Top Chef: Houston premieres Thursday, March 3, and chef Evelyn García says she’s just as excited as any devout fan to watch what goes down in the Bravo reality TV cooking competition’s 19th season.
“Just the experience of being a part of Top Chef is a blessing,” García said. But “to be the one person from Houston — mind-blowing.”
Like most people, García, 32, hasn’t seen a single episode — only clips online hinting at what’s to come. And though tight-lipped about the outcome, it’s clear this Houston chef has literally lived this season, putting her years of culinary skills to the test and learning some things about herself along the way, like, how her baking skills are better — her mental capacity, stronger — than she previously thought.
“All the chefs I competed alongside are all heavy hitters, and they’ve done everything in their power to be where they are today, but at the same time, although it’s obviously nerve-racking — mentally, I was like, I’m here, too — busting my butt,” said García, who is opening her own Southeast Asian restaurant in Houston by the end of the year. And despite being put through the wringer with “crazy challenges,” the chef said she impressed even herself. She owned it, she said.
“You have to really ignore everything and stay in it. Sometimes I thought, ‘Wow, how are you not as nervous as you feel right now?’”
Aside from being among James Beard Award-nominated chefs (and at least one who worked in what was billed the “best restaurant in the world”), being the only Houstonian on the show and competing in her hometown added another layer of pressure to her performance.
García said she didn’t know the show would be in Houston this season until after producers selected her for the show. Though it added pressure to represent her hometown well, “it’s kind of comforting to have this whole experience in my city,” she said — and for Houston to get its overdue shine as a diverse food destination.
The show is expected to feature regional dishes and cultural favorites that reflect the city — ranging from barbecue and Tex-Mex to Nigerian, Southeast Asian, and Gulf Coast cuisine. Episodes are also slated to take viewers to the Asian Night Market, and Freedmen’s Town, the historic neighborhood in Houston’s Fourth Ward that served as a prime settlement for African Americans after emancipation.
“I think that’s what I’m most excited about,” García said. “Seeing how Top Chef showcases this amazing city that I obviously love so much, … and for people to really see it and know that it’s much more than sports and politics.”
In many ways, García’s Houston upbringing prepared her for life as a chef.
“It was very organic for me to really fall in love with cooking. I grew up seeing it,” García said.
Born and raised in a Mexican and El Salvadorian household, García’s family had roots in the food industry. Her paternal grandfather’s family were cheesemakers in El Salvador; her maternal grandmother was a cook; and her maternal grandfather, a baker. Some of her earliest cooking memories involve watching her mother and grandmother make tortillas in their family kitchen — kneading and pressing the dough, adding water as needed — but it was Houston’s plentiful Southeast Asian cuisine that piqued her interest in cooking, enough to make it a career.
“It was very common to go get pho and eat vermicelli noodles. My family enjoys it very much. They like cooking it, and so much was new to me in technique, in flavor, and ingredients,” she said.
In high school, García decided that she was destined for New York, albeit, temporarily.
“Whatever I was going to build was going to be here in Houston,” she said, emphasizing that her plan after attending Culinary School for America in Hyde Park was to stay in the Big Apple for at least a year to test the waters and learn as much as she could before returning home.
But as a young woman in New York, “I loved the hustle and bustle. … I was absorbing it all,” she said. One opportunity led to another, and a year became a decade.
While in New York, García worked under chef Anthony Ricco at the now-closed Spice Market, Singaporean restaurant Masak under chef Larry Reutens, and with Top Chef season one winner Harold Dieterle as a junior sous chef at the now-closed Thai restaurant Kin Shop.
In 2014 at just 24 years old, García beat out three fellow contestants in the “All Burger Meal” challenge on Food Network’s Chopped — an experience that felt like “a pat on her back.”
With more confidence in her chef skills, García returned to Houston in 2016 and began hosting pop-ups, taking on any opportunity she could get — including catering and a chef residency before venturing out with her own project — Kin HTX.
Launching a Southeast Asian food stall in Rice Village’s former food hall Politan Row, García planned to serve up her signature dishes while searching for her brand’s “forever home.” Then COVID hit, forcing the food hall to close in November 2020. Garcia had to pivot.
“I knew I wanted to work on my own stuff and create my own food,” García said, but the pandemic was the final push. With a growing brand under Kin — plus friends and customers encouraging her to bottle nearly every sauce she made — García said she decided to create her own Southeast Asian spice and condiment line as a way to gain new customers and stay connected with established ones, she said.
The business turned out to be sustainable, with options to sell products wholesale to local shops. Now, her pop-ups have branched out to different farmers markets around the city, and García is on to new ventures.
With a Top Chef: Houston season in the books, the chef is also working on Jūn by Kin with chef Henry Lu. The restaurant, which García calls “a love letter to Houston’s Southeast Asian cuisine,” is slated to open later this year.
In the meantime, García is looking forward to basking in the moment.
She’ll watch her experience play out on national television with the rest of the country. On premiere night, she plans to stop by Saint Arnold Brewing Company’s official Top Chef watch party before viewing the excitement of the first episode at home with her parents and siblings. “It’s good to get the first one out of the way,” she said.
Come Friday, though, she’ll be celebrating.
Kin will host an after-party pop-up at the Stomping Grounds from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday night, with music by a DJ and a mariachi band, an inflatable velcro wall, a photo booth, an assortment of drinks and dishes, and a variety of local vendors. Tickets are available for $15-$25 on the Kin website.
The first episode of Top Chef Houston premieres March 3 at 7 p.m. CST/8 p.m. EST. In the meantime, you can view the trailer below.