Top Chef: Houston is only three episodes in but the reality TV cooking competition isn’t holding back on its challenges.
This week, the show skipped the standard Quickfire challenge and dove straight into the juicy elimination round where chefs were required to take on a specific Asian cuisine. The catch? Not only were they required to serve their dish to Top Chef All-Star judges like Kiran Verma, of Houston Indian restaurant Kiran’s, and Hung Huynh — the first Asian chef ever to win the show — contestants also debuted their food to the public at Houston’s Asian Night Market.
The stakes are high considering this popular local event showcases some of the city’s best Asian cuisine and street food. Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi, who is of Indian descent, was presumed to be a tough critic.
With a slew of local chefs and James Beard Award nominees like Christine Ha of the Blind Goat and Xin Chao offering up inspiration and cooking wisdom, this might be one of the season’s best challenges yet.
Warning: Spoilers ahead. Here’s a recap of Top Chef: Houston episode 3.
The Elimination Round: Almost immediately, contestants draw knives that list the Asian cuisine that they’ll be taking on — Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, or Filipino.
While most cheftestants have never made their designated cuisine, the Texans in the room seem to have the upper hand. Houston chef Evelyn Garcia, whose expertise lies in Southeast Asian cuisine, seems comfortable with Vietnamese food. Austin’s Jo Chan, who is ethnically Chinese but culturally Filipino, was excited to dive into a cuisine she knows well; Chan knew expectations would be high.
For inspiration, chefs later visit stations prepared by local Houston chefs who are experts in their designated cuisine. Local chefs like Verma, Ha, Ashley Lai, and Elaine Won of Dumpling Haus, Naoki Yoshida of Shun Japanese Kitchen, Jianyun Ye behind Mala Sichuan Bistro, Crawfish and Noodles’ Trong Nguyen, and Andrew Musico of Thai food establishment the Fattest Cow all make an appearance, giving contestants tastes and tips. Then, the cheftestants scurry off to specialty Asian markets in the city like 99 Ranch Market, Hong Kong Food Market, Subhlaxmi Grocers, Viet Hoa International Foods, and Seiwa Market to find their ingredients. Contestants race the clock to prepare the night before the event, and the next day, set up shop at Post Houston food hall.
Houston’s own Evelyn Garcia used life experiences like staging in Thailand, traveling through Southeast Asia, and her mother’s home cooking to dream up a chicken salad, made with Vietnamese coriander, fresh rambutan, and avocado cream with sesame crisps. Garcia got a boost of confidence when judges praised the dish. “If I didn’t have 10 other things to eat, I woulda ate more,” Tom Colicchio said.
Also taking on Vietnamese cuisine, Detroit’s Sarah Welch made what appeared to be a deconstructed chicken heart banh mi with liver mouse and pickled vegetables, and a dipping sauce made with maple syrup. Judges said it was flavorful, but that the bread needed to be crisper.
Los Angeles chef Jackson Kalb, whose sense of smell and taste are (still!) not fully recovered since his bout with COVID-19, made a Vietnamese spring roll — which, if you saw episode 1, still feels like sensitive territory. But Kalb crushed it, according to judges, serving a hot, flavorful sausage and shallot spring roll with a side of pho broth reduction for dipping. Crawfish and Noodles’ Nguyen said it was a welcomed twist to the Vietnamese staple.
Jae Jung served up Chinese stir-fried udon noodles using sausage, Korean melon, and a ramen topping. Chef Huynh described it as the perfect blend of sweet, savory, and crunchy, and other judges found the noodles so slurpable, they nearly stuck their faces straight into the bowl.
North Carolina’s Ashleigh Shanti gave her best go at Chinese cuisine with her crispy mala beef skewers with red daikon, but judges noted that the cuts of meat and daikon, which lacked salt, were too large and difficult to eat.
Bay Area chef Monique Feybesse’s Chinese-influenced dish — a braised pork belly with rice cakes, fermented beans, and fresh pea sprouts — seemed flavorful to most judges, while others said it was too bland and needed more time in the wok.
Most of the judges thought Robert Hernandez’s grilled chicken thigh and peanut sauce — accompanied by rice and a Thai-chi fermented shrimp paste — was a “funky” and “down and dirty” take on Filipino food, but Colicchio thought the San Francisco chef overdid it with the shrimp paste. Judges also liked Jo Chan’s chicken tocino with banana ketchup. Paired with a chile-onion sugar cane-vinegar sawsawan, Lakshmi said it showed Chan’s knowledge of Filipino food, but Colicchio said the chicken itself was bland.
Indian food was very hit or miss. Brooklyn chef Buddha Lo, whose Malaysian mother is half Indian and half Chinese, made chicken karaage samosas, but they didn’t fare well with judges. Not heeding chef Kiran Verma’s initial warning that frying the samosas’ puff pastry instead of baking it would result in a greasy mess, Lo attempted to channel his mother’s method and fried the samosa anyway. Lakshmi called it a valiant attempt at Indian food, but judges said the tamarind chutney was too sugary, the samosa lacked heat and spice, and while the fried puff pastry was piping hot on the outside, it was undercooked on the inside.
The Biggest Oops
Once again, Sam Kang, who straight fanboy-ed out about potatoes last episode — was on that spud high again. The New York chef decided to make his own potato version of the popular Indian curry dish, vindaloo. Kang gave the dish the cringey title “Samaloo” and left behind his pots of raw potatoes on the stove when time ran out. Since raw Russets wouldn’t do, Sam attempted to improvise and decided to grill his potatoes on-site at the Night Market, resulting in undercooked potatoes. The chef tried to mask his mistake as an opportunity to “put on a show” for guests but judges were unimpressed.
The Best Turnaround
Some worried that Seattle’s Luke Kolpin — whose beautiful dishes have been labeled “bland” more than once — would struggle to truly capture the complex and robust flavors of Indian cuisine. But Kolpin, who has worked years in what has been billed the top restaurant in the world, rose to the occasion, finally making something that tastes just as good as it looks. His crab and corn samosa with a spicy fig and tamarind sauce got thumbs up from Padma Lakshmi, Kiran Verma, and chef Kaiser Lashkari, owner of Houston’s James Beard Award-nominated Himalaya Restaurant. Colicchio said it was the best dish Kolpin has made thus far.
In the end, judges highlighted Jae Jung, Jackson Kalb, and Evelyn Garcia for producing their favorite dishes of the night. Judge Gail Simmons said Garcia layered and balanced her flavors perfectly, and her avocado cream was a hit with chef Kiran Verma. Judges also gushed over Kalb’s summer roll, but it was Jung’s udon noodles that truly captivated, earning the Korean chef the episode’s winning title, and, surprise! — $10,000.
If you’ve read this far, you probably know that The Biggest Oops and The Loser are one in the Sam — er, same.
While Buddha Lo’s and Ashleigh Shanti’s dishes were both disappointing — pushing them into the bottom three, it was Sam Kang’s blinding love for potatoes that might have gotten him eliminated.
“When you’re taking a risk on a dish, you have to remember how to cook,” Huynh reminded him. Though heartbroken, Kang, who brought a light energy to the show, remained optimistic. “Someone is going to watch this and someone’s going to learn from my failure, and they’re going to be better than I am,” Kang later said. “If I can spread that love, I’m already winning.”
The top three dishes, from Evelyn Garcia, Jackson Kalb, and winner Jae Jung, are givens. Here are the others worth trying:
- In the Japanese category, Chicago’s Damarr Brown, who won a challenge and the MVP title last episode, made a smoked ham hock miso soup with togarashi hot sauce that judges raved about, noting the broth was flavorful, and the dish packed with umami.
- Mississippi chef Nick Wallace turned out a fried chicken carriage with pickled Fresno chilies and a ginger-peach miso sauce that Padma Lakshmi said was “damn good.”
- Detroit chef Sarah Welch gets lost while searching for ingredients in Houston’s Vietnamese grocery store Viet Hoa, Evelyn Garcia redirects her in the most hilarious way: “That’s American shit. Girl, come here.” Then, Garcia later informs Jackson Kalb where all the pho-related spices are. “Evelyn, you’re a Godsend,” Kalb says when she directs him to the cloves. Austin’s Jo Chan, too, helps chef Robert Hernandez find Filipino ingredients for his dishes. Those are the kind of chefs you want on your side.
- You can see the humidity wearing on many of the red-cheeked chefs as they prepare their dishes outdoors, occasionally wiping their foreheads and complaining about sweat dripping into their eyes. Welcome to Houston.
- Jae Jung tastes her own dish and clearly coughs from the level of spice, yet decides to note that it could be spicier. Also, welcome to Houston.
For some chefs, the Asian Night Market challenge was a chance to embrace a style of cooking they hadn’t yet tackled in their professional lives. Austin’s Jo Chan, who, although ethnically Chinese, grew up in the Philippines, talked about feeling too shy to cook Filipino food because the cuisine never felt “finite” enough and how growing up, traditional Filipino food seemed uncool to her American friends. Monique Feybesse, who is also Filipino, similarly said that she rarely cooked Filipino food during her career as a chef but has strived to incorporate more Asian techniques, adding to the ones she learned in Europe. Here’s hoping more chefs are able to shine a light on the cuisines that are significant to them.
In the next episode, chefs will be required to pair up with another contestant and create two dishes that look exactly alike but taste completely different. The preview shows that a tearful Garcia gets emotional. Uh oh.
Turns out, Sam Kang has doubled down on his grilled potatoes in what is either a search for redemption or self-torture. In a preview of the Top Chef’s Last Chance Kitchen spinoff, which gives eliminated contestants a chance to compete to rejoin the main competition, Kang is once again in the throes of potatoes — smashing raw bits of spud and rolling baby potatoes around on the grill. Yikes.