. The judges criticize her bulgogi with gochujang barley, sesame mushrooms, and carrots for its mushy beef and undercooked barley. She heads to Last Chance Kitchen for the chance to return in next week’s episode.
Who exceeded expectations
Chef Nick’s unofficial theme song is “Money (That’s What I Want). The Mississippi chef has a knack for stepping up when prize money is on the line, earning the nickname of “The Baker” for all the “bread” he’s made on the show. Nick nets another $10,000 by winning the Quickfire, and his chicken gumbo with collard greens secures him top three status in the Elimination Challenge.