‘Top Chef’ Houston Finale Recap: The Last Supper

The last challenge for the chefs is simple: No twists, no turns, just make the best four-course progressive meal ever
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Top Chef Houston Finale
The finalists reunited with fellow Top Chef Houston contestants for the finale. Pictured above is Robert Hernandez, Sarah Welch, Jo Chan, Evelyn Garcia, Buddha Lo, and Jackson Kalb. // Photograph by: David Moir/Bravo

It’s the finale! Three chefs enter and one leaves as “Top Chef.”

To recap, host Padma Lakshmi breaks it down:

Evelyn Garcia is “the hometown hero who packs a punch with her unique blend of Southeast Asian and Latin cuisines.”

Sarah Welch is “the eclectic chef from Detroit who dominated Last Chance Kitchen.”

And Buddha Lo is “the superfan from Down Under known for his over-the-top technique.”

Sarah looks back on her time on the show. “When I first walked into Top Chef, I didn’t think it was going to change my life and I didn’t think it was going to change who I am. But it did all those things. I came back from so many failures in ways that I never imagined.”

The final challenge is simple: Create a four-course progressive meal. As Evelyn puts it, “cook whatever the f—” they want. They all get to have a sous chef and each of them pick a former cheftestant they vibed with from the get-go: Sarah picks Robert Hernandez, Evelyn reunites with her bestie Jo Chan, and Buddha calls Jackson Kalb, who hilariously and seriously picks up the phone with a “This is Jackson.” It is very on brand for Jackson, who has regained about 70 percent of his taste after COVID, but Buddha is not worried.

The menus

Top Chef Houston Finale
Sarah Welch and Robert Hernandez prepare Sarah’s final menu. // Photograph by David Moir/Bravo

Sarah is going for a hunter-gatherer menu that feels like “Michigan in the desert.” She hopes to find native ingredients that will help showcase how her food has changed throughout the competition. Or another way to look at it: “I want my meal to feel like a couple of cowboys went out into the Sonoran Desert and happened upon a Michelin star kitchen.” She also wants to highlight the issue of food waste and make sure she uses each ingredient fully, such as using the buttermilk that’s created in her first course as the base of her ice cream in the dessert course.

  • First course: Venison tartare and beef heart tartare with sourdough miso and smoked butter
  • Second course: Squash pasta with corn husk broth, miso, huitlacoche puree, and Three Sisters salad
  • Third course: Rabbit ballotine with apricot, chestnut, and herb salad
  • Fourth course: Acorn cake with buttermilk ice cream and calypso bean miso caramel

Evelyn is also taking the approach of showing the evolution of her food during Top Chef. “Through this journey of Top Chef, I’ve definitely realized my style of cooking is really cooking from memory and things I enjoy and love, and I can bring all those flavors and techniques together to create something very harmonious,” she says.

  • First course: Scallop crudo with prickly pear and citrus broth sweet potato and crispy quinoa
  • Second course: Crystal dumplings with shrimp and corn, corn broth, hoja santa oil, and crispy garlic (crystal dumplings are named for their translucent wrappers made from tapioca starch and have a delicate and chewy texture)
  • Third course: Braised goat with curry mole, nopales, and spiced squash seeds
  • Fourth course: Bunuelo with cajeta panna cotta, cardamom whipped cream, pitaya, and persimmon

Two days after his dad died, Buddha got the call to come on the show, and all season he’s talked about how he’s doing Top Chef in tribute to his dad. “I wanted to go into competition so my dad can watch me on TV. But he passed away and the goals changed, and the goal is that I want to win it. I want to win it for him.”

  • First course: Hamachi with sauce vin jaune, caviar, apple, and sweet potato bees
  • Second course: Penang laksa with cannelloni lobster, king crab and carrot butterfly tuile
  • Third course: Mongolian lamb with eggplant puree, asparagus, miso, roasted eggplant, squash blossom and eggplant tuile leaves
  • Fourth course: Pumpkin pie mille-feuille with pumpkin custard, crème Chantilly, maple caramel, pumpkin spice cake and pumpkin leaves

Remember when Padma mentioned Buddha’s over-the-top technique? Buddha, being the sadist maniac that he is, tasks Jackson with making the tuiles (wafer cookies) for each course and they’re not just any wafers — they are made of the vegetables that are in the dish and shaped into bees, butterflies, and leaves. It is extra but that’s Buddha.

Judges’ table

Top Chef Houston Finale
Evelyn Garcia, Buddha Lo, and Sarah Welch present their final dishes to the judges and guest chefs. // Photograph by David Moir/Bravo

Overall the judges and guests enjoy Buddha, Evelyn and Sarah’s meals, save for a little underseasoning here, underseasoning there, overcooked and undercooked rabbit simultaneously and a dish that the ’80s called about because they want it back, according to guest judge and Eric Ripert, who is the chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin, a New York City-based, three-Michelin stared French seafood restaurant.

The judges go course by course.

Head judge Tom Colicchio starts off with Sarah’s tartare, calling it different and ambitious but compared to the other two, it fell a little short. Evelyn’s was “bright and beautiful,” as Padma calls it, but had the misfortune of being next to Buddha’s stunner of Hamachi and caviar. It’s inspired by his brother but also the famous Oysters and Pearls dish by Michelin-starred chef Thomas Keller (I actually did have this dish earlier this year and can attest to the fact that it’s one of those dishes you have to eat before you die, and I don’t even like oysters) as well as Eric. Looks like Buddha wins the first course.

For the second course, the judges all agree that Sarah’s squash dish could’ve used some editing. Gail Simmons tells Sarah that the “ideas of [her] dish were too big for the bowl.” Evelyn’s crystal dumplings were like “perfect little jewels.” Buddha’s penang laksa was beautiful, Eric says, but he says chefs in the ’80s were prisoners to these techniques and he would’ve liked to have seen Buddha express himself more. Padma comes to Buddha’s defense and says to a Top Chef fanboy like Buddha, being a prisoner to technique is his idea of fun.

The third course saw some missteps from the chefs, including inconsistent cooking of Sarah’s ballotine and Evelyn’s decision to not cook the goat into the curry mole so the flavors of the sauce would infuse the meat. The star of Buddha’s Mongolian lamb dish was the eggplant and got away from the inspiration. But it was technically flawless.

Dessert, however, is top notch all across the board. Eric says he didn’t think he would like acorns and loved Sarah’s cake. Many of the guest chefs and judges wanted to take Evelyn’s bunuelo home. Buddha’s pumpkin pie mille-feuille, a tribute to America and the opportunities he’s had in this country, was impressive as it was delicious — and those tuile leaves even rustled on the plate because of course they did.

Top Chef Houston Finale
Guest judge and Top Chef Chicago winner Stephanie Izard, Sarah Welch, Robert Hernandez, and guest judge and chef Eric Ripert cheers with Top Chef Houston winner Buddha Lo. // Photograph by David Moir/Bravo

To the surprise of no one, Buddha is crowned this season’s “Top Chef.” He’s overcome with emotion now that he accomplished what he set out to do in honor of his father.

And that’s a wrap! It was exciting to see a chef from Michigan who lives and cooks in Detroit go this far on Top Chef. While we have seen chefs with Michigan roots win it all, such as Kristen Kish and Mei Lin, we’ve never seen a local chef who lives here make it to the finale and showcase the state’s delicious food for the rest of the country like Sarah did. 

 

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“People had kind of counted me out,” says Sarah in her last interview. “And to think I got this far. I’m proud of myself. I think I handled it with grace. Not a ton of class, but a lot of grace.”

And Michigan is proud of you! Thanks, Sarah, for a great season and representing the Great Lakes State with grace AND class!

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