Photo courtesy of HGTV

Recently, I was in for my semi-annual teeth cleaning (Editor’s note: About time, Ken.) and nitrous oxide session when the dental hygienist leaned me back in the barber’s chair and asked if I’d like to watch the TV mounted on the ceiling.

I asked, “What channel do most people ask for?” She said, “HGTV by far, and that includes men and women.”

Okay, while you’re doing demo in my mouth, let me watch David and Hilary Love It or List It.

That was the first question I asked Joe Mazza, star of Home Inspector Joe, a new hit show on HGTV that follows Mazza conducting full cavity searches on houses for prospective buyers.

Mazza is a fast-talking, wise-cracking, tattooed-up, motorcycle-riding, hip New Yorker who searches high and low for hidden problems in a house. It’s fun entertainment watching him tear apart a house discovering structural flaws and safety issues. I’m sympathy sweating for the homeowner who’s praying, please don’t look in the attic.

Mazza will be the star attraction this weekend at the Houston Home + Garden Show at NRG Center. He will appear on the Fresh Ideas Stage at 6 pm Friday September 16 and 11 am and 2 pm Saturday, September 17. Mazza will offer tips and ideas how to make your house more attractive to potential buyers, plus demonstrate DIY tricks of his trade and conduct a live Q&A with the audience.

The Home + Garden Show runs through Sunday. Tickets are available online.

I caught up with Mazza in advance of his big appearance.

CultureMap: Before HGTV gave you a show and made you a TV star, you inspected homes and worked in construction for 20 years as just regular ol’ Joe Mazza. Did you have any idea how popular HGTV was?

Joe Mazza: It’s massive. It’s wild. Every office you go into, everyone I talk to says “it’s on my TV all the time.” Guys will tell me, “yeah, my wife is always watching it.” I’ll ask them, “and you don’t?” They’ll say, “well, yeah.” I’m super honored to be in the position I’m in now. It’s ridiculous, I can’t even explain it to you.

CM: HGTV must have a zillion shows pitched to them every year. How did Home Inspector Joe get their attention?

JM: They found me through Instagram, through social media. USA Today saw me in 2019 and said, “Hey, Joe, you want to do a video for us about first time home buyers? Whoa, that’s crazy, so I did it. The word got out. HGTV saw me. They contacted me and said there was an opportunity for me to possibly have my own show. Fast forward, here I am. It was all through social media. It was me being me, just doing home inspections. I have fun doing what I love and we go from there.

CM: There are thousands of professional home inspectors around the country. What was it about you that caught HGTV’s interest?

JM: My personality was a massive factor how I got the show. I watch all those videos about home inspection on social media and they’re very educational, but they’re very boring. You have to have fun with what you’re doing, even in bad moments. You can joke about things, say asbestos, but be very serious at the same time. It’s all about engaging your audience.

CM: Do people understand the role a home inspector plays in the home buying process? Who do you work for, the buyer or the seller?

JM: I work for the buyer 99 percent of the time. The real estate agent will refer me to the buyer or the buyer will hear about me through word of mouth. I work for the person who’s paying me and that’s typically the buyer. No one stands in my way, no one tells me how to do my job or what to put in my report.

CM: Are home sellers scared of you?

JM: Now they are, but not every one of them. I was at a house recently and the real estate agent and the seller were there. They saw me and went, “oh, crap.” To me that was flattering.

CM: How thorough is a home inspection?

JM: Certain things we can and can’t do. If a place is inaccessible, we don’t have to go in there. If we can’t get on a roof, we don’t have to struggle to get on the roof. What separates me from others, that roof that I can’t get on, I will find a way to get on it. You have to dig deep.

What keeps me out of trouble is, I make sure I’m on point 100 percent of the time. I inspect every house as if my wife and daughter are moving into it. If you go into an inspection with that mentality, you’re going to kick butt.

CM: How sneaky are homeowners at hiding flaws or potential deal breakers in their house?

JM: Very, very. I love it when they try, because I’m going to catch them. If I go through a basement and it’s freshly painted, that’s a red flag right there. “You just painted the basement. Why?” I start digging deeper, not just inside the basement, but outside to see what’s going on. A lot of problems in the basement start on the outside.

I’ll see if they put boxes or furniture in front of a moldy wall. They’ll say, “where else am I supposed to put the furniture?”

CM: What’s the most disgusting thing you’ve found during a home inspection?

JM: I had an inspection close to my house. I was in the crawl space and as I walking around the floor was crunching. I looked down and the floor was covered with teeth. There were thousands of teeth down there. It was gross and terrifying.

Was I going to find hundreds of bodies in the backyard? It turned out the guy was a tooth manufacturer and threw teeth in there a hundred years ago. No one warned me about that. The grossest thing, besides dead animals, people leave stuff out in the open — inappropriate personal stuff. I just keep working around it.

CM: Ever hired to inspect a house occupied by a hoarder?

JM: I’ve done a couple of houses where they were hoarders with wall-to-wall stuff. Usually I’ll just turn around and walk out. There’s nothing I can do.

I will tell the real estate agent that the house is a fire hazard and you’re putting people in jeopardy. If the house is just dirty, yeah, whatever, that’s fine. I’m okay if they have a lot of junk around. But a hoarder’s house, like on that TV show, that’s disgusting.

I had a house that had 15 cats and like 12 dogs. They didn’t clean anything ever. I walked in and the hit of ammonia slammed me to heaven. I got dizzy and started gagging. I went outside and the owner wanted to know what was wrong. She was scratching her arms. I told her, “for one, your arms are bleeding. Your animals are crapping and peeing all over your house. The house needs to be condemned.”

I told the buyer to get the hell away from this house.


Joe Mazza appears at the Houston Home and Garden Show at 6 pm Friday September 16 and 11 am and 2 pm Saturday September 17 at NRG Park. Show runs through Sunday, September 18. For tickets, full schedule, and more information, visit the official site.

Photo courtesy of HBO Max

Houston reality TV stars the Hos return for Season 2 and ink exclusive real estate deal

h-town ho-down

Houston power fam The Hos are once again back in the house. The docu-reality series stars of House of Ho are set to return to streaming network HBO Max for a 10-episode second season on Thursday, August 25.

Season 2 kicks off with three episodes, with three new episodes to follow on September 1, and the final four episodes debuting September 8, according to HBO.

As fans recall, Season 1 introduced the nation to patriarch Binh and matriarch Hue, who went from Vietnamese immigrants to building a multi-million dollar real estate and banking empire. The Season 1 cast included the Hos’ son Washington and his wife Lesley; their daughter Judy and her fiancé Nate Nguyễn; and Aunt Tina; and Cousin Sammy, who has become an influencer with a propensity for ending posts with “b*tches.”

In Season 2, according to HBO, new characters will emerge, including single roommates Bella Ho and Kim Ho (Washington and Judy’s cousins), and independent-minded Vanessa Kon and Tammy Gee (Nate’s sisters), as well as their respective partners Carlton Kon and Tran Nguyễn. (Here’s guessing that Carlton and Tran will offer some interesting tidbits and perspectives on being part of the Ho family.)

Aside from flashing their opulent lifestyle and navigating cultural clashes, the Hos are still wheeling and dealing. The Houstonians have inked an exclusive deal with Realty.com to “deliver world-class service to clients in the Houston area,” according to a Realty.com announcement. (The Houston Chronicle’s Andrew Dansby was first to locally report the news.)

Specifically, Washington Ho, a real estate investor and banker, felt that a partnership with Realty.com would allow better access to the information he needed to represent his investment strategy more efficiently. “In today’s market there is no question that data and information are the driving forces for a solid investment,” he noted in a statement.

Washington and Realty.com subsequently crafted a partnership — fittingly dubbed The Real Estate Team — comprised of Realty.com staff; Houstonian Julia Gibson, who works at Camelot Realty and also owns Illuminate Sweat, a health and wellness business in the Spring Valley; and Houstonian Bernie Kane, who Realty.com refers to as “original founder and president” of residential home builder Juliet Homes, a residential home builder.

“We are excited to partner with The Real Estate Team on their journey to build a world class real estate operation,” said Lance Custen, Realty.com founder & CEO, in a statement. “By utilizing the Realty.com exclusive platform and leveraging technology and data we are confident The Real Estate Team will provide the best service to their clients and help many find the home of their dreams.”

This timing comes on the heels of real estate reality Texas TV news that Douglas Elliman powerhouse Tracy Tutor, star of Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles, and HGTV’s reality show Flip to a Million are both heading to Dallas to shoot episodes, as The Real Deal notes.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia

7 spectacular surprises inside Chip and Joanna Gaines' new Fixer Upper castle in North Texas

Royal revelation

“Are you ready to see your fixer upper?” the enthusiastic tour guide asked, channeling Chip and Joanna Gaines and their famous “big reveal” line from TV’s Fixer Upper. This time, it wasn't the home owners waiting outside a first glimpse at their home makeover; it was a small group of tourists gathered on the porch, ready to step inside the Gaineses’ most ambitious renovation project yet — a century-old castle in Waco.

For the first time ever, Texas’ king and queen of renovation have unlocked the doors and let the public into one of their famed fixer-uppers before it’s featured on their Magnolia Network show.

Known as the historic Cottonland Castle, this three-story, 6,700-square-foot residence was started in 1890 and finished in 1913. The Gaineses purchased the dilapidated structure in 2019 and designed and executed a regal flip that will be featured on an eight-episode special called Fixer Upper: Welcome Home – The Castle, beginning October 14.

They plan to sell it in the fall. But before a home sale comes an open house, and for three months only — through October 29 — the castle is open six days a week for guided tours.

Hour-long castle expeditions take visitors through every room, nook, and cranny — from turret to toilettes. Knowledgeable guides dispense history, impart design information, and reveal behind-the-scenes stories from Chip and Jo that may or may not make it on TV.

For Fixer Upper fans, Magnolia maniacs, and Gaines gangs, it's worth a drive to Waco to experience the castle transformation in real life before it hits the small screen. A tour offers the very rare chance to walk through the door (in this case, a 10-foot-tall, 400-pound, solid-oak door) into the world of a Chip-and-Jo reno.

Without revealing too much, here are seven fun surprises you’ll find behind the castle walls.

1. History meets homey. A castle museum, this is not.

“Chip and Joanna’s vision was that they really wanted to honor it with historical pieces but also make it more practical for the modern family that’s going to live here in the future,” guide Megan Shuler said at the beginning of the tour.

While many original features — including seven fireplaces — were restored, the castle has been fixed up as a home for the future, not a shrine to the past. One-of-a-kind and collected antiques (such as the kingly dining room table from Round Top, Texas) blend with pieces from the Gaineses’ own Magnolia Home collection. A 17-page “Castle Sourcebook” lists design elements and products and where to buy them. And in the ultimate modern touch — a branding tie-in — a forthcoming “Colors of the Castle” paint collection will be available through Magnolia this fall.

2. Sweet nods to the castle’s past. Posted on the wall in the foyer is a poem written by Alfred Abeel, the owner who completed construction in 1913. It talks of making the castle “‘home sweet home’ all seasons of the year.”

On the center of the dining room fireplace mantel is Abeel’s family crest, along with the phrase (in Latin), “God’s providence saves me.” Next to it, children’s heights are recorded from the 1930s to the early 2000s, the last time a family lived here.

3. A cozy nook in the turret. The original design was modeled after a small castle on the Rhine River in Germany, and there is one tower turret. A space historically used (in “real” castles) for military defense has, here, been turned into one of the coziest corners of the house. Tucked into a corner next to the winding staircase, two comfy chairs sit under an antique-y light fixture from Austria. It's the perfect place to curl up with a book from the library upstairs.

4. Rooms with storylines. “One of the challenges Chip and Joanna had when they bought the castle was, there was no one, really, they were designing it for,” Shuler explained. “So they would create storylines for each room to help tell their story.”

Two of the four bedrooms, for example, are the “boy’s bedroom,” and “girl’s bedroom.” The storylines are that the future homeowner’s son would come back from college and stay in his childhood bedroom, and that the future homeowner’s granddaughters would stay in the room while hanging out at the grandparents’ house.

The boy’s room contains more masculine furnishings and decor, including a watercolor portrait of Roy Lane, the famous architect who helped complete the castle. The girl’s room is painted in “Rose Pink,” a color named after Joanna’s grandmother.

5. Bodacious bathrooms. There are three-and-a-half “throne rooms” in the castle, and they’re some of the prettiest spaces, mixing metals, woods, and tiles; even original radiators look like works of art. One of the most spectacular rooms in the house, in fact, is a grand, gleaming bathroom — which (tease!) will be fully revealed on the show.

6. Party in the basement. “Gathering spaces” are a hallmark of Chip and Jo’s homes, and in the castle, they take place in the dungeon — er, basement. A “card room” for poker games or family game nights sits next to the family room, which houses the only TV in the castle. The guest bedroom’s also in the basement, along with a laundry room and a former wine cellar now left “blank” for the new owners to reimagine.

7. Behind-the-scenes tales and tidbits. Fixer Upper devotees will devour the charming and quirky tidbits about the Gaineses shared throughout the tour. There are a few design elements and furnishings originally meant for their own home, including an item banished to the castle by their daughters. There’s a fun story about what Chip did when they found bones — yes, bones — in the basement. And, the prime selfie spot for Fixer Upper fans is a large mirror that, the tour guides say, Joanna used to touch up her makeup during the filming of the show.

Castle tour tickets, $50, are available through the website, with 20 percent of proceeds benefiting The Cove nonprofit organization. (Note that the home does not have an elevator and requires guests’ ability to access three staircases.)

Tips for a Magnolia pilgrimage in Waco:
Shop: No castle jaunt would be complete without a stop at the Magnolia Silos complex. A new 8:15 am tour, offered Monday through Saturday, takes visitors behind the scenes and on the roof before the crowds (and the heat) arrive. Hint: August is a “slower” month at the Silos, and Tuesday through Thursday are less crowded. Tour tickets are $25 and come with a free coffee from Magnolia Press.

Eat: Chip and Joanna’s Magnolia Table cafe stays busy all day, every day. If you don’t have time to wait for a table, visit the takeaway market next door. Grab to-go items like pimiento cheese and crackers, a butter flight, banana pudding, and chicken salad sandwiches, and enjoy them on a table outside (if it's not too hot).

Stay: Availability at Magnolia’s four vacation rentals can be hard to come by, but watch the website for nights to pop open. Make it a girls’ getaway with a stay at the grand Hillcrest Estate (which sleeps 12), or go solo and book the darling Hillcrest Cottage, the Gaineses’ newest and smallest lodging, which opened in fall 2021. A forthcoming Magnolia boutique hotel, in the historic Grand Karem Shrine building downtown, is slated to open in 2024.

The castle will be on tour only through the end of October, before it's featured on a special season of Fixer Upper - Wecome Home.

Fixer Upper castle Waco
Photo courtesy of Magnolia
The castle will be on tour only through the end of October, before it's featured on a special season of Fixer Upper - Wecome Home.
Photo by David Moir/Bravo

Top Chef recap: And the winning cheftestant is...

Top Chef finale recap

The final episode of Top Chef Houston hit all the familiar notes of the show's previous finales. From the chefs selecting one of their former competitors as a sous chef to the judges cooking a pre-finale dinner for the cheftestants, Season 19’s conclusion played out exactly as fans of the show have come to expect.

That feels true for the result, too. In the end, a season that’s been notable for its complete absence of drama between the contestants produced a winner that viewers could have seen coming from episode one. Buddha Lo, a Top Chef super fan, won the $250,000 and the career-making title.

“A 15-year old boy in regional Australia has lived his dream,” Buddha said after learning of his victory. “I didn’t dream to be an astronaut. I didn’t dream of anything else. I dreamt to be right here.”

The finale is notable for its complete lack of gimmicks or distractions. Each competitor has $1,500 and plenty of time to create the best four-course meal of their careers. Even if it felt likely that this result would occur, all three finalists rose to the challenge.

Buddha took inspiration from his family members and his life in America to create a menu that balanced his impressive techniques with enough emotion to give the meal heft. He started with hamachi with caviar (for his brother), continued with panang curry with lobster and crab (for his mother), reached a high with Mongolian lamb with smoked eggplant (for his father), and concluded with pumpkin pie mille-feuille with maple caramel (a nod to Thanksgiving and life in America). Each course featured a precisely cut tuile that ended with stunning-looking leaves made from pumpkin.

In the end, the worst criticism any of the judges made came from Eric Ripert, chef-owner of New York’s celebrated, three-star Michelin seafood restaurant Le Bernardin, who noted that Buddha’s techniques reminded him of dishes from the ’80s and ’90s. “He loves mastering those techniques,” Padma Lakshmi replied. “To him, that is play.” That observation settled the debate.

Not that he didn’t have stiff competition in the finale from Evelyn Garcia. Over the course of the season, she surpassed Buddha with four Elimination Challenge wins to his three, including in the penultimate episode. She certainly had every opportunity to win, and she delivered a meal that the judges enjoyed from start to finish.

Her meal began with scallop crudo with prickly pear and citrus broth and continued with shrimp and corn crystal dumplings. Then, she served braised goat in “curry mole” and concluded with a bunelo and panna cotta.

The editing implied that Evelyn might have triumphed if she had added another sprinkle of salt to the scallops in her crudo, cooked her goat in that intriguing-sounding curry mole, and had a softer panna cotta, but those hints seem like the editors trying to add a little drama. Buddha’s focus, commitment, and sheer will pushed his meal over the top.

Chef Sarah Welch served a meal inspired by her interests in reducing food waste and whole animal cooking. A series of small errors, including a rabbit ballotine that was either overcooked or undercooked depending on the slice, put her behind the other two competitors, but her self-deprecating humor added an important amount of levity to the episode.

At judges’ table, it becomes clear(ish) that they preferred Buddha’s first and third courses to his competitors’ efforts. Evelyn took the second course with her dumplings. All three desserts achieved such a high level of excellence that the judges essentially declared the course a tie.

“If you are the future of our industry, we are in really good hands,” head judge Tom Colicchio told all three finalists.

Despite not winning, chef Evelyn achieved a lot by appearing on the show. She represented Houston well throughout the season, and her time on the show has sparked important changes to her culinary perspective. Dishes she served on the show — for example, her curry brisket from the barbecue challenge or the nopal relleno with shrimp purée from last week's episode — could become the sort of career-defining creations that bring diners to the door of her future restaurant.

Like fellow Houstonian and Top Chef Season 18 finalist Dawn Burrell, she joined the elite club of cheftestants who never hear Padma tell them to pack their knives and go. Expect to see her make guest appearances in future seasons. And, more importantly, to make a mark on dining in Houston for years to come.

“Coming this far and seeing myself evolve and change, I can walk away saying I gave it my all every single time. That I’m proud of,” Evelyn said through tears.

We are, too, chef. Houston can’t wait to see what you do next.

The three finalists smile before service.

Top Chef Houston episode 14
Photo by David Moir/Bravo
The three finalists smile before service.
Photo by David Moir/Bravo

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

Top Chef episode 13 recap

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.

Evelyn Garcia will compete for the Top Chef title.

Top Chef Houston episode 13
Photo by David Moir/Bravo
Evelyn Garcia will compete for the Top Chef title.
Photo by David Moir/Bravo

Top Chef recap: Bludorn shines in season's farewell to Houston

Top Chef episode 12 recap

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.

Featured Houstonians
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.”

Who wins
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.

Chef Sarah Welch addresses the judges.

Top Chef Houston episode 12
Photo by David Moir/Bravo
Chef Sarah Welch addresses the judges.
Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Ken Hoffman relives wild week with 'funniest man in the world' as comedy icon's new HBO doc drops

albert & ken in the mornings

A new documentary on HBO this month reminded me of the best week of my journalism career – this long, slow climb to the middle.

To show you just how terrific my best week was, my No. 2 best week was when KKBQ Radio and the Q Morning Zoo Show sent me to Germany to report firsthand on the Berlin Wall coming down. That was an incredibly exciting experience, witnessing a world changing moment of history.

But, that’s a distant runner-up.

A comedy icon and Ken — weekday mornings!

Before coming to Houston, I worked for the Phoenix Gazette as the Radio-TV columnist. Bill Heywood, the longtime morning man on KOY Radio (550 AM) called me to say he was going on vacation and there was going to be a guest host for the week. KOY was a middle of the road adult station, sort of like KODA (99.1 FM) in Houston. KOY played Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand, Fleetwood Mac, some country, occasionally Bruce Springsteen.

Usually when a radio morning show goes on vacation, they have the afternoon jock hold down the fort, or they invite a local TV weather person to babysit the show, with orders to just play music and don’t say anything that will cause the station to lose its license.

Not this time. Heywood told me that the guest host for the week would be comedian and actor Albert Brooks. Yeah, the guy whose records I play over and over and whose movies I love, and I can’t stop laughing.

“Do you want to come in and sit in the studio with Albert on Monday?” Uh … yeah! Brooks was my guy back then — and now.

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World Brooks' work in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is pure genius.Image via Warner Independent Pictures

That Monday, starting at 6 am, Brooks followed orders. He played eight songs an hour and read commercials and gave the time and temperature like an obedient guest host.

On Tuesday, he played four songs an hour. By Thursday, no songs — Brooks just let his imagination go wild.

He was prank calling his Hollywood friends like Billy Crystal and Rob Reiner. He performed elaborate comedy bits off his head from scratch. I showed up every day that week for a front-row seat to genius. From 6 am to 10 am, for five days, I sat in a radio studio with a comedy icon going absolutely nuts with no limitations. I couldn’t wait to get out of bed at 5 am and head to the radio station.

"The funniest man in the world"

When Heywood returned, I asked him: “How did you get Albert Brooks to come to Phoenix and do five days of radio?” Heywood said that he was the narrator on one of Brooks’ comedy albums, A Star is Bought, and Brooks was paying back the favor.

Now, HBO is airing Albert Brooks: Defending My Life this month on HBOMax. The documentary has producer Rob Reiner sitting down with Brooks, who reminisces about his career and family. It's chock full of clips of Brooks’ movie and TV appearances. Brooks and Reiner recall how they met and became friends six decades ago in drama class at Beverly Hills High School.

Other superstar comedians pop up throughout the documentary to offer their opinions of Brooks’ work:

Chris Rock: “One of the most original thinkers we’ve seen and will ever see.”
Conan O’Brien: “I didn’t realize that someone could be funny that way.”
Jon Stewart: “The first alternative comic.”
David Letterman: “A shiny god of comedy.”
Larry David: “The sharpest, wittiest, funniest.”

C'mon guys, just come out and say it…

Curb Your Enthusiasm Albert BrooksBrooks' guest appearance in Larry David's (right) Curb Your Enthusiasm was the perfect tribute to his brother Bob Einstein, a regular on the show.Screen capture via HBO

Judd Apatow: “He is the funniest man in the world.”

There. Thank you.

Defending a really funny life

Brooks started as a standup comic, appearing on every TV variety show, making 30 appearances on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. His comedy albums A Star is Bought and Comedy Minus One are classics. From there, he began acting in movies, scoring roles in Taxi Driver, Private Benjamin, Finding Nemo, and gaining an Academy Award nomination for his performance in Broadcast News. (Editor’s note: His turns in Defending Your Life and The Muse are our favorites.)

He wrote and starred in unmistakably quirky Albert Brooks films, including Modern Romance, Lost in America, Real Life, Mom, and Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World.

Curb Your Enthusiasm Larry David Bob Einstein Brooks hails from a funny family: his brother Bob Einstein (right) was a longtime comedy star and cast member of Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm. Screen capture via HBO

Brooks, whose real name is Albert Einstein — for real — talks lovingly about his father, the radio comedian Harry Einstein (Parkyakarkus); his brother, the late Bob Einstein (you know him as Super Dave Osborne, Marty Funkhouser, and more); and his difficult relationship with mother, Thelma. Albert Brooks: Defending My Life is a touching, moving documentary about a brilliant American original.

But mostly, it’s just really funny.

Common Bond's French-inspired, full-service restaurant quietly closes downtown

broken bond

The downtown branch of a Houston bakery staple has quietly closed. Common Bond has shuttered its brasserie location in the Bank of America tower.

A representative provided the following statement in response to CultureMap’s request for comment: "Common Bond Brasserie Downtown has closed. Our lease has ended, and we felt it was best to concentrate on the Bistro & Bakery and On-The-Go locations.”

The closure brings an end to Common Bond’s aspirations of operating a full service restaurant. Opened in September 2021, the restaurant featured a more elevated dinner menu than Common Bond’s fast casual bistro locations. That included a menu of classic, French-inspired fare created by executive chef Jason Gould — including seafood towers, rack of lamb, and plated desserts. It also offered a full wine and cocktail program.

Area workers could dine on a more casual menu during lunch. It also had a full range of pastries to service grab-and-go customers.

As the statement notes, the closure of the brasserie does not affect the company’s four bistro locations — Montrose, the Heights, Spring, and West U/Texas Medical Center — or the six locations of its sister concept, Common Bond On-The-Go.

Meanwhile, Understory, the food court in the Bank of America tower’s tunnel level, also remains opens with vendors such as Boomtown Coffee, Mona Fresh Italian Food, and Filipino-inspired burger concept Flip ‘n Patties.

Enjoy a jolly holiday in paradise at Margaritaville Lake Resort near Houston

Holiday on the Lake

A white Christmas is nice, but there's certainly something to be said for palm trees and margaritas instead of Christmas trees and eggnog.

Enjoy paradise this season at Margaritaville Lake Resort Lake Conroe, where festive specials await.

Take a break
It starts with the Paradise for the Holidays package, which reserves a tower suite room for only $149 a night and discounts your resort fee to only $25 nightly.

Enjoy all the resort's amazing amenities, including:

  • Spacious two-room suites with breathtaking views of beautiful Lake Conroe
  • Two heated pools
  • Excellent dining at LandShark Bar & Grill, License to Chill Bar & Cafe, and Joe Merchant's Coffee and Provisions
  • Arcade playroom
  • St. Somewhere Spa
  • The Golf Club at Margaritaville
  • Einstein's Boat Rentals
  • Mini-golf, tennis, pickleball, and racquetball
  • Free Wi-Fi and parking
  • Resort Fee discounted to $25 nightly
This room package is subject to availability and does not include applicable taxes and fees. It's valid for stays through December 29, 2023. Book here.

Breakfast with with the Big Man
Enjoy a magical holiday breakfast with Jolly Old St. Nick in the Del Lago Ballroom on Saturday, December 16, from 8:30 am-12:30 pm and Sunday, December 17, from 10 am-2 pm.

Adults can dine for $39.95, children (6-12 years) for $24.95, and kids 5 and under eat free. Members even receive 20 percent off.

Reservations are strongly recommended and can be made by calling 877-286-9590 or booking online here.

Ring in 2024
Margaritaville Lake Resort has planned a wide variety of ways to celebrate the New Year. Start with a complimentary glass of champagne when you arrive, and while on the Palm Court see the exciting Polynesian Fire Dancers.

There's a special four-course New Year's Eve dinner in License to Chill Bar and Cafè, and LandShark Bar & Grill will serve up New Year's-themed food and drink specials with a DJ and dancing.

Boathouse Bar & Lounge is the place to be for the ultimate NYE party, with live music and a balloon drop at midnight.

The resort's special New Year's Eve stay package includes 30 percent off a two-night stay, so come and relax during the day so you can celebrate all night.

The room package is for stays December 29, 2023-January 1, 2024 only — find out more and book here.