Despite chefs still reeling from the last episode, Top Chef: Houston returns this week with possibly the most high-pressure, Texas-themed challenge yet — smoking brisket.
As if taking on a 12-hour cook in a barbecue Mecca isn’t frightening enough, the show enlists 20 pitmasters from the Houston region to taste test, which inspires at least one chef to meditate.
So, who brings the smoke?
Warning: Spoilers ahead. Here’s a recap of Top Chef: Houston Episode 5.
Elimination Round Pt. 1: Chefs are required to “flip the script” on Texas barbecue with a brisket dish, but they only have 30 minutes to trim, season, and put their briskets on the pits at Houston’s J-Bar-M Barbecue before smoking it on the pit for 12 hours.
Immediately, the Southerners feel the pressure. Houston’s Evelyn García sends a prayer up to the brisket gods. Eager to represent Mississippi well, chef Nick Wallace busts out more than a dozen spices and schools his counterparts on the basics of smoking brisket (Fat side down!). With the help of J-Bar-M Barbecue’s pitmaster Willow Villarreal, chefs load their peppery briskets on the pit.
Cue the record scratch.
Quickfire: Just when the chefs thought they escaped the Quickfire challenge, judges announce a Texas toast challenge where the winner gets immunity and $10,000. Dollar signs float through Chan’s head as she thinks about her upcoming wedding, Buddha Lo plots to fund eye surgery for his pug back home, and Chicago’s Damarr Brown is puzzled. “$10,000 for toast?”
These creations are something to behold. There’s García’s sweet lemon cream stuffed toast with spiced pecans and boozy strawberries, Ashleigh Shanti’s pizza toast rollup, which makes judges chuckle, and mille-feuille toasts that will make you scratch your head. Jackson Kalb’s sweet and salty shrimp toast with balsamic chili jam, and Jo Chan’s mushroom and arugula toast impress judges, but it is Nick Wallace’s standout BLT, made with pancetta and cheese spread, that wins them over.
Elimination Round Pt. 2: Chefs return to their briskets and as they finish up, Houston area barbecue royalty filters in.
There’s Villarreal; Greg Gatlin of Gatlin’s BBQ; Blood Bros. BBQ founders Quy Hoang and Terry and Robin Wong; Richard Orozco of Piper’s BBQ & Beer; Tejas Chocolate + Barbecue’s Scott Moore Jr.; Don Nguyen of Khói Barbecue, Sloan Rinaldi of Texas Q, Russel Regal of Roegels Barbecue Co, Ara Malekian of Harlem Road Texas BBQ, and many more.
Jackson Kalb “bastardizes” the brisket, grinding it up and serving it with a stuffed scarpinocc pasta with cornbread crumbles, and burnt ends. Judges call the brisket smoky and the “buerre-becue” sauce interesting.
Brown stays consistent in performance, making a smoked brisket with candied yams, braised cabbage, a Worcestershire consume, and giardiniera that judge Tom Colicchio called “fantastic” and Gatlin deemed “homey.” Wallace makes a standout brisket with “meh” sides.
Monique Feybesse, decides to go with what she “knows,” pairing her brisket with onion soubise, bland confit potatoes, and a brioche bun that judges say isn’t quite done.
Shanti tries to take advantage of the 12 hours by going all-in on the complements to her brisket but then slices her meat way too thick, making her cream of collard soup with sweet potato slicks difficult to eat.
Chan seems confident in her brisket but struggles to choose its complements before deciding on pappardelle with harissa cabbage and corn (This chef loves harissa). Colicchio calls it straight “whelming.”
The Biggest Oops
Watch the episode again and you’ll see the exact moment where barbecue snobs were likely blessing Shanti’s heart for those hefty brisket slices.
The Best Turnaround
Luke Koplin seemingly hasn’t quite nailed the art of seasoning on the show just yet. The chef got off to a bland start this season but redeemed himself by making flavorful Indian food in the third episode that impressed even host Padma Lakshmi. In this episode, he overdoes it with a Texas toast that tastes like “a salt lick” but later redeems himself with his flavorful brisket, served with a thick onion barbecue sauce.
García’s brisket curry with pickled vegetables and a burnt ends crumble wowed judges. Colicchio called it a “destination” dish and Lakshmi, reportedly a tough curry critic, seemed like she’s ready to add it to J-Bar-M’s menu. García, who is excited to be surrounded by many of her Houston peers, beams when named the winner.
“[This] girl’s from Texas,” she says proudly. “I had to represent.”
Chan, Feybesse, and Shanti all are in the bottom three, with Colicchio saying it’s noticeable when the chefs are hesitant, unsure, uncomfortable, or overthinking. Though she had a strong start to the competition, it is Shanti’s doing-too-much chunky soup that got her sent home.
- Wallace’s BLT, and, honestly, any of the pizza toasts seem like prime munchies fare.
- Buddha Lo’s barbecue beef bourguignon with beef fat potato croquette, onion jam, and beautiful raw beet petals is one for the (cook)books.
- Judges say Jae Jung’s “K-Jun Style” barbecue brisket with grits, cherry tomato kimchee and Asian pear relish is bursting with flavor.
- When García says “If you’re not drinking a beer, are you really barbecuing?” plus all the chefs complaints about reeking of smoke means they were on the right track.
- Seeing the chefs checking temperatures, spritzing their briskets with what is presumably mop, and wrapping their meat in butcher paper to “rest” would make any barbecue enthusiast feel proud.
- When Nick Wallace gives us his best cowboy impression while attempting to rope steer mannequins.
In the next episode, chefs will make dishes that pay homage to five trailblazing Texas women. There will be tears. Plus, one eliminated chef returns thanks to Top Chef’s Last Chance Kitchen. Will it be Ashleigh Shanti?