Five chefs remained in “Top Chef: Houston” for “We’re on a Boat” the last challenge before the finals: Damarr Brown, Evelyn Garcia, Buddha Lo, Nick Wallace, and comeback kid Sarah Welch. This would also be their last challenge in Houston before traveling to another culinary mecca: Tuscon, Arizona, as we learned at the end of the episode. As such, this week’s show bypassed the Quickfire Challenge and went straight to the main event.
As the title of the episode suggested, the chefs were out to sea to start their challenge. Tom Colicchio and “Top Chef” All-Star Dawn Burrell welcomed them onboard and explained their task: they were about to go fishing. It wasn’t just a pleasure cruise, though. Whatever they fished was going to determine what they had to cook with. They would use their catch to make two different dishes with two different preparations. They’d have two and a half hours the following day to complete their plates and then serve them to a panel of judges including legendary chef Daniel Boulud, whose name awed all the chefs present.
So show of hands: who among the cheftestants had ever gone fishing? All hands went up … except for Damarr’s. That could’ve been a problem, though the chefs would have the benefit of $200 to spend between a local seafood market and their usual Whole Foods even if they couldn’t get any fish the old-fashioned way. Still, Damarr’s strategy was to do whatever Tom told him to do to reel one in because otherwise he would have had no idea what he was doing.
The boat stopped in one promising spot, and the live-baited fishing lines went in the water. Time to wait … and wait ……. and wait.
After 30 minutes, no fish.
After 90 minutes, still no fish. We’re not gonna need a bigger boat.
They moved on to another spot, and that did the trick. Evelyn was the first to hit the jackpot. A small jackpot, a tiny jackpot, but a jackpot nonetheless. She pulled a little catfish out of the briny deep that would hardly feed the seven diners they’d have to cook for. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before bigger fish came pouring in. Despite his inexperience, Damarr caught a bull redfish, and he felt the thrill of pulling his food right out of the ocean.
Nick was next to reel in a redfish, a species that turned out to be abundant in these waters. Buddha caught a redfish. Evelyn finally got a redfish to add to her catfish. Sarah was still struggling, though, the last student picked in fish gym class. Dusk was approaching, so she was starting to despair; it would be beyond disappointing not to catch any fish in the catch-your-own-fish challenge. But she too was eventually rewarded with a redfish, prompting her to exclaim, “Shorty knows how to fish!” and solidifying her as my favorite chef this season.
Everyone had enough fish to feed the judges, so it was time to head to the seafood market to butcher what they caught. Sarah needed tips from the proprietor to carve hers, especially after nearly getting eliminated (again) last week for improperly cutting fish. While there, though, other chefs decided to buy some supplemental seafood: Nick picked up farm-raised redfish for a different flavor and texture, while Damarr grabbed some snapper.
Nick planned on making fish tacos, then quickly found out Evelyn had the same idea. For her second dish Evelyn would cook a Mexican-style soup to honor her roots in this final Houston challenge, while Nick would complement his with a redfish cake, the latter of which would require using more finely ground fish as a binder to keep the whole cake together. The “Top Chef” editors made sure to include this detail in the episode; it would soon be relevant.
Buddha worked on steamed redfish and a “fish in chips” idea, though the latter gave him uncharacteristic trouble. He didn’t have enough potato for the preparation he had in mind, so he had to use the potato as a garnish and scramble to finish. Evelyn at one point asked him how he was working around his problem, to which he said, “Not now, please,” which is as brusque and irritated as we ever see the calm and collected chef.
Damarr was making a red snapper crudo along with blackened redfish. He was trying out more of an Asian-inspired preparation even though Asian cooking isn’t really his strong suit. His goal was to show the judges his range, though we’ve seen that kind of tactic backfire before. It’s good to leave your comfort zone in the competition, but playing against your established expertise too much risks you presenting the judges with a dish in a cooking style you’re simply not good at. We had to wait and see which way this gambit would go.
The problems continued. Sarah was making a “pseudo crudo,” a semi-raw fish dish along with a pastrami sandwich inspired dish with the fish standing in for the pastrami. But at one point Evelyn noticed that Sarah was burning the hell out of her fish stock. She had more, but no more room for error — not that the chefs have very much room for error in the first place when you’re down to the final five. Before plating and serving her dishes, the judges could even hear her in the kitchen cursing in frustration, which probably didn’t sound like a good sign to them.
But perhaps the biggest misstep was Nick’s. With six minutes left on the clock, he realized that he’d forgotten the aforementioned cake binder. This wasn’t the kind of problem where you could quickly improvise a solution. It simply meant that he would have to serve the judges a redfish pile instead of a redfish cake. His flavors would have to save him.
With so much drama in the kitchen, it was hard to figure out who would sink or swim (pardon the pun) when the plates reached the judges’ table. Buddha was up first with his “fish in chips” and steamed bull redfish. But for all his frustration behind-the-scenes, the judges would never have known it from the pristine presentations in front of them — after all, they didn’t hear his laments as they could Sarah’s.
It turned out that Buddha’s redfish was “stunning,” according to Gail Simmons, with thoughtful technique, and perfectly delicate and velvety texture. The “fish in chips” were satisfying and impressive in their creative use of potatoes; the only problem was that the fish in that dish was slightly dry, though compensated for with great, flavorful sauce. “Buddha knocked this out of the park,” said Tom.
Evelyn’s redfish caldo de pescado and taco al pastor were next. The caldo had a powerful, flavorful kick, and it was bright, fresh, and beautiful. It simply needed more fish. The taco was tasty too, minimalist but packed with flavor, tangy and sweet. Unfortunately, the tortilla was too thick, sopping up all the moisture, and the judges felt she played it safe in her meal selections. She has won multiple challenges this season, so she set a high bar for herself, and now was not the time to make dishes just to skate by.
Then came Sarah’s “pseudo crudo” and red drum fish with pastrami spice, and I was prepared for the worst given the chaos in the kitchen and last week’s shaky first challenge back in the main competition. But the judges loved both dishes. The crudo was smooth with delicious broth and hot and cold elements in perfect balance. The pastrami-inspired dish was perfectly cooked and an imaginative, original creation that the judges thought was good enough to become her signature dish. Way to rebound, Sarah! It was pretty certain from these rave reviews that she would advance to the final four.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum came Nick. Indeed, his fish cake mush seemed rushed to the judges despite some good texture. It was grasping at ideas without pulling them together. If that were the only problem, it might have been bad enough for elimination with the competition at such a high level. Unfortunately, the judges also had problems with his fish taco, which suffered from overcooked, dry, and tough fish, plus a dry tortilla. It needed more herbs and seasoning. Was there any way to come back from two unsuccessful dishes.
The judges were also critical of Damarr’s snapper crudo and blackened bull redfish. The crudo had a beautiful presentation and the fish was cut quite well, but the flavor was lacking — it just needed more salt. The redfish, meanwhile, was delicious and juicy, but peanut in the marinade made it too grainy. So it sounded like more of a mixed bag than Nick’s more unanimously derided dishes. I was pretty certain that Nick was on his way out, but … could Sarah actually be competitive for the win? Praise like she got seemed damn near undeniable.
Top, middle, and bottom chefs seemed pretty clear based on the judges’ dinner table commentaries: Buddha and Sarah on top, Nick and Damarr at the bottom, and Evelyn tucked comfortably in the middle. It was just a matter of who would win the challenge and who would be eliminated. Sarah’s reaction just to being named one of the top two was delightful: that same mix of shock and relief she expressed every time she won a round of “Last Chance Kitchen.” She was especially proud to receive praise from Padma Lakshmi, whom she didn’t want to let down. Sarah indeed won the challenge — her first individual challenge win — but she was mostly thrilled to know that she’d made the final four with flying colors.
It turned out Evelyn wasn’t too comfortable in the middle, though. The judges told her there was nothing wrong with her dishes, per se, but their lack of imagination was not befitting the competition. They left her in suspense for a few seconds where it seemed to her like she might have been facing the firing squad, but as expected they told her she was advancing to the finals too.
That left Damarr and Nick. It was hard to see them there, and it was going to be hard seeing either of them leave, though I’ve grown fond enough of all these chefs that I would have been bummed no matter who had to pack their knives and go. This was only the second time either of them had been at the bottom throughout the entire season, but it was destined to end for one of them. That turned out to be Nick, though in the moment Damarr wasn’t too pleased to have made it to the finals without the chef he’d become close to. “My big brother just left,” Damarr said tearfully.
“This is not failure,” Nick insisted in his exit interview. “Right now I’m more grateful and appreciative than anything. This has been a journey that I needed. And I’m coming home with this bold ol’ smile, and I’m so proud to be from Mississippi but we’re about to do bigger things.” And on the bright side, Nick left the show as “the baker,” who won more money in challenges this season than any other chef. Not a bad way to cushion the fall.
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