This week on Top Chef, the remaining six chefs head to Galveston, Texas. In the car, Marrow executive chef and Last Chance Kitchen Queen Sarah Welch is drinking what appears to be coffee from a mug, not a traveler’s mug that has a lid so you don’t take a hot coffee shower but a wide-mouth mug. Sarah, fresh from her reign of LCK, must be feeling invincible right about now to make such a bold choice in a moving car on the highway.
She tells her rivals there’s so much more creative freedom in LCK.
“My biggest fear in being back is that I’ve been practicing a different kind of cooking than you guys,” she says to her road trip mates Evelyn Garcia and Ashleigh Shanti. “I haven’t had to spend the night thinking about a dish, and I don’t think I’m very good at that.”
Maybe she’s not feeling so invincible. Even though she demolished several chefs to come back, she’s a bit wary.
In the producer interview room, she says she’s honored to be back but is worried about overthinking things. Foreshadowing!
The chefs meet host Padma Lakshmi and Shota Nakajima, a finalist from last season, on the beach. Their challenge is to make a seafood tower with one hot and one cold dish using seafood so fresh that a crab leaps from its bowl and tries to make a break for it.
In her first Quickfire Challenge back, Sarah doesn’t fare so well. Her seafood tower — dill pickled shrimp with hot buttered oyster, peach relish, and breadcrumb — along with Buddha Lo’s jumbo shrimp XO cocktail and soft-shell crab “taco” yaki are on the bottom.
Evelyn wins for her Viet Cajun-inspired seafood tower with Thai Cajun shrimp boil and raw oysters on the half shell with a fish sauce vinegar, chili oil, and crispy shallots. Immunity is no longer on the table, but she will get an extra 30 minutes to cook. She gets a total of 3 hours while the rest have to cook in 2 ½ hours.
The Elimination Challenge is to cook for a family reunion of VIPs at a rental home, i.e., no professional kitchen. They are each assigned a family member, and they have to interpret their guest’s likes and dislikes.
The chefs immediately suspect that family member is quite literal — it must be someone they know.
Buddha says the family member he’s cooking for is 100 percent his wife, because there’s no one else in the world who loves tom yum, sticky rice, and pasta amatriciana.
Sarah thinks her family member is her sister because this person loves tuna and hates mushrooms.
“It’s just hard for me to believe that there is a doppelganger of my sister’s dietary restrictions floating around,” she says.
Nick Wallace takes a look at his and says he doesn’t connect with this one. “My dossier is all over the place,” he says. “Barbecue, ribs, crab, shrimp, Chinese food, Mexican food … is this person from Mississippi?”
Damarr Brown says his person likes chicken livers, barbecue, and fish so he thinks it sounds like his boss, mentor, and friend, chef Erick Williams.
Ashleigh says she must have her mom because her dossier says this family member likes seafood and rice. She wants to make seafood rice with squid so she can impress her.
Evelyn says this person’s love of eggs is tipping her off it must be her dad.
Now that the chefs all have an idea for whom they’re cooking, they head off to the grocery store to shop.
Sarah thinks the challenge is not about making a dish that will make their family member the happiest but using them as an inspiration. Her sister would want their mom’s rendition of tuna exactly so Sarah’s strategy is to make a tuna tataki made for Top Chef.
Sarah says her sister is her best friend.
“My parents owned a Jamaican restaurant in Michigan,” she says. “And then they also owned and operated a resort in Jamaica. While other kids were at summer camp meeting other kids, [my sister and I] were in Jamaica together as a duo taking on the world and we got into trouble together.” When asked what kind of trouble, she says it’s nothing that can be put on Bravo.
The chefs all cram into the kitchen to prepare and there is a shocking lack of drama, swearing, and thrown items. They all manage to cook in the kitchen that has only four burners and two ovens without stabbing anyone.
While they’re cooking their suspicions are confirmed as their loved ones walk through the door. But there’s no time to catch up because they still have to finish the challenge. Sarah starts plating her dish on a TV table and notices her peanut sauce is looking “kind of s***.” It is peanut sauce, so does it never not look s***? Peanut sauce is brown…and that’s about it.
“In the interest of making a more beautiful plate, I slide the tuna over to fan it out,” she says. “So I’m essentially making an aesthetic decision over a flavor decision. Anytime you’re making family-style food, there is an additional challenge that you don’t get to control how your diner eats [the dish].”
After the chefs present their dishes, they find out they are the other guests at the party and they get to sit down and eat. There are a lot of tears: Damarr’s chef brings him a letter from his aunt, who cares for his mom who uses a wheelchair. The letter says God has blessed Damarr with amazing gifts and talents and that he is No. 1 in their hearts. Damarr must be affected by all the onions he cut because he is getting emotional.
Buddha wins for his “Marry Me Pasta,” inspired by his wife Rebekah’s pasta amatriciana. The judges love how simple and flavorful it was and note it’s a big departure from the high-concept food he usually does.
“There was nothing fussy about it,” says judge Gail Simmons. “There were no fancy garnishes. There was just deep, deep flavor.”
Ashleigh, Nick, and Sarah wind up on the bottom. Ashleigh’s calamari was inedible to the point that Padma spit it out in her napkin; Nick took his dossier literally and put everything into a bowl; and Sarah, done in by her overthinking, didn’t have enough peanut sauce and her fish was cut and cooked poorly. But in the end, Sarah survives as Ashleigh is sent home.
Next week is the last Elimination Challenge before the chefs leave Houston for a “UNESCO city of gastronomy.”
Catch this season of Top Chef at 8 p.m. on Thursdays on Bravo. For more information, visit bravotv.com.