This week’s episode of Top Chef tasked the cheftestants with the ultimate Texas challenge: smoking a brisket. A welcome follow up to last week’s episode that saw the contestants confined to the studio, episode five took them to J-Bar-M Barbecue in EaDo, where the 10 remaining chefs made dishes that utilized smoked brisket.
After an episode that could have been filmed anywhere with a guest judge from New York City, this week’s show highlighted the diversity of Houston’s barbecue scene. The diners for the Elimination Challenge brought together almost as much culinary talent as this weekend’s Houston Barbecue Festival will. They tasted and rated the brisket-based dishes the contestants made, and their presence provided some much needed local color.
Let’s break down the show from a Houston perspective by highlighting the local people and places who appeared in the episode. Then we’ll check in on the progress of local cheftestant Evelyn Garcia and keep track of the overall competition.
Full credit to whoever advised Top Chef producers on the guest list for the barbecue challenge. Guest judge Greg Gatlin, a graduate of both St. Thomas High School and Rice University, has earned wide acclaim for the way he blends both central and east Texas styles at Gatlin’s BBQ in Garden Oaks. Always a gregarious presence at his restaurant, Gatlin provides real insight and deft commentary alongside Top Chef alum Brooke Williamson. Combined with his star-making turn in Netflix’s High on the Hog documentary series, someone should really find a way to put him on TV more often.
Joining Gatlin at the meal are a who’s who of Houston barbecue pitmasters and restaurateurs. They share their insights about how the contestants faired with the prized protein. As always, the editing moves pretty fast, which can make it hard to recognize everyone. Here’s the list of people who appear in the picture above alongside Top Chef regulars Gail Simmons, Tom Colicchio, and Padma Lakshmi:
Randy Duncan – Daddy Duncan’s BBQ
Karen and Jamie Fain – Fainmous BBQ
Patrick Feges and Erin Smith – Feges BBQ
Greg Gatlin and his mother Mary Gatlin – Gatlin’s BBQ
Levi Goode – Goode Co. Barbeque
Ara Malekian – Harlem Road Texas BBQ
Scott Moore and Michelle Holland – Tejas Chocolate + Barbecue
Theo and Don Nguyen – Khói Barbecue
Richard Orozco and Robert Quiroga – Piper’s BBQ (subsequently closed)
Joseph Quellar – JQ’s Tex-Mex Barbecue
Sloan Rinaldi – Texas Q
Misti and Russell Roegels – Roegels Barbecue
Willow Villarreal and Jasmine Barela – J-Bar-M Barbecue
Robin Wong, Terry Wong, and Quy Hoang – Blood Bros. BBQ
Villarreal deserves additional recognition for his role in guiding the cheftestants through the challenge. While the competitors are responsible for trimming and seasoning their briskets — some with better results than others — J-Bar-M’s soft-spoken pitmaster assist them with getting the details right by advising when to rotate their briskets or spray them with apple cider vinegar.
J-Bar-M also shines. Filmed a few weeks before the restaurant opened to the public in November, its impressive smokehouse and massive kitchen get put to good use by the contestants.
“I feel we’re about to use the Rolls Royce of barbecue smokers here,” contestant Luke Koplin says. “It’s pretty cool.”
How did Evelyn Garcia do
Our local cheftestant came dangerously close to being eliminated last week, but she shined in the barbecue challenge. Her brisket curry with aromatic rice, pickled vegetables, and burnt ends crumble earned unanimous raves from all of the judges and secured her first Elimination Challenge win.
“This is a dish that if you put this on a menu, it becomes a signature,” Colicchio raves. “People would come for this. It’s destination food.”
At judges’ table, Lakshmi adds her own praise: “Where have you been all my life? This is the curry I’ve been looking for,” she says.
Garcia will be serving the winning dish at a pop-up that’s taking place this Sunday, April 3, at Tenfold Coffee from 3-6 pm (101 Aurora St.). Go early. It will sell out.
Chef Evelyn is joined in the top three by Jackson Kalb and Buddaho Lo, the two chefs who won last week’s Elimination Challenge. Jackon takes a risk by grinding his brisket to stuff into scarpinocc pasta with cornbread crumble and “buerre-becue” sauce, but it manages to preserve enough smoke flavor to showcase the meat. Buddha puts a Texas twist on beef bourguignon with beef fat potato croquette, onion jam, and raw beet that shows his strong French technique and deft knife work.
Who goes home
Ashleigh kitchen pepper-rubbed brisket with sweet potato slicks and cream of collards soup draws the judges’ ire for improper technique — her brisket is cut too thick to eat easily — and being under-seasoned. In a close call with chefs Jo Chan and Monique Feybesse, she’s told to pack her knives, but, spoiler alert, she wins Last Chance Kitchen and will reenter the competition in next week’s show.
Who exceeded expectations
Once again, chef Damarr Brown acquits himself well in the Elimination Challenge. Although his smoked brisket with candied yams, braised cabbage, and Worcester consomme doesn’t make the top three, his balanced flavors and precise execution led to a dish that looks very tasty.