Although this season has been seriously lacking in the tension department, and we’ve barely had so much as a single snarky comment between the chefs, there’s no denying that the focus on culturally specific challenges has been a pleasure to watch. For tonight’s Quickfire, Top Chef: California contestant Kwame Onwuachi and Houston chef Ope Amosu are here in the Top Chef kitchen to introduce the contestants to some Nigerian cuisine. The chefs get to try stews and swallows to spark some inspiration. For those of us learning along with the chefs, a swallow is a soft starch meant to be pulled apart and dipped into stew. There are three different swallows, made from either cassava, African yams, or plantains. The chefs draw knives to see which they’ll have to make a meal with.
It’s really nice to see Kwame and Ope explaining all of the ingredients offered up and giving a quick rundown on what to include in the dishes. A lot of chefs have gotten worked up in seasons past when having to cook food they’re not particularly familiar with, but with every challenge this season that’s been in this vein, the chefs just take the inspiration and run with it. It’s never gonna come out perfect, but they’re all excited to try, and I appreciate that.
Our nine remaining chefs present their meals, and Kwame seems impressed with everyone’s attempt at traditional Nigerian food. “To see you transform these ingredients and still put your spin on it was definitely inspiring,” he says before announcing the weakest dishes of the challenge. After a back-to-back Quickfire win, it’s a bummer to see Nick miss the mark on this one. Kwame and Ope just don’t love his too-sweet interpretation of him. In a rare turn of events, Evelyn is also at the bottom this evening. Surprise, surprise: Buddha and Jackson are in the top three along with Damarr. These guys have all been killing it, and even a first attempt at a new culture’s cuisine can’t stop their momentum. But there can only be one with immunity, and that honor goes to Buddha once again.
If there’s one thing top-chef loves, it’s a little product placement. Last week, we had the Talenti dessert challenge, and tonight, the elimination challenge is in honor of Jurassic World Dominion. We even have Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard introducing it (through video chat, of course). “Make something the chefs will devour.” Thank you, Chris Pratt, for this insight! Top Chef: Colorado winner Joe Flamm enters the kitchen decked out in his best Sam Neill look, red bandana and all. The chefs are working in teams to create a progressive meal with each of the three courses inspired by a different dinosaur and the habitat they lived in. Jae, Jo, and Buddha make up the red team, and with Buddha’s immunity, that puts Jae and Jo in jeopardy should the red team lose. The green team consists of Damarr, Luke, and Ashleigh, which leaves Nick, Jackson, and Evelyn on the brown team. Evelyn and Jackson have been beasts this season, absolutely crushing the last few episodes, and although he hasn’t been quite as successful in elimination challenges, Nick won the last two Quickfires. Easy money on the brown team taking the W on this one.
Tonight’s elimination challenge is hosted in the gorgeous Houston Museum of Natural Science, taking the dinosaur theme to the extreme. In addition to Kwame, Joe, and our judges, Jurassic World Dominion star DeWanda Wise will be feasting tonight. Presenting their meals first are Buddha, Damarr, and Nick. These three chefs were inspired by the dinosaur representing the sea, the mosasaurus. All three of these meals were hits with the judging table, especially Buddha’s smoked alligator soup and Demarr’s chowchow. But with such a beautiful start to the meal, as Padma describes it, there’s got to be some missteps on the horizon.
The second round is way shakier than the first. Inspired by the air dinosaur quetzalcoatlus, Jo presents a simple stuffed quail and carrot dish. She’s already worried about the simplicity because you better nail the execution with such a low-key meal. Evelyn has made a juicy-looking pork tenderloin, and Ashleigh took inspiration from the quetzalcoatlus’s wings, making a shito chicken wing. Naturally, Evelyn stands out, and her dish of hers is the most well-received. Once again, she balances everything on her plate perfectly, and the judges praise her perfectly cooked pork. Unfortunately, Ashleigh and Jo do not have the same success. Ashleigh’s wing is soggy and “flabby,” while Jo’s dish is just … boring. She tries to think through the flying dinosaur aspect by giving the judges a stuffed bird, but she overcooks the quail and runs out of the glaze before her carrots can soak up the flavor. No one is impressed.
In our final round of the evening, finally (!) someone goes all out on the theme. For his velociraptor meal, Jackson makes a fudgy spiced brownie. But even more impressive than the actual food, he decorates his dish to leave a “bloody” raptor footprint made from a raspberry sauce. He thinks it’s silly, and so do the judges — but in the best way possible. This is supposed to be a fun challenge inspired by a fun movie franchise, and it takes until the very end to see anyone take it to this level. It’s a graphic and beautiful plate that gets high praise. Plus, being the only one to do dessert is still a risk, especially at this stage in the competition. Contrasting this simple but well-executed dessert is Jae’s lamb dish. Her plate of her has so much going on, and none of it appeals to Tom at all. Doing lamb two ways opened up the opportunity to screw at least one up, and overall, Jae’s dish is unappetizing and poorly cooked. Luke makes a short rib that isn’t quite tender enough, but it seems like Jae is really taking the brunt of the heat from this round.
At Judges Table, it’s clear the brown team has won. The panel loved Nick, Evelyn, and Jackson’s dishes, and there’s no individual winner. That makes three in a row for Evelyn! The Houston native is surely doing her city proud and representing the best of the best. But someone still has to go home, and the deliberation for who to send packing is really interesting tonight. I can’t think of another time we’ve seen a judge flat out say, “I want X to go home,” like we do tonight. The Red team was the weakest team, and with Buddha’s immunity (and great meal anyway), Jae and Jo are in trouble. The judges seem very split on the decision, and Kwame is pushing for Jo to leave while Tom is harshly against Jae. The two women are on opposite sides of the spectrum tonight, with Jo going too simple and Jae going too convoluted. But both are extremely weak dishes that didn’t come close to the others. It’s fascinating to see Jo go home with Tom and Kwame butting heads so explicitly. I don’t disagree with the decision, but it is interesting to know Tom doesn’t have an ultimate say. Judges Table is a democracy, I guess!
Jo has been a great chef to watch this season, and her exit speech is so gracious. She really struggled to elevate herself to top-chef caliber cooking, but she made it to ninth place and deserves to be proud of herself. As a lot of us do, it seems like Jo struggles with her confidence de ella a little bit, and I hope this experience reignited her love of cooking de ella. With Jo’s exit, we’re down to eight, so y’all know what that means: Next week is finally restaurant wars! This is historically a very tense and stressful day for the top-chef contestants, but will it be enough to shake up some drama among these very pleasant chefs? We shall see.
• Chef Ope Amosu’s joy when he saw Evelyn goes to prove my running theory that everyone in Houston loves and respects her, and I love it! I, too, love Evelyn!
• If anyone can find out where I can buy Kwame’s extremely cool Quickfire shirt, let a girl know!