What could be better than carbs and cheese? The two combined, and that’s exactly what sums up Top Chef: Houston this week.
In its second episode, James Beard Award-winning Irma Galvan, a Houston chef and Mexican cuisine queen, helps the 14 contestants get off to a cheesy start with a fountain of gooey liquid gold and an emphasis on a Tex-Mex favorite — queso.
As if the episode couldn’t get any more Texas — they end with a Friday Night Lights-esque challenge with an appearance by the Underbelly Hospitality lord himself, Chris Shepherd, and the cheftestants came to ready to turn up the heat.
“This is going to be a beautiful interesting season if we keep cooking like this. Please keep it up,” host Padma Lakshmi said.
As always, in the end, someone goes home, and every contestant is another step closer to leaving with the Top Chef title and $250,000.
Warning: spoilers are ahead. Here’s a recap of “Top Chef: Houston” episode 2.
Quickfire: The 30-minute Quickfire challenge dared chefs to make their own rendition of a warm bowl of queso with something for dipping — anything other than a tortilla chip.
While some chefs’ faces were full of confusion, the Texans in the room understood the assignment. Austin chef Jo Chan, who made harissa queso with roasted cauliflower, noted that making queso requires technique — and that she put on at least 10 to 15 pounds of “queso weight” after moving to Texas. Now that’s true dedication.
Houston’s Evelyn García, who said she grew up on queso, concocted a picture-perfect adobo con queso, using cheddar and pepper jack, with a side of taro chips. Other chefs also got creative. There was an Oaxaca queso from Robert Hernandez, an aerated cheese and an egg roll from Brooklyn chef Buddha Lo, a blue cheese fondue from Ashleigh Shanti, and a too-thin gruyere cheese sauce from New York’s Sam Kang with a pepper pancake.
Detroit’s Sarah Welch made a “pump cheese” known to top “shitty hot dogs” at Michigan gas stations, and Jackson Kalb took full liberty to create an un-dippable “crispy queso” — essentially, a cheese chip — that seemed to frustrate even Lakshmi.
In the end, Chicago’s Damarr Brown won judges over (and immunity) with his mild cheddar queso topped with pickles and crispy breadcrumbs, with a side of smoked Serrano peppers for dipping.
The Elimination round: After drawing their knives, chefs divided into two teams of seven and headed for Tomball ISD High School stadium, where they went head-to-head in a football-themed cooking challenge.
Led by previous Top Chef finalists Sam Talbot or Dawn Burrell, each member had 30-minutes to make a pre-game fuel-up dish loaded with carbs to present to the judges at the same time as a member of the opposite team. Whether on offense or defense, teams together picked the most strategic dish in hopes of getting a judge’s vote, worth five points. More votes meant more yards gained across the field, and though judges said the meals were impressive, neither team scored the 100 points needed to make it into the end-zone and win immunity.
The Biggest Oops
One team in the elimination round switched up their strategy last minute, serving Monique Feybesse’s Biko dessert — a sticky Filipino rice cake with coconut milk and palm sugar — against Mississippi chef Nick Wallace’s potlikker. Both dishes were strong, but Wallace’s potlikker stole the show — making the team and judges believe that pitting dessert against dessert, rather than an entree, would have been a smarter move. Even team leader Dawn Burrell said it was a misstep.
Stephanie Miller also made a big oops by overcooking her rice in her feijoada. Instead of owning up to it in the elimination round, she told judges she “liked” her rice that way. Of course, nobody believed her.
The Best Turnaround
Jo Chan’s congee in the elimination needed “oomph,” according to Burrell, so Chan added black garlic, which helped take her dish over the top and win her part.
Damarr Brown turned out to be this week’s champion, owning not only the queso Quickfire challenge but the elimination round as well. Judges named him MVP after he presented his take on his mother’s “dirty farro” with ‘nduja pork sausage, chicken thighs, and chicken liver. For Brown, it was just the confirmation he needed. “My food deserves to be in the same room as these talented chefs,” he said.
Sarah Welch, Luke Kolpin, and North Dakota’s Stephanie Miller ended up in the bottom three for dishes that lacked flavor and imagination. Sarah’s dish — essentially a hummus made with canned chickpeas — underwhelmed and wasn’t a hearty or flavorful enough carb dish for the judges. In the words of Lakshmi, “I don’t understand — hummus?”
For Kolpin, it’s the second time one of his dishes was described as bland.
In the end, though, Stephanie Miller had a tearful exit after judges told her, her meager feijoada didn’t make the cut. Stephanie said she took out the chorizo, kielbasa, and pork from the dish because she wanted it to be “carb-focused.” So, feijoada ... where exactly?
- The judges’ descriptions of Monique’s Biko is enough to beg for the recipe.
- Lakshmi cosigned García’s adobo con queso, saying it had the gooeyness, heat, and the added crunch of the chip. Now that’s queso.
- Nick Wallace channeled his family tradition of Taco Tuesday and crafted a surf and turf queso with pork belly and blue crab with a side of sweet potato and beet chips — a dish that Galvan almost immediately called delicious. His sweet potato potlikker also intrigued judges, so much so that Shepherd requested a satchel of Wallace’s 26-spice seasoning. “Southern cooks wish they could have potlikker like that, and it takes hours to do, and you did it in 90 minutes,” Shepherd said. Wallace is one to watch.
- Let’s be honest, Sam Kang’s roasted sweet potato dish in the elimination challenge looked like a hot mess at first. Even he admitted it looked “ugly,” but judges loved it, with one noting that the brown butter, white soy, and garlic combination with the yogurt and anchovies dressing was “really fun to eat.”
- Garcia nearly melted when she saw fellow Houstonian Irma Galvan as guest judge. She touched her heart when Galvan praised her queso dish.
- Damarr Brown calmly hummed his own tune while fellow contestants ran around the Quickfire room in chaos and chef Jackson Kalb aggressively fanned a fire. Can someone make this scene into a meme? Considering Brown won this episode, maybe finding your zen during the competition is key.
- Sam Kang’s carb-fueled rant, where he briefly turned into Bubba in the movie Forrest Gump, but for potatoes, not shrimp. “Any kind of potato, I’m in love with,” he said before listing out the variety of potato possibilities — sweet potato, baked potato, pomme puree, potato salad, mashed potatoes, potato chips, French fries. The list goes on.
The Biggest Takeaway
Flavor — and in many cases, seasoning — is king. A chef might have a lot of wonderful ideas, but it’s crucial to ensure that their vision translates into the flavors on the plate, Lakshmi said. Also, it’s crucial to taste your own food before serving. And if you’re unsure or you lost your sense of taste, be like chef Jackson Kalb and have friends taste your cooking for you! It hasn’t hurt him so far.
Next week, chefs are required to create a street food dish for Houston’s Asian Night Market, an annual festival featuring food, art, and local artisans. Though in the preview clip, judge Tom Colicchio says there’s no bad dish at the market, it looks like there are some challenges along the way. Jackson Kalb gets frustrated with his tastebuds, Ashleigh has some trouble, and a judge bites into what looks to be another sad summer roll.
And there will be a return at some point. Top Chef’s Last Chance, an offshoot that airs on-demand, will bring back the first two eliminated Top Chef: Houston chefs to compete for a spot back on the show.