This week’s episode of Top Chef marks the end of the show’s time in Houston, but it went out with a bang by giving us the Gulf Coast seafood challenge the season needed.
Instead of a Quickfire, the chefs go fishing in the Gulf of Mexico to collect the proteins for a seafood-themed Elimination Challenge with guest judges Daniel Boulud and Top Chef Chicago winner Stephanie Izard. Tasked with creating two different preparations for a table of seven diners in only two-and-a-half hours, some of the cheftestants rise to the occasion while two of the season’s strongest competitors wilt under the pressure.
Ultimately, one of this season's breakout stars packs his knives, and the show moves on to the finale episodes in Tucson, Arizona.
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.
Top Chef didn’t feature much of Galveston’s food world in episode 11, but the show makes up for that this week. After fishing, the cheftestants visit local institution Katie’s Seafood Market to prepare their fish and supplement their catch with some additional ingredients such as farm-raised redfish and snapper.
Even better, the five remaining chefs return to Houston to prepare, cook, and serve their meals at Bludorn where chef-owner Aaron Bludorn joins the table. It’s the show’s first visit to a Houston restaurant since Brennan’s in episode six, and the first Houston chef (other than Top Chef alum Dawn Burrell) to appear on the show since ChòpnBlọk’s Ope Amosu in episode seven.
Seated with his mentor Daniel Boulud, Bludorn provides insightful commentary on each competitor’s strengths and weaknesses. The restaurant impresses the judges, too, with Tom Colicchio describing it as “very handsome” and Padma Lakshmi calling it “beautiful.”
Dawn’s back, too, for both the fishing expedition and the Elimination Challenge meal. As always, she’s a confident, articulate presence at the table who can relate to how the contestants are feeling in this moment.
How did Evelyn Garcia do
Our local cheftestant gets a much needed wake-up call in this week’s episode. Although she doesn’t make any errors in preparing her two dishes — caldo de pescado with poached redfish and taco al pastor with roasted redfish — the judges fault her for a lack of ambition that’s required at this stage of the competition. She advances to the finals in Tucson, but not before getting a warning to step it up in the future.
“I think you gave us two good dishes, but I think you played it really safe today,” Padma tells her. “I know you can make a taco in your sleep. My fish was cooked fine, but it was too much tortilla and not enough fish and not enough taco.”
Chef Sarah Welch seemed to struggle in her return to the competition last week — keep in mind she had been eliminated in episode four, which means it had been weeks since she'd been part of it — but she finds her footing here. Her “Pseudo Crudo” of pickled Gulf snapper with silken tofu, fermented greens and kraut broth and a pastrami-spiced smoked red drum with carrot butter and Parisian gnocchi takes the win for its creative preparations and bold flavors. In particular, Colicchio hails her pastrami fish as "perfectly cooked," and judge Gail Simmons thinks she's created a new signature dish.
Chef Sarah's self-deprecating humor has provided some necessary levity in a season that's been defined, at least in part, by its complete lack of drama between the cheftestants. Also, credit her for recognizing the significance of what she achieves this week. "I just cooked for two of the most impressive chefs in the world," she declares after serving the judges.
Considering the epic run through Last Chance Kitchen it took for her to make it back into the main competition, she has to be viewed as a serious contender for the title.
Who goes home
Chef Nick Wallace earned the title of “The Baker” for his ability to make bread, i.e., earn money, in the show’s various competitions, but this week's seafood challenge proves his undoing. He struggles with time management, overcooking the fish in his taco and forgetting to prepare a binder for his fish cake. In an emotional goodbye, he thanks the judges for the opportunity and celebrates the bond he formed with fellow cheftestant Damarr Brown. While his presence will be missed, at least he's leaving with $35,000 in winnings.
Who exceeds expectations
Chef Buddha Lo can’t quite make it three Elimination Challenge wins in a row, but he still looks like the overall favorite to be the next Top Chef. He pays homage to one of Daniel Boulud’s signature dishes with his pastry-wrapped fried flounder (a nod that Bludorn recognizes). His ginger-scallion steamed bull redfish (red drum) with shrimp farce earns universal praise from the judges.