Episode two of “Top Chef: Houston” brought the cheftestants out on the football field to try to score a culinary touchdown. They’re back outside again in “Noodles and Rice and Everything Nice,” this time at an Asian night market. Read on for a recap of this flavorful world tour.
The lucky 13 remaining competitors were Damarr Brown, Jo Chan, Monica Feybesse, Evelyn Garcia, Robert Hernandez, Jae Jung, Jackson Kalb, Sam Kang, Luke Kolpin, Buddha Lo, Ashleigh Shanti, Nick Wallace, and Sarah Welch. And there was so much work for them to do this week that host Padma Lakshmi told them there would be no Quickfire Challenge (meaning no immunity), and that they’d be going straight to the week’s main course.
The chefs were greeted by Padma, guest judge Hung Huynh (winner of “Top Chef: Miami”), and a row of five stations with two chefs behind each. Those tables represented five different Asian cuisines: Vietnamese, Indian, Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese. The competitors would draw knives to determine which of the five they would get, and here’s how it turned out:
Indian: Buddha, Luke, and Sam
Chinese: Ashleigh, Monique, and Jae
Vietnamese: Jackson, Evelyn, and Sarah
Japanese: Damarr and Nick
Filipino: Jo and Robert
The chefs would then make street food in those styles to feed 100 people at an Asian street market. But the chefs who got the same cuisine wouldn’t be working together. This was an individual challenge, and that being the case, Jo seemed to have an immediate advantage since Filipino food matches her background perfectly. Though she herself was quick to point out how that can be a double-edged sword: the judges might expect more from you if you’re working in a style you already know well.
The chefs all tasted sample dishes from each of the five stations to get inspiration for their own street food before heading to a specialty Asian market for ingredients. Buddha was excited for the opportunity to tackle Indian cuisine, even though cooking Indian food for Padma is an infamously high-risk endeavor. He asked the expert chefs specific questions about ingredients and meal preparation — learning that you should bake a samosa instead of frying it, for instance. But then Luke finds out on their way to the market that he and Buddha are both making samosas, so the nerves kicked in: two similar dishes would invite the judges to compare them directly, and the chef with the lesser dish could be especially vulnerable to elimination.
Meanwhile, it seemed like Jackson would be in his greatest danger yet with this being their first fully solo challenge. As he reminds us, he contracted COVID-19 not too long before doing the show, so his senses of taste and smell were very limited. For the last two weeks he was able to skate by in team challengers where he could ask his teammates for their opinions of his flavors without admitting that he couldn’t effectively judge the flavors himself.
Among the other chefs, neither Damarr nor Nick had any experience with Japanese cooking, though Nick thought he could bring his Mississippi know-how to a Japanese fried chicken dish he tasted. Sam was excited for another chance to work with potatoes — he first sang the praises of those starchy spuds in last week’s episode. He was going to tweak a traditional vindaloo, turning it into a “Samaloo.” Jae had udon noodles on her mind, Evelyn planned a chicken salad. And Sarah seemed lost among the unfamiliar food items.
They prepared that night in the kitchen, precooking, chopping, and prepping whatever ingredients they would need on-site the next day. When Tom and Hung arrive to check in on the chefs’ progress, Hung couldn’t hide his concern when Ashleigh told them she would be frying the beef for her dish. He and Tom were concerned that frying would make the beef tough and chewy. “I’m always confident until Tom comes over,” says Ashleigh after they moved on to their next victim — er, chef.
But as time ran out on their prep time, Sam was the one who had the most to worry about. He was boiling potatoes — you know, the central ingredient in his dish — but when the clock hit zero they were still on the stove. “I f*cked up,” he said, laughing nervously. I mean, how do you improvise when you’re missing your most important ingredient?
Asian Night Market
The chefs arrived at the market at around dusk to do their final cooking. The good news for Sam was that he still had some extra russet potatoes he could use, but of course they were still raw and he had only one hour to cook them. He decided he would grill them and try to pass it off as a deliberate choice to give patrons some live-cooking showmanship.
But he wasn’t the only one crossing his fingers. Jae was overwhelmed by the dozens of ingredients she surrounded herself with. Jo was starting to regret planning a dish with skewers. And Buddha was … frying his samosas? Wasn’t he specifically told that baking was best and that frying would make them too oily?
When Padma, Tom, Hung, Gail Simmons and fellow guest judge Kiran Verm arrived, Hung gave them a preview of what he and Tom had seen during the cheftestants’ preparations the previous night. He was excited by a lot of what he’d seen there, while others were “interesting,” and Hung’s gonna need to work on his poker face because that was clearly not a positive use of the word “interesting.”
However, the market got off to a great start. Evelyn’s poached chicken salad was so good that Tom would have asked for seconds if he didn’t have other dishes to taste and judge. Luke’s crab and corn samosa had great spices, a surprise since Luke has struggled this season and Indian food was completely unfamiliar to him. Nick’s chicken karaage was “some damn good fried chicken,” according to Padma. Jae’s stir fry noodles were so good that the judges barely talked, just slurped.
The streak couldn’t last forever, though. Tom and Hung were right to worry about Ashleigh’s fried beef skewer: the meat was tough and the daikon was cut too large. Robert’s marinated chicken thigh got mixed reviews: Padma liked it, and they all thought his shrimp paste was great, but Tom thought there was too much of it. Sarah’s chicken heart banh mi also got a somewhat muted response: it had a playful presentation, though the bread needed to be a lot crispier to hold up.
Buddha’s chicken karahi samosa was another swing and a miss, and why is that? … Because he fried it! As Kiran herself had warned him, it came out greasy, and on top of that it was raw and pasty on the inside. And on top of that his chutney sauce was all sugar and no spice. Next up, Monique’s rice cakes had good flavors on the plate, but not enough flavor in the rice cakes themselves. Jo’s chicken tocino skewers were kinda bland too; the judges wished she would have pushed herself more, having so much experience with Filipino cuisine.
After winning last week’s Quickfire and Elimination Challenges, Damarr nailed it again: his ham hock miso soup had great umami and complex flavors. And Jackson’s inability to taste his spring roll didn’t stop the judges from loving it and the “hot and flavorful” sauce that accompanied it. But Sam … oh Sam, dear Sam. He did his best to convince the judges that grilling the potatoes for his “Samaloo” was a deliberate choice, but that actually seemed to backfire because the potato was undercooked and Tom was baffled by the whole thing since grilling the potatoes made it no longer a vindaloo.
It was hard to guess who the judges’ favorites would be since so many of the dishes elicited strong praise. But they picked Evelyn, Jackson, and Jae — two Vietnamese and one Chinese dish, respectively. Again they praised Jackson’s spices and Evelyn’s well-balanced flavors, but it was Jae’s stir fried udon with Chinese sausage, Korean melon, and ramen topping that won the challenge, a major comeback after she ended up on the losing team in the season premiere.
Only a few dishes bombed with the judges outright, so it wasn’t surprising that the bottom three were Buddha, Ashleigh, and Sam with their respective Indian, Chinese, and Indian dishes. They reiterated that Ashleigh’s meat was tough and that Buddha’s pastry was improperly cooked. As for Sam, he got an especially withering critique from Hung, who told him that when you make a bold choice, you need to “remember how to cook.” Except Sam didn’t make that choice, he was tap dancing after an earlier mistake they didn’t see.
It was right about now that Sam should have fessed up to the judges that he was boiling his potatoes as God intended the previous night, but ran out of time and had to make the best of it. But he continued to insist that he meant to do that, which might have been an even bigger mistake than grilling the potatoes. If he told the judges he ran out of time while cooking the right way, that might have been forgivable, it happens to the best of them. But by maintaining that he chose to cook it the wrong way, he instead looked inept. “I’m just being honest about what I’m doing and what I’m trying to do,” he said to his fellow competitors backstage, an odd thing to say because it wasn’t actually true and the other chefs knew that.
Alas, Sam was eliminated from the competition, which might have happened anyway even if the judges knew about his extenuating circumstances, but keeping it from them certainly didn’t help. So he’ll have to hope to redeem himself in “Last Chance Kitchen,” where Tom will be able to see everything he does right and everything he does wrong.
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