Top Chef episode 13 recap

Top Chef recap: Houston's cheftestant heads to finals as another frontrunner heads home

Top Chef recap: Houston's cherished cheftestant heads to finals

Top Chef Houston episode 13
Evelyn Garcia will compete for the Top Chef title. Photo by David Moir/Bravo
Top Chef Houston episode 13
The final four arrive in Tucson. Photo by David Moir/Bravo
Top Chef Houston episode 13
Evelyn explains her dish to Tom Colicchio and Kristen Kish. Photo by David Moir/Bravo
Top Chef Houston episode 13
The chefs learn about cactus. Photo by David Moir/Bravo
Top Chef Houston episode 13
Padma Lakshmi with guest judge Carlotta Flores. Photo by David Moir/Bravo
Top Chef Houston episode 13
Top Chef Houston episode 13
Top Chef Houston episode 13
Top Chef Houston episode 13
Top Chef Houston episode 13

This week Top Chef delivered one of its strongest episodes of the season. No gimmicky sponsored challenges or goofy product tie-ins — just the season’s four best cooks using their intelligence and experience to create magical dishes that delight the judges. In the end, subtle differences in execution send one of the chefs packing.

The episode begins with our four finalists visiting El Charro, described as the oldest family-owned Mexican restaurant in America, where proprietor Carlotta Flores introduces them to carne seca. For their final Quickfire Challenge, the cheftestants must used the air-dried beef to create a dish.

Houstonian Evelyn Garcia knows the ingredient well. Rather than recreate a dish from her childhood, she goes with a more offbeat preparation by pairing the carne seca with creamy grits and a chayote relish. Chef Sarah, who compares the ingredient to the deer jerky she made with her fiancee, wins the Quickfire by creating a carne seca gravy with polenta, morel mushrooms, and blackberries. She earns an extra 30 minutes in the Elimination Challenge.

“I want my chefs to taste it,” Flores gushes about Sarah’s creation.

Chefs Buddha and Damarr serve less successful dishes. The fried tortilla in Buddha’s inverted tostada is criticized for being too greasy, while Damarr’s grilled avocado with carne seca is faulted for its lack of texture.

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs have three hours to create two dishes, one sweet and one savory, that utilize two of Tucson’s signature ingredients: cactus and the chiltepin pepper. They’re taken to a garden where Top Chef: Portland contestant and Tucson resident Maria Mazon introduces them to all of their options. While three of the cheftestants are encountering these ingredients for the first time, chef Evelyn knows them well.

“It’s crazy to think this challenge boils down to two ingredients that I grew up eating,” she says. “That’s what stands between me and the finale.”

All four chefs create standout dishes that have the judges raving. Any of them would make a worthy winner.

Buddha makes a Thai-style tom yum with turnip wrapped dumplings, calamari noodles and prawns that utilizes chiltepin instead of the usual Thai chiles. He follows it with a cactus cake with cactus seed ice cream and prickly pear snow.

Sarah serves lamb with chiltepin vinaigrette and chiltepin chimichurri, grape salad, and smoked yogurt followed by a cactus tart with saguaro flower ice cream and cactus caramel.

Evelyn channels her childhood with a nopal relleno with shrimp purée, raw nopal, and marigold. Her dessert is a sour orange and sweet lime curd with saguaro pod meringue, prickly pear granita, basil flowers, and quince.

Finally, Damarr offers a pork shoulder glazed in chiltepin and prickly pear bbq sauce, pikliz with chiltepin, grilled nopales, and red bean purée. For dessert, he serves a prickly pear cake glazed with prickly pear topped with buttermilk cheese, saguaro and frozen mango.

“It’s the silence of really good food,” Tom Colicchio says as the group samples Buddha’s and Sarah’s savory dishes. “No one’s talking. Everyone’s eating. These dishes are extraordinary.”

The raves continue throughout the meal. The assorted guests, including Top Chef season 10 winner Kristen Kish, praising the chefs for the dishes flavors and colorful presentations.

Ultimately, the judges select Evelyn as the week’s winner. “I would eat that dish again and again,” Colicchio says about her relleno.

Sadly, it’s the end of the road for Damarr. The judges fault his pork shoulder for lacking chiltepin flavor. It seems like a small error, but that’s all it takes at this stage in the competition.

Heading into the final, all three chefs have shown enough culinary brilliance that any of them could win. Buddha feels like a slight favorite, but it would be fitting for a Houstonian to finally earn the Top Chef title.