One of the toughest things about Top Chef is learning something new, and doing it justice. Every contestant has been selected because their training has given them the techniques and knowledge to prepare their chosen cuisine's dishes with confidence. But even the best chefs often fail when they're asked to adopt a culinary tradition that is not their own. That's what happened this week.
The Asian continent is home to some of the world's best street food, and a variety of countries--including China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, and India--conduct night markets, where you can wander from stall to stall, enjoying a panoply of food prepared right in front of you. Instead of a Quickfire Challenge this week, the chefs sampled Asian cuisines prepared right in the Top Chef kitchen, by premier food stall purveyors in the Houston food scene. Vietnamese, Indian, Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese stations were set up; chefs drew knives to be assigned to each country, and then sampled dishes from the cuisine to which they were assigned. The groups were as follows:
Chinese: Ashleigh, Jae, Monique
Filipino: Jo, Robert
Indian: Buddha, Luke, Sam
Japanese: Damarr, Nick
Top Chef 19 Episode 3 Elimination Challenge
To the chefs' delight, this was an individual challenge--the first of the season. I'm a bit irked that a food stall contest like this didn't happen in the first two episodes. Many seasons of Top Chef tend to adopt that formatting for early episodes, in order to taste and assess each chef's personal style. Anyway, this was trickier since Chefs Buddha, Luke, and Sam have never cooked Indian food; Chefs Damarr and Nick have never made Japanese food, and Chef Ashleigh has never made Chinese food. Chef Jo was raised in the Philippines but did not take stock in this. Plenty of chefs have gone home for cooking food from their own cultures. To add pressure, Padma Lakshmi is Indian, and even I, an Indian woman who loves to cook and has impossibly high standards for good Indian food, would not want to cook Indian food for Lakhsmi.
Things began well enough, with each group allowed to shop at their chosen cuisine's specialty grocery store. This episode's special guest was Top Chef's first Asian winner, season 3's Hung Huynh. A few cracks in the chefs' plans were beginning to show as Huynh and co-head judge Tom Colicchio toured the Top Chef kitchen during the chefs' prep time. Chef Buddha, previously in the top of both Quickfires and Elimination Challenges, decided to do something Indian chef and Houston restaurant proprietor Kiran Verma specifically said not to do: she said puff pastry, when fried if it's used in a samosa, can become heavy and laden with grease. (This, I could tell, would not end well.) Chef Luke's Indian spice blend got affirmative nods from the two judges, while Huynh looked puzzled as Chef Ashleigh described her Mala-style crispy beef dish, since she was using top round, a traditionally tougher cut of the meat. "Once you're done with prep you run out of options," she admitted, as the chefs wrapped up their ingredients for the market.
I found this episode quite interesting because the trajectories of the chefs' successes and failures really seemed to shift here. As usual Chef Evelyn did very well: her homage to Vietnamese food was a mouth-wateringly terrific chilled chicken salad with rambutan (a fruit similar to lychees), avocado crema, served on a sesame crisp. Colicchio and Huynh both wanted seconds. Chef Jae won rave reviews of her Szechuan-style stir-fried udon noodles with Chinese sausage, Korean melon, and crispy ramen topping, so much so that not a single judge said a word as they slurped their noodles with great concentration and delight. Chef Buddha's chicken samosa, as predicted, was pasty and unappetizing. Lakshmi remarked that his tamarind chutney lacked spice of any kind, and tasted more like a sweet jam. (Chef Luke's crab and corn samosa, on the other hand, won universal praise. Colicchio said, with some surprise, that it was his best dish so far!) Chef Sarah's take on Vietnamese food was similarly disappointing: her chicken heart banh mi, served on grilled bread with liver mousse and pickled vegetables, was deemed lifeless and bland. Annoyingly, covid-afflicted Chef Jackson somehow impressed with his Vietnamese spring roll with sausage, shallot, and pho reduction dipping sauce. Chef Huynh, from Vietnam himself, loved the dish.
My favorite contestants in this challenge were Chefs Nick and Damarr, both of whom looked worried when they were assigned Japanese cuisine. But both expressed delight when the first thing they saw at the Japanese stall in the Top Chef kitchen was karaage, or Japanese fried chicken. I was drooling as the judges sampled both chefs' dishes at the market: Chef Damarr made a smoked ham hock miso soup with a spicy condiment. "I just learned togarashi is Japanese for red chili powder," he said to the judges, as he ladled a beautiful red-orange sauce into their bowls, "so I made a togarashi hot sauce." The judges were blown away, describing it as a "very complex dish" and praised the broth as having "so much flavor, with that umami I was looking for." Similarly, Chef Nick also impressed the judges with his chicken karaage, with pickled Fresno chilies, ginger, and a peach miso sauce. Both Lakshmi and Colicchio loved the dish; the latter even said, "We got some damn good fried chicken."
And now for the bad news. Chef Sam, who has been winning hearts and minds around the country, made a serious error: his boiled potatoes were left on the stove in the Top Chef kitchen when the prep time buzzer went off. Using the raw potatoes he had left for his potato curry, Chef Sam decided to grill his potatoes. I have great respect for his good cheer and indefatigable optimism, but his joy at learning that "aloo" means potato, so he was going to make "Sam aloo"--as in Sam's potato--didn't translate into a good dish. His take on vindaloo featured grilled potatoes, with rice and pomegranate and grape chutney made no sense, since vindaloo, traditionally, is a deeply flavored, spicy dish. Grilling the potatoes didn't allow any curry to soak into the vegetable, and the chutney was excessively sweet. His failure was the first heartbreaker of the season. Chef Jo's Filipino street food-style chicken skewer also failed to impress. Chef Ashleigh's crispy beef dish, as predicted, also wound up on the bottom, as Colicchio was having to really his work jaw to bite off even a single piece of beef from his skewer.
Chefs Evelyn, Jae, and Jackson were in the top, and received excellent reviews at judges' table. It was, however, very jarring to see Chefs Buddha, Ashleigh, and Sam in the bottom. The challenge was about learning something new and honoring it, and sometimes even the best judges aren't able to do that. Chef Sam's charming little monologue at judges' table was so endearing even the judges couldn't be upset with him. Alas, it didn't save him.
Winner: Chef Jae won $10,000 for this challenge--the cash prize was not revealed to the chefs ahead of time, so she was in shock.
Eliminated: "Sam" NOOOOOOOOOO "please pack your knives and go."
In honor of Chef Sam, this entire section is dedicated to him today.
While grilling potatoes at the night market, Chef Sam: "So I'm trying to grill these potatoes but I'm like, dude, does this really make sense? And I'm like, yeah it makes a lot of sense. We should grill these potatoes."
At judges' table, as the judges are about to ask him why he decided to grill the potatoes: "Wassup, wassup!"
Colicchio: "Who grills a potato?"
Chef Sam: "I did!"
Colicchio: "Will you ever grill a potato again?"
Chef Sam: "After this, hell no."
And finally, his parting words as the episode ended, which was a truly beautiful message, something that doesn't really exist on reality TV: "It's not about the failure--it's about picking yourself up, brushing it off, and fighting the good fight. I'm so happy, because someone's gonna watch this, someone's gonna learn from my failure, and they're gonna be better than I am. If I can spread that love, I'm already winning." I'M NOT CRYING YOU'RE CRYING
Days Since Last Risotto Attempt: 224
Days Since Last Successful Risotto Attempt: 5+ years