In the fourth episode of Top Chef: Houston, Austin chef Jo Chan ran into trouble.
Last week, Chan, known for her work at Eberly, landed somewhere in the middle during the Asian Night Market challenge. While her chicken tocino skewer received some criticism, she was able to avoid the bottom three, surviving another week in the competition.
And this week, the chefs were asked to create two visually identical dishes that had completely different flavor profiles.
The chefs make some quickfire biscuits
The competitors walk onto the set to find a spread of biscuits, as host and judge Padma Lakshmi is joined by guest judge Chris Williams, chef and founder of Lucille’s 1913. Together, the pair give a brief history of Lucille B. Smith, Williams’ grandmother who created the first instant hot roll mix in the U.S.
The quickfire challenge is an homage to Smith’s legacy and tasks the chefs with creating their own unique biscuit from scratch and incorporating the item into a complete dish. As the chefs take off, the kitchen is in a frenzy, with contestants snatching up ingredients and sprinting to their stations. Chan isn’t shown much during this challenge save a few interactions with other chefs, including Nick Wallace whose Mississippi-shaped cookie cutters impress Chan.
It gets down to the wire, and everyone is scrambling to put together their biscuit dishes as time runs out. Chan presents her dish, a biscuit topped with chorizo vegetable hash and spiced butter, which is given zero feedback during the judging. In the end, chef Jackson Kalb’s biscuit dish is chosen as the winner, giving him an advantage in the elimination challenge.
Two dishes both alike in dignity
After the quickfire, Lakshmi is joined by James Beard Award winner Wylie Dufresne to announce the elimination challenge, which has the contestants work in pairs to create two dishes that look exactly the same but taste completely different. Kalb has the advantage to select his teammate before everyone is asked to partner up and chooses chef Buddha Lo. Chan chooses to work with fellow Texas chef Evelyn Garcia, with whom Chan bonded with during last week’s episode.
Before the chefs are left to start working, Lakshmi mentions that this week is a double elimination challenge, resulting in visible stress from everyone. They head off to brainstorm at their respective workstations, with many in a panic. After a brief chat, Chan and Garcia decide to work backwards, starting with the visual element first and then coming up with the flavors.
Chan’s pork belly causes concern
Later, when the chefs are shown carpooling to shop for ingredients at Whole Foods, Chan and Garcia briefly discuss the potential advantages that the fine-dining chefs might have with the abstract challenge. “Real cooking is my shit, not shapes,” Chan says.
After shopping, the chefs return to the kitchen to begin preparing their dishes. While the partners discuss what to do with a hunk of pork belly, Chan is shown in a confessional discussing the stakes at play. She notes that because it is a team challenge and there’s a risk of double elimination, there’s an added pressure to excel. Time runs out for the workday, and the pork belly is not as tender as Chan wants it to be, but she and Garcia will have to wait until the next day to make any last-minute changes to their dishes.
Back at the hotel, the pair munch on some gelato as they discuss their determination in spite of the rough cooking day. Chan’s negative thoughts about the challenge start creeping in, but Garcia’s upbeat demeanor turns the conversation around.
Trouble in the kitchen
It’s elimination day, and the chefs are heading back to the kitchen to put the final touches on their dishes. Since Kalb won the quickfire challenge, he and partner Lo get an extra 30 minutes of cook time before the other chefs arrive, and we’re treated to a montage of their preparations. When the other chefs enter to wrap things up, Garcia seems to be in a good place with her dish, but Chan runs into another issue — her cauliflower puree isn’t as dry or thick as it needs to be in order to emulate the physical appearance of Garcia’s cheesecake.
The judges enter the room for the tasting, and the chefs rush to begin presenting their identical dishes. When it’s their turn, Chan and Garcia wrestle to get everything plated and ready before the commercial break, and the struggle continues after the break. In true reality competition fashion, the pair pulls it off right in the nick of time.
Chan’s dish (a crispy pork belly with a cauliflower puree, crispy garlic, and daikon relish) and Garcia’s dish (a goat cheese cheesecake topped with cardamom-chocolate sauce, sesame crumble, apples, and matcha) are praised for their physical resemblance. However, the pork belly was unanimously deemed too tough by the judges, while Lakshmi mentioned that the cheesecake was too sweet.
A close call
After the tasting, Kalb and Lo are named the winners of this week’s challenge, receiving high praise from each judge. Alternatively, the judges’ critiques were harsh enough to land Chan and Garcia in the bottom, along with one other pair, chefs Robert Hernandez and Sarah Welch. During the final deliberation, the judges agreed that Chan and Garcia just couldn’t get it together on this challenge, but ultimately, Hernandez and Welch were eliminated.
This was a close call for Chan, but she remains in the competition for another episode. We’ll see how it all shakes down next week.