‘Top Chef’ Houston Recap: Go Fish

The remaining five chefs have to make two dishes using fish that they catch
Top Chef - Season 19
The final five — Evelyn Garcia, Nick Wallace, Damarr Brown, Sarah Welch, and Buddha Lo — hit the water with judge Tom Colicchio to catch fish for this week’s Elimination Challenge. // Photograph by David Moir/Bravo

It’s the last challenge in Houston and Sarah Welch says she feels like she’s “clawing” her way through the competition.

“It’s just harder than Last Chance Kitchen because you don’t have time to overthink your dish,” she says. “I gotta learn to trust my initial instinct.”

There’s no Quickfire Today because the chefs are going fishing. The challenge is to cook fish two ways using what they catch. If they don’t catch any fish, they’ll have to dip into their $200 budget. No one wants to do that because they won’t have enough money to make two dishes since fresh fish could eat up the entire budget.

It’s a slow day on the water as the fish aren’t biting. Evelyn Garcia is the first one to catch a fish, a small catfish. Eventually the bull redfish are coming in fast and furious, except for Sarah who’s still coming up empty. She finally reels one in, and everyone leaves with at least one fish.

At Whole Foods, Sarah says she likes to have contingencies for everything that she makes — but not today. “I think that a huge part of my problem in the past was not doing a good job shopping, so I’m really trying to be as abbreviated as I can with my shop,” she says.

Top Chef - Season 19
The chefs prepared and presented their dishes at renowned French chef Daniel Boulud’s restaurant Bludorn. // Photograph by David Moir/Bravo

For her first dish, Sarah is making a “pseudo crudo” with pickled gulf snapper, silken tofu, fermented greens, and kraut broth that will be poured tableside. The second dish is inspired by a pastrami sandwich: smoked red drum with pastrami spice, carrot butter, and Parisian gnocchi. It sounds delicious and very much like a Sarah dish.

Evelyn is also cooking two dishes that are very much like her: a caldo de pescado with poached red fish, chipotle, cilantro oil, and roasted vegetable for her first dish and taco al pastor with roasted redfish, pineapple, and avocado salsa.

Buddha Lo says he’s going all out because one of the guest judges for this Elimination Challenge is renowned French chef Daniel Boulud. Buddha is making a steamed bull redfish with shrimp farce (a stuffing made of meat or fish pureed with egg, bread, and/or cream) and “fish in chips:” fried flounder with vadouvan sauce and potato gribiche. The “fish in chips” is a nod to a dish that Boulud is known for: sea bass “en paupiette,” fish wrapped in layers of potato. The potato noodles that Buddha made aren’t cooperating with the fish, so he does a crispy garnish instead.

Nick Wallace is doing a fried redfish taco with pickled peppers and smoked tomato crema and a seared bull redfish cake with lemon beurre blanc and mushroom ragout. It kind of looks like a mess, with the beurre blanc slapped sloppily on the plate and the cake looking equally as sloppy, more like a crumbled biscuit than a cake.

Wallace’s “adopted little brother,” Damarr Brown, says he’s doing something he doesn’t usually do (red flag) by incorporating Asian flavors with a snapper crudo with apples, radish, and coconut vinaigrette for his first dish and blackened bull redfish with marinated vegetables and herb salad. It sounds very boring, which is uncharacteristic for Damarr who usually brings it.

Top Chef - Season 19
Sarah Welch presents her two dishes to the judges. // Photograph by David Moir/Bravo

At judges table, it’s the two chefs who did playful takes for their dishes who come out on top: Buddha and Sarah, who snags her first W. Daniel was drinking the broth directly from the bowl and guest judge Stephanie Izard’s mind was blown by Sarah’s pastrami sandwich interpretation.

Host Padma Lakshmi asks Sarah “where have you been all competition?” Judge Gail Simmons says, “She’s been hanging out with Tom,” and head judge Tom Colicchio looks like a proud dad.

Evelyn played it safe, Padma tells her. But she cooked well enough to make it to the finals so she she’s joining Sarah and Buddha.

It’s down to Nick and Damarr on the chopping block. Damarr’s fish in the crudo was bland and his second dish was “murky,” as Gail puts it, while Nick’s taco was dry and the cake was hard to understand.

In the end, Nick is sent packing, and the final four are packing their bags to one of two U.S. cities deemed a UNESCO city of gastronomy: Tucson, Arizona.

“Being in the top four instead of being eliminated fourth feels very surreal,” Sarah says. “I just appreciate all the feedback and opportunity to cook alongside people like this. I feel so good. If I’d known it felt this good, I would have done it a lot sooner.”

Catch this season of Top Chef at 8 p.m. on Thursdays on Bravo. For more information, visit  bravotv.com.

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