Even though we’re now four episodes into Top Chef: Texas, we’ve only reached the second episode in terms of getting to know the actual contestants, separating the truffles from the, um, clumps of mud. There’s still a long haul of messy cooking sprees before the bottom half is eliminated, but this week, it became a little clearer who the lesser chefs were and whom we should keep an eye on. Both the Quickfire and the main challenge had some of that Top Chef spark and a bigger helping of intra-house drama than we usually see this early in the season. (Though perhaps after cooked-shrimp-gate, that was the inevitable result.)
You can’t be in Texas without addressing chili peppers, and this week’s Quickfire was a nice way to introduce them. The chefs walked in to a table piled high with chilis of all varieties, arranged from mild to hot. They can use whichever one they choose to showcase in their dish, but the hotter ones have a higher monetary payoff. The hottest one—the notoriously fiery ghost pepper—goes for a tidy $20,000. Not to mention that the judges are the chefs that you most want to be your mischievous aunts, Top Chef Masters alumnae Mary Sue Millikan and Susan Finneger.
It’s nice way to gauge not only the chef’s prowess, but also their daring in the kitchen. Those who went the safer route generally met with less success than those who reached for higher in the scale—though there were exceptions. Chuy, who assured the camera that “I’m a spicy guy; I have a spicy personality” in his affectless monotone, fell flat with his habenero dish. Grayson’s habenero popper made my eyes water looking at it, but Millikan and Finnegar seemed to love it, so I’ll give her credit. But the big winner was Paul, the only one to reach for the hottest pepper, who incorporated it nicely into a coconut soup and brought home the big bucks. It could have so easily turned into horrible fire-broth or watery Thai leftovers. Seems like Paul might be one to watch.
Continuing with the chili theme, the elimination challenge is another treasured Texas staple: the chili cook-off. The chefs have all night to prepare chili for 200 rodeo performers, to be judged by the cowboys themselves. It’s, inevitably, another team challenge, but the groups are small enough that there’s a better sense of who’s putting in what. But because the challenge is inside the chef’s house instead of in the well-stocked, shiny kitchen, much of the difficulty is who can allocate resources and stake out territory the best—not to mention who can most effectively harass the poor Whole Foods butchers for their brisket.
Many of the chefs elect to stay up all night to babysit their concoctions, so by the time they reach the rodeo, you can see the tiredness coming out of their pores. Nonetheless, they pitch their chili to varying degrees of success. Sarah, whose contentious judges panel behavior last week perhaps sent Keith home, played up her bull-riding father and Texas roots, nudging the green team’s traditional Texas chili into the most popular spot. Though making a traditional dish like chili seems like a necessary step on a Texas season—and making it well is no mean feat— the chefs who hewed closest to the original formula were rewarded more than those who experimented. Everyone avoided beans, the cardinal sin of Texas chili, and so the only drastic variety was in the side items and the way the meat was prepared. The black team strayed farthest from the traditional model, delivering a mole chili that ended up as the judges’ least favorite, but was also the biggest reach of the bunch.
As a final chance, the members of the black team got 30 minutes to change their chili into a tastier dish, a challenge that was met by the team members, Beverly Nyesha and Richie, with total exhaustion and horror. (“To see them so visibly deflated and make them cook again?” Padma said, as the judges awaited the last morsels. “Yeah, we’re assholes,” Gail Simmons said. ) Beverly, who seemed weak for most of the episode, delivered a seared tuna dish that kept her from the chopping block, but Richie and Nyesha, who both hit upon the idea of Frito-crusting meat, were less lucky. Richie’s pork tenderloin sent him packing, to the heartbreak of his friend Chris J.
- By all indications, Chris Crary is going to be one of the commenting gems of the season. On Chuy’s drunken antics: “We keep hearing about how his father invented chili. I dubbed him the most interesting man in the world.” On Padma’s entrance, on horse, in the rodeo: “It’s a thing of beauty. Am I sweating again?”
- I was broken up about Keith’s early exit, but it seems like he’s now getting another chance to waltz back in, Bermuda shorts and orange crocs a-blazin’