Top Chef: Houston returns this week, diving straight into one of the most stressful challenges in the show’s history — Restaurant Wars. With that comes an unexpected elimination considering this cheftestant’s consistent performances in past episodes, plus the final reveal that many of us have been waiting for.
Warning: Spoilers ahead. Here’s a recap of Top Chef: Houston Episode 8.
Restaurant Wars: Top Chef alumna and Dallas chef Tiffany Derry returns as an All-Star judge this episode, helping host Padma Laksmi announce the Restaurant Wars competition, which requires chefs to work in teams to conceptualize a “restaurant,” creating everything from a tasting menu, name, and its actual design. The team with the winning restaurant concept hosted in Post Houston will leave with $40,000.
Quickly, the chefs draw knives with Nick Wallace and Jae Jung getting first and second pick, respectively. Wallace chooses Damarr Brown and Ashleigh Shanti for their expertise in Southern cuisine, and then Buddha Lo.
Wallace’s team wastes no time deciding that they’ll do a woman-led, Southern-style restaurant, heralding the women in their lives with the name “Matriarc” and Shanti as executive chef. Though Lo is not experienced in Southern cuisine, he decides to be “flexible” but loses it just a little when Shanti suggests making a bitter lettuce salad. “What I’ve learned from this competition, is they don’t like that shit!” Lo says. Though Shanti is taken aback by his comment, she pivots, and the team pulls together a solid menu.
For the first course, Lo rallies together the team talents to create an array of Southern-style snacks, including Parker house rolls, country ham butter seafood tarts, and fried oysters with comeback sauce. Shanti makes an impressive salmon tartare with buttermilk pears, shaved fennel, and peaches for the second course, and gumbo z’herbes with red rice and seasoning meat for the third course. Wallace sears a strip sirloin made with his 26-spice blend, “luxurious” potatoes, and oxtail marmalade, and Brown ends with a carrot cake with a carrot caramel, and coconut and candied ginger. Judges are wowed by every dish.
Jung’s team together decides — with Kalb’s urging — that García will be executive chef of their family-style Southeast Asian concept called No Nem, after Vietnamese nem sausage — to play to García’s strengths. Kolpin, who has struggled to maintain consistency in his seasoning, is noticeably nervous tackling Asian cuisine, but the group moves forward. García makes a panipuri with shrimp and passion fruit vinaigrette that Lakshmi says lacks liquid. Jung makes snapper summer rolls with papaya, citrus, and avocado that generally get no notes. Kolpin makes a choo chee curry with Black cod wrapped in Napa cabbage. Together, the team crafts barbecue nem lettuce wraps with fried Brussels sprouts — a hit among the judges — and then ends with Kalb’s quite crunchy, but a bit underwhelming shortbread cookies with citrus curt and coconut whipped cream.
The Biggest Oops
Though Jackson Kalb came up with a lot of ideas for No Nem, he fails to execute them. In charge of front-of-house, Kalb neglects to welcome judges at the chef’s table in person and instead leaves them a measly “Welcome judges” handwritten note. To add insult to injury, while laughing and mingling with guests, Kalb lets judges wonder what they’re eating, as he fails to explain or introduce the dishes. García tries to reel Kalb back in, but he later explains his method. He was trying to treat the judges like any other guest.
Another major letdown: Kalb decides that the moment before elimination is a great time to tell his teammates that he’s had little to no sense of smell the entire competition thanks to a recent bout with COVID. The other chefs are dumbfounded. Kolpin is particularly bothered considering Kalb said his fish was too salty, while judges found it under-salted. Yikes.
The Best Turnaround
Brown lets out a bunch of expletives when he realizes the ovens for his carrot cake dessert are at just 150 degrees, leaving him little time to put them in another oven and let them cool. But all is not lost. Somehow, Brown preserves what he has, cutting around the raw batter — creating what judge Tom Colicchio says is the best carrot cake dish he’s ever had.
Judges admired Wallace, Shanti, and Brown’s Matriarc restaurant so much, stating that it felt like the concept was months — not hours — in the making. The team beamed with pride, with Shanti saying this is the first time she hasn’t “watered down” her food. Shanti is named winner of the night.
It was clear Team No Nem lacked cohesion and consistency, largely thanks to Kalb’s direction or lack thereof. Though judges seem to agree Kolpin made the worst dish, it was Kalb’s many suggestions and lack of follow-through that led to most of the group’s mistakes, and despite his impressive showing this season, Kalb packs up his knives.
- Jung had the condiments down in this episode and wowed judges with every sauce she made for Team No Nem.
- Lakshmi said Lo’s bread made for Matriarc’s first course was the best she’s ever had on Top Chef.
- Brown’s carrot cake. Enough said.
- “Anytime you tilt your bowl and you go in, you got a good dish,” Derry said of Shanti’s green gumbo.
In the next episode, Top Chef throws a fundraising block party in Houston’s Freedmen’s Town, a historical neighborhood in Fourth Ward that served as a destination for African Americans after their emancipation from slavery. Also, Kalb is intent on winning Top Chef’s Last Chance Kitchen. Will he return?