‘Top Chef: Houston’ finale recap: Did Evelyn, Buddha, or Sarah win season 19?

“There’s still a lot left to do,” “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi told finalists Evelyn Garcia, Buddha Lo, and Sarah Welch at the start of the season 19 finale, “The Final Plate.” And she wasn’t kidding. Read on to find out what happened when “Top Chef: Houston” ended and crowned its season 19 champion.

But before the last challenge would start in Tucson, Arizona, the chefs got some good news: since the last challenge would be such a heavy lift, they would each get a sous chef, and they’d be able to pick who that would be from the 12 other chefs who had been eliminated throughout the season. They got to make those calls that night.

Perhaps surprisingly, Sarah picked Robert Hernandez. I say it’s surprising not just because Robert was eliminated early in the season, but because he and Sarah were actually eliminated together, which started Sarah’s long journey back into the competition through “Last Chance Kitchen.” But she felt “comfortable” cooking alongside him, which was probably of paramount importance on a challenge like this.

Evelyn picked Jo Chan as her sous chef. “We just clicked,” Evelyn explained. And Buddha picked that tasteless titan Jackson Kalb, which was kind of a relief because I’d missed that big lug. Would having a partner with a limited sense of taste be a liability? Not judging from Jackson’s performance throughout the season; he may have been eliminated in ninth place, but he wasn’t even sent home for bad cooking: he was ousted in “Restaurant Wars” for poor leadership decisions. Before that he was dominating challenges with his COVID-impaired taste buds. “I feel like I just won an advantage,” said Buddha about his choice of assistant. “If I’m not beating him, I want him next to me.”

Though maybe Sarah was the one with the real advantage. As “Last Chance Kitchen” slayer, she actually went head-to-head and won against both Evelyn and Buddha’s sous chefs.

Elimination Challenge

The next morning at the Pima County Courthouse — get it? “Top Chef” judges at a courthouse? — Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi reunited the finalists with their chefs, and Jackson informed everyone that his sense of taste was about 70% or 80% recovered. Good news for Buddha, or bad news if it turned out Jackson’s culinary superpower came from not being able to taste food.

Evelyn, Buddha, and Sarah were then told the final challenge, and it was pretty straightforward. They’d be able to cook whatever they wanted and present a progressive four-course meal for a table of judges including past “Top Chef” champ Stephanie Izard and three-star Michelin chef Eric Ripert, whose name inspired awe in the contestants. They’d get $1,500 to spend at local markets, five hours to cook that evening, and then a final two-and-a-half hours for final prep and cooking work before service would begin. Almost eight hours total.

They each came to the final challenge with a different point of view. Sarah intended to highlight the problem of food waste by creating a hunter-gatherer menu using native ingredients and using every ingredient to its fullest. She imagined her meal as a couple of cowboys going out into the Sonoran Desert and happening upon a Michelin-star kitchen where they would eat with Eric Ripert. Her planned menu was as follows:

First: Venison tartare with Sonoran focaccia and smoked butter

Second: Squash tortellini in corn broth with three sisters salad

Third: Rabbit ballotine with grains, nuts, and greens salad

Fourth: Smoked buttermilk ice cream with acorn cake

Evelyn wanted to showcase how her cooking had evolved throughout the season. She was planning on:

First: Scallop crudo

Second: Crystal dumplings with aromatic broth

Third: Goat curry mole

Fourth: Buñuelo with cajeta panna cotta, cardamom, whipped cream, and basil

Jackson thought Buddha might have ended up planning some fancy French cuisine but was relieved to learn he was instead going personal with dishes inspired by his mother, father, brother, and America as a whole. His menu included:

First: Hamachi with caviar

Second: Lobster laksa

Third: Mongolian lamb

Fourth: Pumpkin pie mille-feuille

Buddha was a little worried that buying frozen lobster tail instead of fresh would result in a mushy texture, but other than that, there wasn’t a lot of drama during those first five hours in the kitchen, except for the excitement of Tom checking in on the chefs with Stephanie and Eric in tow — “Holy f*ck, that’s Eric Ripert! I just shit myself,” said Sarah, forever my fave.

After their cook they made their way to Tanque Verde Ranch where Evelyn nervously mounted a horse for the first time and experienced rider Sarah enjoyed getting to see Evelyn nervously mount a horse for the first time. They rode to a scene that was eerily like Sarah’s prophecy: a Michelin-star kitchen in the middle of the desert with Eric Ripert. He, Stephanie, Tom, Padma, and Gail Simmons were cooking for the chefs as thanks for them feeding the judges all season. It was an emotional dinner where Houston-native Evelyn discussed this season allowing her to see her city in a new way and Buddha opened up about the death of his father shortly before he got the call to come on “Top Chef.”

There was also limited drama the following day for the final hours of cooking, except for Sarah needing to hurry her undercooked rabbit into the oven late in the game and Buddha acknowledging just how busy his plating would be thanks to the “massive arsenal” of foods and preparations he was deploying for this dishes. And just like that time was up, and it was time to serve the judges.

Table Service

The first courses hit the table: Evelyn’s scallop crudo, Buddha’s hamachi, and Sarah’s venison tartare. Evelyn’s dish was a light, beautiful starter with prickly pear that showed an understanding of local ingredients. Her scallops were a little under-seasoned, though. Sarah’s dish fit the environment perfectly, though her tartare was under-seasoned. Perhaps they both just suffered in comparison to Buddha’s dish, and Tom’s comment about it said it all: he called it a “three-star Michelin first course.” So one course in, Buddha had the clear advantage.

The second course brought the judges Evelyn’s crystal dumplings, Buddha’s laksa, and Sarah’s squash dumpling. Sarah’s had some problems: confusing flavors with too many competing elements. She should have edited it down. Evelyn’s dish, on the other hand was edited down to its essence, masterful in its restraint. And Buddha delivered another winner with his perfectly prepared dish with tons of elaborate technique. Tom thought the dish was a little too show-offy, but if that’s the worst thing someone has to say about your dish, you’re doing something right.

The third course came with Evelyn’s innovative curry mole, Buddha’s Mongolia lamb, and Sarah’s roast rabbit. Buddha’s lamb was perfectly cooked and unbelievable, though his use of eggplant there was the star. Evelyn’s dish was cooked well, but it would have been better if the goat had been cooked in the curry mole to absorb its flavor. Sarah’s herb salad was good, but the judges did indeed notice that parts of her rabbit were overcooked while other parts were undercooked. Padma then asked the other judges how close they thought the competition was, to which I’d answer, “Not at all,” because the reactions to each dish up to this point were swinging heavily in Buddha’s direction.

Last up were the desserts: Evelyn’s buñuelo, Buddha’s pumpkin pie mille-feuille, and Sarah’s acorn cake with buttermilk ice cream. This course seemed more like a level playing field, with each chef firing on all cylinders. Evelyn might have made the best buñuelo of all time, savory and sweet. Buddha’s was so beautiful, thoughtful, and heartfelt that it almost reduced one judge to tears. Sarah’s cake was a knockout too, beautiful, warm, and comforting — best on the table, according to Tom.

So was this going to be a close decision after all? I still didn’t think so. Evelyn and Sarah really needed Buddha to face-plant on his dessert, maybe give the judges E. coli or something to open the door for them.

Judges’ Table

So was I about to be surprised by the judges’ verdict? They reiterated their praises and criticisms of the finalists’ dishes, including telling Buddha that his first course was on par with legendary chefs Eric Ripert and Thomas Keller — with Eric sitting right there and not disagreeing. Come on, judges, leave a little suspense here. Even when they tried to find a criticism against Buddha it was clear they were reaching, like how his third course was a little too polished. Savage.

“You know the number of times I almost fainted just now? Seven, the number is seven,” said Sarah after the judges dismissed the finalists to deliberate amongst themselves. During those deliberations they went dish by dish through the group. They seemed pretty dismissive of Sarah from the jump, saying she had the right ideas but had problems of execution. So it was down to Buddha and Evelyn. Buddha won the first round handily. Narrow win for Evelyn in round two. Buddha took round three. And Evelyn’s buñuelo was the star dessert. That made it sound like it was pretty much 50/50, but Evelyn’s dishes that weren’t the best were criticized a lot more than Buddha’s.

So when the chefs returned to hear the verdict, the judges paused for dramatic effect, but the result was as expected: Buddha was the season 19 winner of “Top Chef”! Perhaps I’ve made it sound like this was an underwhelming, anticlimactic ending, but being a foregone conclusion by the end doesn’t make it a bad result. It was a delightful season with a delightful set of finalists, and a delightful winner. (I’ll take the judges’ word for it since I obviously couldn’t taste the food myself, though if Buddha would like to offer his personal chef services to me, I could pay him in Oscar predictions.)

It was also a deeply emotional ending as Buddha told Padma that he wished his father were there to see it. Padma insisted that he was, and we got to hear Buddha’s mother and brother react over the phone as he told them the good news. How could anyone feel bad about that?

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