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‘Top Chef: Houston:’ Premiere Features Spotted Dick, Plating Fails, and a Depressing Summer Roll

Top Chef: Houston gets off to an exciting — and beefy — start in its first episode

15 ‘Top Chef’ contestants stand awaiting directions from the hosts.
Top Chef: Houston’s first episode was full of entertaining fails and innovative dishes created on the fly.
David Moir/Bravo

Top Chef’s 19th season, which takes place in Houston this year, premiered Thursday night — drawing together some stiff competition, including two James Beard Award-nominated chefs, eight with Michelin-starred chops, and one who worked in 2021’s best restaurant in the world. And already, it’s a Houston-showing, with local chefs serving as All-Star judges and Evelyn Garcia, as the sole native Houston competitor.

While past season controversy has not been forgotten, the exhilarating challenges return — resulting in plating fails, a beefy dessert, and a summer roll that sends someone home — all in the name of bragging rights and $250,000.

Warning: Spoilers ahead. Here’s a recap of the Top Chef: Houston premiere:

The Challenges

Quickfire: Numbered knives divided contestants into teams of three. Nerves were high when judges revealed that each team would create one dish together, but separately. Each contestant had just 10 minutes at a time to individually contribute to their team’s dish with no communication. The winning team, which included Austin’s Jo Chan, got immunity for the elimination challenge.

The elimination round: The same teams were later challenged to create three cohesive dishes highlighting prime beef — a Texas favorite — from a particular part of the cow. The catch? After breaking down and prepping their hunk of beef, each team member decided which dish or course they’d be responsible for. Then, with a $600 shopping spree at Whole Foods Market and two-and-a-half hours of prep and cook time at the Annie cafe, chefs were required to serve a table full of local top Houston chefs whether they were ready or not. Judges included Top Chef finalists Monica Pope and Dawn Burrell, Crawfish and Noodles’ Trong Nguyen, Chris Williams of Lucille’s Hospitality, Kiran’s chef Kiran Verma, and Robert Del Grande of the Annie serving as All-Star judges.

‘Top Chef: Houston’ judges Tom Colicchio, Kristen Kish, Dawn Burrell, and host Padma Lakshmi introduce contestants to beef challenge with a counter of different cuts.
Top Chef: Houston’s final group challenge in episode one included turning one cut of meat into three cohesive dishes.
David Moir/Bravo

Reminder: We’re still in a pandemic

Reality TV might be a nice escape from the happenings of the world, but on Top Chef: Houston, COVID is not quite behind us, either. Los Angeles chef Jackson Kalb, who had COVID a month before the challenge, said he’s lost his taste and smell but has yet to tell any of his fellow contestants. No one has caught on yet despite him asking someone to taste his beef tartare in the episode’s elimination round. “Does this make me an asshole?” he said in confessional. That’s up for debate, but the chef still goes on to make some of the judges’ favorite dishes this round.

The Biggest Oops

The F-bombs spewed were definitely warranted when Seattle’s Luke Kolpin, who worked at Copenhagen’s Noma for eight-and-a-half years, failed to plate any of his team’s food in the Quickfire challenge.

Stephanie Miller of North Dakota, went against her instinct to stick with her strengths — dumplings and pasta — and gave into her team’s wishes to cook up Asian cuisine in the elimination round. In the end, she forgot to plate her bok choy — considered the main thread of Asian flavor in her beef dish — and judges said her entire team failed to create three cohesive courses.

Chef Luke Kolpin, in a blue apron, organizes ingredients during a challenge.
Chef Luke Kolpin previously worked in Copenhagen’s Noma, which was ranked the best restaurant on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2019 and 2021.
David Moir/Bravo

The Best Turnaround

Chef Robert Hernandez, who dropped his succotash on the floor (doh!), tried to be strategic by placing the pork he prepared under his station’s grill to stay warm during the Quickfire challenge. Sadly, his teammate Jackson Kalb had his station co-opted by another team and couldn’t find the pork. Improvising, Kalb finished up the meal quickly making a seared eggplant, accompanied by a tomato-based romesco sauce, that was the star of the team’s dish. Judges praised the unintentional vegetarian meal for being robust and complete.

The Winner

Though worried that his gnocchi wouldn’t turn out well for the elimination round, Robert Hernandez’s “pillowy” gnocchi with beef and a parmesan cream sauce was praised by judges for its tenderness and inherent beefy flavor. In the end, it won him the episode.

San Francisco chef Robert Hernandez cuts up his ingredients at his ‘Top Chef’ station.
San Francisco chef Robert Hernandez won over judges with his “pillowy” gnocchi.
David Moir/Bravo

The Elimination

Described by one judge as a night of outstanding dishes and clunkers, New Jersey chef Leia Gaccione’s semblance of a loosely-wrapped summer roll was a true clunker. Judges said her rolls were large, overstuffed, over-sauced, and lacked flavor — with the beef being the afterthought rather than the focus. Gaccione ended up packing up her knives, her bags, and her self-proclaimed “rookie mistakes” and went home. Her teammates Jae Jung, of New York, and Stephanie breathed sighs of relief but didn’t fare much better. The judges spared no criticism and emphasized that they failed to hone in on the Asian flavors they sought to deliver.

Chefs Leia Gaccione, Stephanie Miller, and Jae Jung present their dishes to judges.
Contestants Leia Gaccione (left), Stephanie Miller, and Jae Jung received the worst reviews in the final round of Top Chef: Houston’s first episode. In the end, Gaccione was eliminated.
David Moir/Bravo

Standout Dishes

  • Austin chef Jo Chan made a salsa verde in the Quickfire round that pulled her team’s Thai-inspired steak salad together.
  • Many people made beef tartare but chef Monica Pope noted that chef Ashleigh Shanti’s West African kitfo — a dish she composed of raw beef with an egg yolk sauce and red rice crumble — could go down in “tartare history.” Underbelly’s Shepherd said the North Carolina native’s take made him “happy as can be.” In 2020, Ashleigh was named a finalist for the James Beard “Rising Star Chef of the Year” Award.
  • Despite the ...unique name, judges raved about Brooklyn chef Buddha Lo’s dessert — a spotted dick-suet steamed pudding with beef fat caramel and miso ice cream. Now, that’s a dish you tell your friends about. To top it off, Lo said that was his first time ever making a dessert with beef. For those unfamiliar with the dish, it’s not what it sounds like.
Chef Ashleigh Shanti pours seasoning into a container at her ‘Top Chef’ station.
Top Chef judges praised chef Ashleigh Shanti for her West African kitfo, a beef tartare.
David Moir/Bravo

Favorite Moments

Seeing some of Houston’s best chefs sitting at one table while critiquing the final challenge gave the world a closer glimpse of this city’s talent.

‘Top Chef’ judges Dawn Burrell, Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons, Trong Nguyen, and Monica Pope sit at a table discussing contestants’ dishes.
Top Chef: Houston’s first episode including a lineup of prominent local judges, including Dawn Burrell, Trong Nguyen of Crawfish and Noodles, and Monica Pope.
David Moir/Bravo

The Biggest Takeaway

A chef can be James Beard-nominated or have worked in the best, Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, but in the game of Top Chef, accolades don’t always translate to high-stress challenges. Quick-thinking and composure are some of the most valuable credentials a chef can have in this world.

The Houston Cheftestant

Not much feedback was given to Evelyn Garcia’s dishes specifically, which included a braised grilled tri-tip with charred eggplant. But Garcia did mention that despite the impressive competition, being from Houston — and the daughter of a rancher in the middle of a beef challenge — is an advantage. Here’s to seeing how this Houstonian fares.

What’s next?

There’s no way to know for sure, but a preview following the first episode showed contestants eating sauced-up shellfish, unbagging a skinned alligator, and frolicking in a football stadium. Will pregame food be on the menu?

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