Photo: Well done
Throughout this season in Houston, the most awarded food has been food that comes straight from the hearts of our chefs. Wherever that inspiration came from – mothers, grandmothers, hometowns or countries of origin – the food was evocative and passionate. Those eliminated so far often lacked a deep connection to their last meals. For tonight’s Elimination Challenge, the chefs all took advantage of this template and kicked it up a notch, resulting in the most popular challenge of the season. There just wasn’t a bad dish, although someone was shown the door anyway. Before we get to that, though, let’s dive into the Quickfire.
One last immunity. This season is running to the wire, and tonight’s Quickfire winner will be the last to receive that much-desired immunity. This means that this is the very last time anyone will breathe easy in this kitchen. For this challenge, Grand Chief: Texas Chief Nyesha Arrington joins Padma to judge. Each chef draws a knife to choose a color. The chefs will have to create a monochromatic and vegetarian dish with these randomly chosen colors. It’s a fun and whimsical challenge, and I’m sure Padma is relieved to focus on veggies after a season full of beef, chili, queso and over-the-top decadence.
We’re in the final seven of a super talented season, so everyone’s dishes are gorgeous. In the bottom half of the Quickfire results are Nick, whose Pumpkin Sweet Potato Fried Rice was confusing, and Ashleigh’s Yellow Vegetable Mash. Poor Evelyn pulls the dark knife but still makes a mouth-watering soup that puts her in the top three. She is joined by Damarr and Buddha, who have drawn green and white knives respectively. Buddha’s white cauliflower and cheese was described as “ready menu”, which is high praise from Padma! But despite this, Damarr is victorious, claiming that precious last immunity with his broccoli “steak.” Damarr is usually very serious and stoic, and we get a happy smile from him at the news of his victory.
After the announcement of the Quickfire results, our two guest judges arrive. Kwame Onwuachi and Dawn Burrell have judged challenges before this season, but they’re back for a big challenge. Tonight, the Chiefs are taken to Freedmen’s Town, a landmark in Houston where newly freed slaves began to build their community. The site is steeped in history and draws a ton of excitement from the remaining chiefs. The focus on community and family has guided them all season, and challenges like this, where emotionally tackling is not only encouraged, but required, have been the highlights of the season.
As the judges begin to make their rounds, it is clear that there will be no weak meal served tonight. Everyone took this soul food challenge very seriously by preparing various inspired and comforting meals. Part of the reason I love these challenges is that I’m always interested in knowing where chefs get their love of cooking from – what was the meal that made them? Luke is the only white guy left, and I have to admit it made me laugh when he said he was making meatloaf. Ah yes, it’s white soul food, baby! It tells a sweet story about being a picky eater as a child and how it was his favorite meal that his mother cooked for him. No shade at meatloaf and I definitely respect the tough pipeline from eater to chef; it’s just a comedic choice.
After the joyful celebration at Bethel Church, the judges and chiefs know it will be a tough deliberation to send someone home. They have to resort to separate dishes, finding the tiniest flaws that might be worth eliminating. When everyone is feeling good about a meal, that’s usually a bad sign. Impossible to stand out if everyone is perfect! Also on top, Evelyn made a sope with added beets, resulting in a beautiful bright pink dish that the judges love. Always one to wear her heart on her sleeve, Evelyn is very moved to bring one of her grandmother’s staple foods to Excellent chef. Damarr also achieves a high rating. His dish, hoecakes and collard greens, is an excellent example of storytelling on the plate, linking history and tradition, two similar but arguably unique concepts.
Rounding out the best chefs in the Elimination Challenge, Jae recalls how her mother used to spoon feed her fish when she was a baby. This lifelong love of seafood brought Jae to New Orleans, where she became a new chef. The shock on his face as they announce his victory is just adorable. Having finally taken a step forward in the final episodes, Jae builds a powerful momentum as she achieves victory over this challenge.
For what seems like the first time, Buddha finds himself at the bottom. He often talks about the impact his father had on his cooking, as he fell in love with cooking at his father’s restaurant. Just weeks before he got the call to be sure Excellent chef, Buddha’s father passed away after a battle with cancer. Tonight her dish was inspired by her father, but sadly the Malaysian curry fell flat. There wasn’t enough pop on the plate, and especially when compared to his past exquisite meals, the judges were mildly disappointed with Buddha. But Buddha’s somewhat lackluster curry holds him back another day, and it’s Luke who falls tonight. Again, this was an amazing display from all the chefs, but Luke’s meatloaf/meatballs were just a tad dry. When the smallest details are what send someone home, any minor mistake leads to elimination. Luke has been a bottom middle competitor all season, and he feels like it was his time to go. He finally came out of his shell a bit tonight, but it wasn’t enough. Quickfires hasn’t been his friend, so I’m hesitant to think he’ll survive the Last Chance Kitchen gauntlet.
• First, an LCK update! I’m happy to report that Sarah is still slaying, knocking out Jackson last week. We know her struggle with self-confidence brought her to her knees in the regular season, but it has obtained be a good booster.
• Padma’s sheer joy over Luke’s Quickfire dish was infectious. “Welcome to the party, man!” It was short-lived, but I’m glad we got some life from Luke on the way out.
• There are six leaders left: All six are POC and three of them are women! In such a competitive season, that’s an impressive feat. Last year’s winner-who-must-not-be-named was the show’s first Mexican American winner, and before that, the last non-white winner was Mei Lin on Grand Chief: Boston in 2015. Maybe Ashleigh will be the first black woman to be named Top Chef! However you slice it, Houstonthe winner will Excellent chef the story.