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Top Chef: Houston Recap: Son of a Beach
A perfectly timed family challenge finally brings out a little personality in our competitors. A recap of ‘Family Vacation,’ episode 11 of season 19 of ‘Top Chef’ on Bravo.

Top Chef: Houston Recap: Son of a Beach

Season 19 Episode 11 Editor’s Rating5 stars *****

Photo: Bravo

After Jae’s elimination last week, she headed into the finale of a great season of Last Chance Kitchen. If you haven’t been keeping up with the online add-on, I seriously recommend watching at least the last few episodes after Ashleigh’s reentry into the regular competition. Everyone has been cooking very well, and we even got a fan-favorite challenge in last week’s blind taste test. (It is extremely sad to me that Jackson did not get to participate in the blind taste test, but it’s still a great challenge for the remaining chefs.) Sarah may have lost to Ashleigh, but she has been on the warpath since, continuing to knock out anyone who stands in her way.

In the LCK two-part finale, Sarah and Jae went head-to-head in a texture challenge, both creating dishes that feature chewy, crunchy, and creamy components. They were warned that Tom wouldn’t be judging, but weren’t given much more detail on who it would be. “Five culinary experts” was all they got. In a wild twist, the five chefs still remaining in the competition were blindly judging the two meals. But they weren’t deciding who successfully fought their way back into Top Chef; instead, they determined how much time Jae and Sarah would have to make a second dish. Sarah dominated the first round, and after earning everyone’s vote and an extra 15 minutes to cook her final plate in LCK, she claimed the second victory as well. It’s amazing to see Sarah come back from her early elimination and crush it on LCK — she was eliminated in episode four! Beating everyone else who was sent home is an amazing feat, and I’m so glad to see her back in the regular competition. It’s going to take a second to readjust to the Top Chef kitchen, but here’s hoping she makes it a week or two.

In Sarah’s first Quickfire back in the game, the chefs are in Galveston for a seafood challenge. Tasked with curating a seafood tower, they will make both a hot and cold shellfish dish. Tonight’s guest judge is Top Chef: Portland fan-favorite Shota Nakajima. The Quickfire isn’t the most successful for anyone, but Evelyn adds another win to her ever-expanding résumé. Despite winning so many Elimination Challenges, this is somehow Evelyn’s very first Quickfire victory. She prepares a raw oyster with shallots for the cold dish, but her hot dish is the real star. Always one to blend unexpected flavors, Evelyn makes a Thai-Cajun shrimp boil that Padma and Shota both love and praise for its originality. Ashleigh’s jerk shrimp and Nick’s oysters land them both on top as well.

Unfortunately for Sarah, her first challenge back in the game is a bit of a bust. She’s understandably a bit nervous and rusty despite cooking in LCK for the past few weeks. She’s in good company, however, as Buddha joins her at the bottom. Both of these chefs know they can do better than the dishes they offered up this afternoon. Luckily, there’s an amazing Elimination Challenge on the beachy horizon.

As Padma describes the challenge, it’s immediately clear the top six will be cooking for their family members. They are a little slow on the uptake, but they’re stressed out! And deep in competition mode! Padma informs them they’ll be acting as private chefs for the evening, cooking for “a family on vacation.” This challenge is sponsored by VRBO, and the chefs will have the additional challenge of cooking in the kitchen of the rental home the family is staying in. Six people crammed into one kitchen will be difficult, but it’s even more difficult for the chefs to imagine what kind of family-style food they’ll be cooking. To assist with menu planning, Padma gives each chef a dossier that explains the type of food their assigned family member is craving. Even now, looking at a complete list of likes and dislikes, some of the chefs are struggling to put the pieces together. Buddha, on the other hand, immediately recognizes his wife’s requests.

After spending the entire season wanting more personality from our competitors, this family challenge came at the perfect time. Finally, we get a glimpse at the people beneath the chef persona they’ve each crafted. Along with Buddha’s instant recognition, Evelyn also is quick to determine what the challenge is. Her dossier is filled with Mexican classics and dishes that have been on her restaurants’ menus, and she’s elated at the idea of cooking for her father. On the other hand, Nick is unable to discern who he’ll be cooking for. The likes are all over the place and he’s a little lost on what to make. Sarah is also extremely stressed out, but it’s because she knows for a fact she’ll be cooking for her sister. She seems preemptively pissed off, imagining how her sister is going to criticize the dish, and I love it. Her sister is her best friend, but that just means they’re willing to openly butt heads and disagree in the name of sisterly love.

For winning the Quickfire, Evelyn gets an extra half-hour to start working on her family-style dish. She’s making red snapper and sticky rice, and the other chefs have to just sit on the couch and watch while she spreads out across the limited kitchen space. No one has any deadly misfires during the cook period, but in the midst of all the chaos, in walks the family. Buddha’s wife, Evelyn’s dad, Sarah’s sister, Nick’s mother, Ashleigh’s mother, and Demarr’s mentor all enter the home. Immediately tears are shed, both by the chefs and by me. It’s so lovely to watch everyone get reunited. It has only been a few weeks, but it’s been a few weeks full of anxiety, and sometimes the only cure for that kind of anxiety is a hug from someone you love, someone who is unconditionally rooting for you. It’s an adorable boost to get them through the final few challenges.

Unfortunately for some of the chefs, the idea of cooking for family is perhaps too much pressure — Ashleigh, Sarah, and Nick all end up on the bottom. Sarah makes a major mistake in the plating of her dish, but overall the cooking is okay. She admits to making an aesthetic choice without thinking about how the diners will eat the resulting dish. After putting so much effort into her sauce, the decision to plate in a visually pleasing way means the judges just can’t taste the peanut sauce that elevated her tuna. In addition, our other guest judge, Top Chef: Seattle and Top Chef: Charleston fan-favorite Sheldon Simeon, is generally not a fan of the cook on the tuna. Nick’s pasta is mushy and overcooked, but his well-seasoned crab stock is enough to save him. For a moment it looks like Sarah will be gone as soon as she arrived, but it’s Ashleigh’s horribly undercooked squid that sends her out the door. This dish is so bad, Padma can’t even choke it down, instead spitting it into a napkin. When little mistakes are enough to send you home, I hope anything that causes such a big reaction is a quick ticket out the door.

On the more pleasant side of things, Evelyn, Buddha, and Demarr are praised for their amazing dishes. Evelyn is ecstatic to cook for her dad and puts up an amazing meal, but doesn’t claim double wins this episode. Demarr has spent the season talking about how important his mom and aunt are to him, but because his mom is disabled and his aunt is her caretaker, there was no way for them to both make it to Galveston. He is clearly having a hard time seeing everyone else (especially Ashleigh and Nick) receive the love that inspires them so much. But seeing chef Erick Williams, his boss and mentor, is a great morale boost nonetheless, and Erick brought a letter from Demarr’s family. It’s not the same as seeing them in the flesh, but the two share a little cry over the letter in one of the most touching moments of the season. Demarr really is a softy beneath that stoic exterior and I’m so here for it. But despite making a great meal, he doesn’t take home victory this time either.

Buddha makes the perfect dish for this challenge, and it’s no wonder he takes his second Elimination win in a row. He cooks the meal that introduced him to his wife and offers up a perfect pasta amatriciana. In a total wife-guy move, he calls it “Marry Me Pasta,” because when she first made this for him, he knew he wanted to eat it forever. It’s a sweet story and a very well-executed pasta dish. With this win, he earns a $10,000 stay at any VRBO property in the world, and his first thought is Rome, so he and his wife can eat the biggest bowl of pasta amatriciana they can find. Two wins in a row this late in the season is an indicator that Buddha might just sweep the rest of the competition. But Evelyn is not going to go down without a fight, nor will Nick and Demarr. Will Sarah turn it around enough to get herself back in the mix? With only three more episodes left in the season, it just might not work out for her. But stranger things have happened in the Top Chef kitchen, and there’s certainly a precedent for LCK winners going all the way.

Musings From the Stew Room

• A hilarious moment during judging: “This challenge was super-emotional, because my wife means a lot to me,” says Buddha, to which Padma simply shrugs, like, yeah, I hope she does mean a lot to you.

• I have to reiterate that I fully cried during this episode! I am known to cry at every single family-visit episode on Survivor as well, and this was no different. I’m so happy to see all of these chefs break down that wall a little bit and show their emotions. All season, the best meals have been inspired by family, so it was truly a treat to finally meet the people who inspired these chefs.

• Sarah is back on her self-deprecating bullshit, and I for one love to see it. I want her to feel more confident in herself, but she has the most personality of anyone left, and that’s important to me.

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