In the past, cheftestants from metro Detroit (except for Mei Lin, who hails from Dearborn but lives in Los Angeles now) haven’t made it very far in Bravo’s reality TV cooking competition, Top Chef.
Could this year be the year a local chef has a legit chance at the coveted title?
(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
The premiere of Top Chef Houston (Season 19) starts with cheftestants talking about preconceived notions from people who think being a chef is glamorous but spoiler alert, it’s not. It’s a grueling profession that undervalues cooks. Marrow Detroit chef and co-owner Sarah Welch is one of the chefs to chime in, saying “I like to see the tides changing, and I think they are in large part because of the younger generation of chefs putting their foot down.” Is it notable that Sarah is featured prominently this early? I probably watch too much Top Chef and overanalyze everything.
The cheftestants walk into the kitchen and are greeted by host Padma Lakshmi and Season 18 finalist Dawn Burrell, who’s from Houston. Padma then gets the chefs to flex, asking who’s been nominated for a James Beard Award (Sarah is one of two), who’s worked in Michelin-starred restaurants (eight), etc. just to fuel the anxiety even more.
Evelyn Garcia, who is from Houston, nails it when she sees the knife block and knows it’ll be a team challenge.
After Padma ominously says the Quickfire Challenge is a “silent killer,” she tells the chefs to draw knives, which are labeled 1, 2, and 3. They have to team up with chefs who have numbers that they don’t. Sarah partners with Robert Hernandez of San Francisco and Jackson Kalb of Los Angeles to form the Brown Team. In an interview, Jackson says he recently had COVID and that he can’t taste or smell. He wonders if he should tell his teammates but decides to keep it to himself. “Does that make me a dick?” he asks. Yes, yes it does because it’s a team challenge, Jackson.. He also says he didn’t expect a team challenge this early, and I’m beginning to wonder if he has ever seen an episode of Top Chef.
Padma explains the challenge is for the chefs to create a cohesive dish relay style in 30 minutes. They mush each add something to the dish that shows who they are, but they can’t talk to one another. She calls it a “trust fall,” and Sarah hilariously mutters “great.”
Sarah is up first for her team, and she grabs scallops and pork and decides to do a romesco sauce, explaining it can be turned into many different things. Sarah says she tends to cook on the fly and is a collaborative chef, so her approach is “choose your own adventure” and she’s the “game master.”
The other chefs try to pick things that will set up their teammates for success. Red Team member Leia Gaccione from Morristown, New Jersey, says she doesn’t want her teammates to spend too much time going back and forth to the pantry, so her strategy is to go with a very clear direction and that is Vietnamese in a nod to the cuisine’s prominence in Houston.
Jo Chan of the Yellow Team grabs T-bone and flank steak and does salsa verde, which her teammate Monique Feybesse correctly identifies from the sidelines.
Time to switch. The second group comes in. Robert nails it when he notices Sarah got a romesco sauce going. He says the last time he worked in a restaurant kitchen was in October 2018. “I’m very rusty, but I’ve always been really fast.” The rustiness kicks in when he drops the succotash on the floor. Ruh-roh.
Blue Team member Sam Kang, from Brooklyn, is strolling through the pantry like he’s shopping at the farmers market on a Sunday looking for pastries with no care in the world. He’s very relaxed while his teammate Luke Kolpin, a Seattle-based chef who we learned earlier worked at Denmark’s Noma, the top restaurant in the world for more than eight years, is seriously stressed at Sam’s lack of stress. Sam says, “you can taste crazy in food” and it looks like we have our one-liner chef for the season.
The third and final group steps in. Jackson is completely befuddled. He can’t find the pork Robert grilled. Robert tries to send him messages telepathically, while Jackson goes rogue and gets eggplant to go with the romesco.
Luke is so stressed out that time runs out and he doesn’t get any food on the plate.
The teams bring up their dishes for judgment.
Despite the problems, Sarah and her teammates get compliments on their Coal-Roasted Eggplant Macadamia Romesco and Serrano Crème Fraiche, and they are one of the two top teams. The win — and immunity — ultimately goes to the Yellow Team for their barbecued beef with a Thai-inspired Som Tum salsa verde salad with butter sauce. It looks and sounds like the most refined, cohesive, and complete dish, not just random things thrown together.
On the bottom are the Blue and Red Teams, the former for not getting anything on the plate and the latter for overcooked pork.
For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs must cook in their same teams and create three cohesive beef dishes. As the winners of the Quickfire Challenge, the Yellow Team picks their protein first, opting for rib, and in a nice gesture (it’s early in the season) they say the Blue Team can pick next. The Brown Team goes third, picking the chuck. Sarah tells her teammates “I own a butcher shop so I can’t f— this up.”
The chefs start planning. Because his team has immunity, cheftestant Buddha Lo, from Brooklyn, decides to do a daring dish: a savory twist on Spotted Dick. He plans to add beef fat caramel to the British steamed pudding and fruit dessert.
Red Team member Stephanie Miller, from Bismarck, North Dakota, says she feels concerned that her teammates’ cooking styles are very different, and it looks like they are being set up as the team to crash and burn or emerge victorious. She wants to do a pasta, but her teammates want to go Asian. Stephanie says she’ll add bok choy seasoned with lime to her dish to make it Asian, and I am rolling my eyes so far into the back of my head. Leia says she’s not feeling 100 percent — she has a bladder infection — and I am pretty sure this team is going to be on the bottom.
Sarah, Jackson, and Robert decide to go Italian. Robert explains his culinary style is simple and rustic. He’s planning to make gnocchi with braised beef and is a little concerned about being able to use the pressure cooker.
After the chefs get back to the Top Chef digs, the Brown team are still in work mode. Jackson calls them the “nerds in school doing homework.”
The next day, the chefs head to the kitchen to prep and cook. Jackson wants to do a take on vitello tonnato, a Piedmontese dish with veal in a tuna, caper, and anchovy sauce.
Robert is having all kinds of problems, including the pressure cooker. He’s worried his beef isn’t cooked properly. He’s stabbing at chunks of beef with a strainer, which seems like a bad sign, and he still hasn’t done his gnocchi.
Sarah warily asks him if he’ll be done in 30 minutes.
The Brown Team is up first, and they serve their dishes to a table including Padma, Top Chef head judge Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, Top Chef winner Kristen Kish, and several chefs from Houston.
After Jackson presents his vitello tonnato, Robert explains his dish of pot roast braised with white wine and potato gnocchi. Padma says she loves how light the gnocchi is. It looks like Robert’s chaotic cooking didn’t lead to chaos on the plate.
Sarah is last, offering up seared beef on an eggplant puree with agrodolce shallots. It looks elegant and delicious. After the chefs leave, the judges all have nothing but praise for the team. Tom loves Jackson’s tartare. Local chef Kiran Verma says Sarah’s dish was her favorite, commenting on how everything was well balanced. Dawn Burrell says Robert’s dish is the star of the show.
The Blue Team get their food on the plate, so they’re already doing 100 percent better than they were in the Quickfire Challenge. Cheftestant Ashleigh Shanti does a kitfo (Ethiopian Tartare) that makes everyone happy. Luke’s dish is very confusing, and Kristen says it lacks depth of flavor. Ouch.
The Red Team gets less positive feedback. Dawn, who left off many things from her plates last season, asks about the bok choy in Stephanie’s dish. Stephanie admits it didn’t make it. Padma asks if they compared notes. Leia tries to put a positive spin, saying, “We were inspired by these Asian flavors and so we did our own personal take.”
The Yellow Team is last. Buddha presents beef fat cake with miso ice cream and beef fat caramel. The judges like the team’s dishes in general but are most impressed by Buddha’s dessert.
In the end, the winning team is the Brown Team. Sarah looks shocked even after the judges heap on the praise. The win goes to Robert, so he was getting the fakeout winner edit.
To no surprise, the losing team is the Red Team for their lack of cohesiveness. While Stephanie left off a key component of her dish, it’s Leia who’s sent packing for her lackluster summer roll.
It’s hard to get a sense of who the chefs are early in the game, but it looks like all the chefs did not come here to play. It should be an exciting season. Now excuse me while I figure out how to make cake with beef fat caramel.
Catch this season of Top Chef at 8 p.m. on Thursdays on Bravo. For more information, visit bravotv.com.