We lay the odds
Although they’d never promote it as such, the nineteenth season of Top Chef may very well the show’s attempt to exorcise a demon that’s plagued it for years: Texas. Top Chef’s ninth season, loosely based on the entire state of Texas, was an unpleasant, peripatetic slog that tried to do too much and is mostly notable for a nasty bullying situation that verged on verbal abuse. The bully in question was a finalist, losing to Paul Qui, an Austin chef whose career was eventually derailed by domestic violence allegations. Another Austin chef, Gabe Erales, won season 18, only to be fired for harassment. This season, we’re in Houston, with only one local chef, a decidedly muted set of egos, and a much more focused set of challenges so far. Is America’s fourth-largest city capable of giving viewers a compelling season?
The first two episodes of the show focused on team challenges, ensuring that the chefs would mercilessly fuck each other over while attempting to “tell their stories on a plate.” Fun television, especially some of the more egregious plating errors, but team challenges don’t tell us anything meaningful this early on. Team challenges are great when you’ve firmly established the power dynamics and kitchen egos. Nothing is better than “Restaurant Wars.” Two episodes in, nobody’s had enough time to backstab or break down in crying jags. We want blood!
However, in episode three, the show finally hit its stride, with a solo challenge based around Houston’s well-loved Asian Night Market. The story of Houston in 2022, after all, is not a story about beef or high school football; it’s a story of a large polyglot city that has absorbed waves of immigrants and newcomers to create a unique cosmopolitan culinary environment. “Top Chef” has done a tremendous job in the past of telling similar stories about New Orleans and Los Angeles. Hopefully it can do Houston justice.
The following is a rough attempt to handicap the season so far, with betting odds provided for entertainment purposes only.
The Australian stood out in a premiere episode of team challenges that made it hard to work independently. His team won the immunity challenge and wisely chose to work with ribs. His decision to use his immunity to showcase a Spotted Dick with beef fat caramel was completely off the wall and, evidently, delicious. Having the sheer bravado to make dessert in a beef challenge makes him our prohibitive favorite so far, although he drew the short straw in the night market challenge, being forced to serve greasy samosas to an unsmiling Padma. He’s earned enough goodwill for it not to matter much, but it clearly knocked him down a peg.
Right behind him is Jackson, who cannot smell or taste due to COVID but has still consistently finished near the top so far. Bizarrely, the show has treated this as the season’s big surprise, as Jackson has mentioned this fact to nobody (except the cameras, to whom he mentions it constantly). One figures his secret will be revealed soon enough; he relied too heavily on guest judge Sam Talbot for tasting notes in episode three.
Do weepy odes to departed family members ever bode well for one’s confidence? Damarr laid on the waterworks pretty thick with a story about his mom in episode 2. Here’s the thing: since then, he’s been at or near the top of every single challenge, and he’s clearly one of the most capable chefs this season. He should consider serving his plates with a box of tissues instead of a napkin.
Robert peaked early in the beef challenge, somehow defeating a wonky pressure cooker and a time crunch to earn raves for his pot roast and gnocchi, a simple-sounding dish with a silly degree of difficulty. Has he been effectively useless since? Sure. Can you make it all the way to the finals flying under the radar? Absolutely. Keep an eye on this one.
Evelyn’s from Houston, and enjoyed the major advantages of familiarity with all the night market vendors’ food and the layout of the Asian grocery stores where the chefs shopped. She then outdid herself by making a terrific Thai-inspired chicken salad with avocado, a nod to her Mexican heritage that somehow made perfect sense. Local chefs tend to do very well on “Top Chef,” so a long run seems likely.
In an early challenge full of tartares, her West African flavors stood out–but was it a good sign that she broke out the big guns in the first episode? Still, her “Afro-lachian” cooking could lead to some unique dishes and a deep run.
Monique hasn’t made much of the season at all so far, winding up in the middle after winning immunity in the first Quickfire. That said, she was clearly adept at working with Buddha and Jo, who are two of the more skilled chefs in the cast. One thing to note is that the judges described her pork belly as “bland” after the night market challenge, usually a kiss of death.
Early on, it seemed like Sarah would be a no-nonsense taskmaster in the kitchen – think a younger Jen Carroll – but she’s struggling with her confidence and her cooking, nearly being eliminated for her “celebration of chickpea.” We’ve already seen the tearful phone call home to her fiance. Could the speech about being here “for the right reasons” be next? Even money says she misses the cut for Restaurant Wars.
Jo has the worldly, seen-it-all demeanor of someone who’s been in the trenches far longer than she actually has. She also got the big personality package in episode three, which never bodes well early in the season and usually portends a shock elimination.
Odds shortening quickly. Nearly eliminated by a “North Korean bibimbap” that apparently tasted worse than it sounded, but she certainly seems to know her way around various Asian cuisines, in a season that’s likely to feature a lot of fusion cooking. Got away with adding Korean melon, a non-traditional element, to her Chinese dish featuring Japanese noodles.
Did he mention he used to work at Noma, the #1 restaurant in the world?
We all have a friend like Luke. They “went to college in Boston,” but they love Duke basketball. They drive a C-class Benz and say shit like “it takes money to make money.” Clearly, Luke has the skills to contend, but his fancy-lad plating and edible flower horseshit almost got him sent home early, and the clock is ticking.
Nick appears to be on the show solely to promote his “Nick’s 26” spice blend, which he won’t stop dumping on everything. Like Damarr, he dedicated an early dish to his dead grandmother, attempting to garner cheap sympathy while he was still a complete unknown. Shameless? Sure, but it beats being on “Rat in the Kitchen.”
Sam mostly distinguished himself with his extremely pleasant personality and his ride-or-die love of potatoes. The best of all running Top Chef gags is that you might as well pre-pack your knives whenever it’s time to cook South Asian food for Padma. His ill-advised “Sam-aloo” potato curry sealed his fate. Still, he handled elimination with about as much aplomb as anyone. He may not know how to grill a potato, but you can’t teach cool.
Shout out to poor doomed Stephanie, who apparently discovered the concept of Asian food ten minutes before episode 1 started taping. Episode 2 saw her attempt to bring the big Brazilian flavors of…Minneapolis? to the elimination challenge, only to leave the meat out of her feijoada. Rarely has “Top Chef” given us totally unqualified cannon fodder like her.
Leia was unlucky, picking up a bladder infection and a bad fever at the worst possible time. Unfortunately, she also served a bizarre overstuffed spring roll with giant chewy pieces of top round and a horrific-sounding yuzu-tahini sauce. She’s still bouncing around in “Last Chance Kitchen,” and stranger things have happened, but it’s almost impossible to get back in the competition after an elimination this early. Luck is one thing you can’t control, but imagine: she actually cooked a worse dish than Stephanie.