And then there were three.
It’s been seemingly a long, emotional journey on Top Chef: Houston. The reality TV show competition started with 15 hopeful cheftestants who were put through the ringer of challenges, all the while exploring the diversity, culture, and unique qualities of Clutch City. This week, though, the show’s finalists have spent a second week in Tucson, Arizona — the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy designated in the United States. There’s Houston’s “hometown hero,” Evelyn García, who has further honed her passion in cooking with Latin and Southeast Asian flavors; Buddha Lo, the New York chef by way of Australia who is known for his over-the-top-techniques and decorative dishes; and Detroit’s Sarah Welch, a quirky chef who’s passion for produce and fire in Last Chance Kitchen won her a place back in the finals.
Now, judges have the difficult choice of just choosing one. To make it easier on them, each chef will make the “most progressive” four-course meal of their lives according to their own tastes and rules and will have the chance to choose one of their former competitors to assist them as sous chef.
Warning: Spoilers ahead. Here’s a recap of Top Chef: Houston episode 13.
The Final Challenge
In preparation of serving judges like chefs Gail Simmons; Tom Colicchio; Stephanie Izard, winner of Top Chef: Season 4; renowned French chef Eric Ripert; Bricia Lopez, restaurateur and co-owner of Guelaguetza; Gregory Gourdet, alum of Top Chef: Boston; Tucson chef Janos Wilder; and award-winning chef Alexander Smalls, the finalists begin to think of who would be their best companion in the final challenge.
Welch immediately video calls Robert Hernandez, her partner who she got eliminated with on the fourth episode. Viewers who loved the Texas duo likely rejoice when García calls on Austin’s Jo Chan, reasoning that the two understand food in a similar way and share a special bond. A competitive Lo calls on Jackson Kalb, who was known for nailing inventive and flavorful dishes despite losing his sense of taste and smell due to a previous bout with COVID-19. “I just want the advantage,” Lo says. “If I’m not beating him, I want him next to me.”
After a nice break where judges Izard, Simmons, Ripert, Wilder, Collicoho and Lakshmi cook for them in the middle of the desert, its back to business.
Welch decides on a waste conscious hunter-gatherer menu, with the goal of using ingredients native to Arizona while drawing similarities to her Michigan upbringing,
With the assistance of Hernandez, Welch crafts a venison and beer heart tartare, with a sourdough miso and smoked butter for the first course. While judges like that it fits the desert environment, the tartare lacks seasoning and is in need of an extra punch of miso. For second course, Welch uses Hernandez’s pasta skills to create a squash dumpling in corn husk broth, with miso, huitlacoche puree, and three sisters salad — an idea that was confusing and “too big for the bowl,” according to Simmons. The main is a rabbit ballotine with apricot, chestnut, and herb salad with grains that reportedly has “personality” but is sadly unevenly cooked, followed by a warm and comforting acorn cake with smoked buttermilk ice cream and a calypso bean miso caramel that thrills Ripert and reminds Lakshmi of childhood.
Though worried Lo would take a classic, boring approach to his final dishes, Kalb is excited — and a little bit jealous — of Lo’s vision for his last meal, but assists him all the same. In a picturesque tribute to his family, Lo crafts hamachi with sauce vin jaune, caviar, apple, and bee figures made out of sweet potatoes in tribute of his brother — a “pretty perfect” three-star Michelin meal by Simmons and Colicchio’s standards. Lo uses his mother’s panang laksa recipe, pairing it with cannelloni, king crab, and a carrot butterfly tuile — an approach that Ripert hints is outdated but Colicchio deems showy. For the main, Lo crafts a “perfectly cooked” Mongolian lamb, a recipe in homage to his father who died before the show, and pairs it with eggplant puree, asparagus, miso, squash blossom, and eggplant tuile leaves that captivate judges. Lo’s final dish — a pumpkin pie mille-feulle with pumpkin custard, chantilly cream, maple caramel, pumpkin spice cake, and pumpkin leaves — is his tribute to America for welcoming in as an immigrant and makes Simmons enthusiastically rethink her concept of pumpkin pie.
Being “thrilled that we could cook whatever the fuck we wanted,” García draws from memory, Tuscon flavors, and what she’s learned from Top Chef thus far. She crafts a scallop crudo with pickled radish, prickly pear and citrus broth with sweet potato, crispy quinoa and a chiltepin chili oil that impresses Wilder and Lopez, despite Colicchio saying it needed more seasoning.
Simmons compares García’s second course with crystal shrimp and corn dumplings to small gems. And though Garcia’s inventive third course — goat neck “currymole” with nopales and spiced squash seeds — combines unique flavors, judges note it needs more seasoning and could have benefited from Garcia cooking the goat directly in the currymole sauce. Like Welch and Lo, Garcia’s dessert — a bunuelo with cajeta panna cotta with cardamom cream, pitaya and persimmon— is considered her best dish, though Colicchio again complains that the panna cotta is too firm.
It’s clear that once judges reconvene for their private conversation that “wild card” Welch is not going to win.
The final is between Lo and García.
Drum roll, please.
Houston’s own García clearly delighted judges with her unique combination of Latin and Asian flavors, but in the end, it was Lo’s creativity, award-worthy attention to detail, and love of literally playing with his food that won judges over.