Top Chef: Houston returns in its ninth week, and it’s digging a little deeper. Focusing on Freedmen’s Town, the Fourth Ward enclave that was established by newly emancipated slaves in Texas, the eight cheftestants dig into what it means to put soul on a plate, while also helping raise money and awareness for Freedmen’s Town.
As a result, chefs produce what judges consider some of the best dishes this season, making for the toughest elimination round yet.
Warning: Spoilers ahead. Here’s a recap of Top Chef: Houston Episode 9.
Quickfire round: Host Padma Laksmi and Top Chef Texas alumna Nyesha Arrington announce chefs are required to create a monochromatic vegetarian dish for the last immunity-granting Quickfire challenge, which seems to excite chefs.
Remembering helping her uncles on their farm while in Korea, Jae Jung crafts red strawberry gochujang glazed beets with walnut puree. Ashleigh Shanti creates an all-yellow curried vegetable puree with marinated curry vegetables that underwhelm and don’t quite match the visual, according to judges. And Evelyn García, who was surprised to be assigned the color black, uses black garlic to create a bold, charred eggplant and black bean soup with a dollar of dill yogurt and black radish crumple that wows Lakshmi.
Tasked with the color orange, Nick Wallace creates a vegetable fried rice with pumpkin, sweet potato, charred papayas, and cauliflower, topped with a kumquat and peach sauce that just doesn’t jive, according to Arrington.
Meanwhile, Luke Kolpin’s excitement to cook with vegetables — a strength of his — is through the roof, so much so that he nearly runs face-first into Buddha Lo. Given the color purple, Kolpin’s roasted cauliflower with cabbage, purple potato puree, and brown butter carrots earns an honorable mention from Lakshmi, who encourages him to keep it up.
Seemingly on edge, or at least a little prickly these past few episodes, Buddha Lo concocts an all-white wood-fired cauliflower dish with cheese, vadouvan, and salted grapes, that Lakshmi calls “high art.”
Damarr Brown, known for his serious face, is skeptical about creating an all-green dish since so much of the cooking world prides itself on contrast but earns immunity thanks to a beautiful broccoli steak with a harissa glaze, chermoula, and a creamy avocado puree.
Elimination Round: Before chefs are tasked with the elimination round, Zion Escobar, the executive director of the Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy, give the chefs and guest judges Dawn Burrell and Kwame Onwachi a tour of Freedmen’s Town, drilling in the significance of Juneteenth, its origin, and the many local pioneers, like Jack Yates, who is credited with being the father of Black Houston.
After testing out Houston’s This is It! Southern Kitchen and Bar-B-Q, with owners Gerald Side and Thaddeus Wesley serving up soul food for added inspiration, the chefs are tasked with creating a dish that speaks to their soul for a 100-person fundraiser at Bethel Church, a historical place of worship preserved in the early 2000s.
Chefs take the challenge to heart in the best way. Wallace proudly makes his Nana’s salmon cakes with remoulade and a Hoppin’ John salad, which captivates guests. García impresses judges with a vibrantly red beet sope, a nod to her grandmother, which was topped with her mother’s chorizo recipe, charred pineapple pico, queso fresco, and salsa verde.
Kolpin channels his mother’s meatloaf recipe into a “frikadeller style” meatball with white cheddar mash and gravy glaze.
Shanti combines her low-country and Appalachian roots into low-country crab rice with oyster gravy, earning rave reviews from many of the attendees and mixed opinions from judges, some who thought the two components would be better separate.
The Biggest Oops
Known for making picturesque dishes, Lo aims to pay homage to his belated father, but worries about going simple. He settles on making a “humble” nasi lemak — a Malaysian curry that his grandmother makes — but like Shanti, Lo’s curry components, too, lacked “a pop” when combined, according to judge Gail Simmons. This is the second time Lo has failed to wow judges with his home cuisine.
The Best Turnaround
Serious-faced Brown gets nervous when his hoecakes burn and throws a bunch of them in the trash — once again leaving viewers on pins and needles. But just in time, he pulls it together, creating the epitome of a soul food dish with hammocks, collard greens, and cornmeal cakes. His goal, he said, was to channel the ingenuity of the formerly enslaved. “When collard greens hit the cornbread, it’s a match made in heaven,” Burrell oozes, and Onwuachi says there is no way Brown could have made the greens more perfect.
Judges praise Garcia, Brown, and Wallace for their soulful dishes, once again, noting how difficult it is to choose a favorite. But in the end, it was Jung’s impressive homage to her Korean heritage that they could not forget. Her “Mama Kim’s” flaked cod with Korean sweet potatoes, kimchi with pomegranate, and shrimp bisque was a true showstopper.
Despite this being one of his strongest showings, chefs eliminated Kolpin for his “tight” meatball that lacked enough fat to make it more tender. Still, they emphasized that his elimination was no easy choice, and despite all of my frustration with Kolpin’s seasoning indifference, I’m sad to see him go.
Based on the judges’ and guests’ reactions, it’s clear that there was no bad dish in the house. So, in that case — I’ll take some salmon cakes, meatloaf, crab fried rice with oyster gravy, with a side of collard greens and hoecakes, Malaysian curry, and flaked cod with shrimp bisque, please. Don’t forget the chorizo sopes. Thanks!
In the next episode, Top Chef travels to Houston Farmers Market and challenges chefs to make a meal fit for an astronaut — fitting, considering this is Space City.