Top Chef

Freedmen’s Town

Season 19

Episode 9

Editor’s Rating

4 stars

Photo: Bravo

Throughout this season in Houston, the most rewarded food has been food that’s coming straight from our chefs’ hearts. Wherever that inspiration has been coming from — mothers, grandmothers, hometowns, or home countries — the food has been evocative and passionate. Those who have been eliminated so far often lacked a deep-rooted connection to their final meals. For tonight’s Elimination Challenge, the chefs all took advantage of this pattern and cranked it up a notch, resulting in the season’s overall most praised challenge. There was simply no bad dish, although someone still got sent out the door. Before we get there, though, let’s dive into the Quickfire.

One last immunity. This season is getting down to the wire, and tonight’s Quickfire winner will be the last to receive that all-desired immunity. That means it’s the very last time anyone will breathe easy in this kitchen. For this challenge, Top Chef: Texas chef Nyesha Arrington joins Padma for judging. Each chef draws a knife to choose a color. The chefs will have to create a monochromatic, vegetarian dish with these randomly selected colors. It’s a fun, whimsical challenge, and I’m sure Padma is relieved to focus on veggies after a season full of beef and chili and queso and over-the-top decadence.

We’re down to the final seven in a super talented season, so everyone’s dishes are gorgeous. On the bottom half of the Quickfire results are Nick, whose pumpkin and sweet potato fried rice was muddled, and Ashleigh’s yellow vegetable medley puree. Poor Evelyn draws the black knife but still makes an appetizing-looking soup that places her in the top three. Joining her are Damarr and Buddha, who pulled green and white knives, respectively. Buddha’s white cauliflower and cheese was described as “menu ready,” which is high praise from Padma! But despite this, Damarr is victorious, claiming that precious last immunity with his broccoli “steak.” Damarr is typically very serious and stoic, and we get a gleeful grin out of him at the news of his win.

After the Quickfire results are announced, our two guest judges arrive. Both Kwame Onwuachi and Dawn Burrell have already judged challenges this season, but they’re back for an important one. Tonight, the chefs are taken to Freedmen’s Town, a landmark in Houston where newly emancipated slaves started building their community. The site is rich in history and draws out a ton of emotion from the remaining chefs. A focus on the community and family has been driving them all season, and challenges like this, where plating with emotion is not only encouraging, but required, have been the highlights of the season.

As the judges begin making their rounds, it’s clear there won’t be a weak meal served tonight. Everyone has taken this soul food challenge very seriously, making various inspired, comforting meals. Part of why I love these challenges is because I’m always interested in learning where the chefs get their love of cooking — what was the meal that made them? Luke’s the only white guy left, and I have to admit it made me laugh when he declared he’s making meatloaf. Ah yes, that’s white soul food, baby! He tells a sweet story about being a picky eater as a kid and how this was his favorite meal his mother used to make him. No shade to meatloaf and I definitely respect the picky eater-to-chef pipeline; it’s just a comical choice.

After the joyful celebration at the Bethel Church, the judges and chefs know it will be a tough deliberation to send someone home. They have to resort to nitpicking apart dishes, finding any minute flaws that might be worthy of elimination. When everyone feels good about a meal, it’s typically a bad sign. Can’t stand out if everyone’s perfect! Perennially on top, Evelyn made a sope with added beets, resulting in a beautiful, bright pink dish that the judges love. Always one to wear her heart on her sleeve, Evelyn is very emotional about bringing one of her grandmother’s staples to Top Chef. Also hitting a high mark is Damarr. His dish, hoecakes and collard greens is a great example of storytelling on the plate, tying together history and tradition, two similar but arguably unique concepts.

Rounding out the top chefs of the Elimination Challenge is Jae, who reminisces on the way her mother used to spoon-feed her fish as a baby. This lifelong love of seafood brought Jae to New Orleans, where she came up as a new chef. The shock on her face as they announce her victory is just adorable. Finally hitting a stride in the last few episodes, Jae is gaining some powerful momentum as she takes the win on this challenge.

For what feels like the first time, Buddha finds himself on the bottom. He often brings up the impact his father had on his cooking, as he first fell in love with cooking in his father’s restaurant. Just weeks before he got the call to be on Top Chef, Buddha’s father passed after a battle with cancer. Tonight, his dish was inspired by his father, but unfortunately, the Malaysian curry fell flat. There wasn’t enough pop on the plate, and especially compared to his exquisite past meals, the judges were moderately disappointed by Buddha. But Buddha’s somewhat lackluster curry keeps him around another day, and it’s Luke who takes the fall tonight. Again, this was an amazing showing from every chef, but Luke’s meatloaf/meatballs were just a little dry. When the tiniest details are the ones sending someone home, any minor slip-up leads to elimination. Luke has been a middle-bottom competitor all season, and it feels like it was his time to go. He finally came out of his shell a little bit tonight, but it just wasn’t enough. Quickfires have not been his friend, so I’m hesitant to think he’ll survive the gauntlet of Last Chance Kitchen.

• First up, an LCK update! I’m pleased to report Sarah is still killing it, eliminating Jackson last week. We know her struggle with self-confidence kneecapped her in the regular season, but this has got to be a good booster.

• Padma’s sheer joy at Luke’s Quickfire dish was contagious. “Welcome to the party, man!” It was short-lived, but I’m glad we got a little bit of life out of Luke on his way out the door.

• Six chefs remain: all six are POC and three of them are women! In such a competitive season, this is an impressive feat. Last year’s winner-who-shall-not-be-named was the show’s first Mexican-American winner, and prior to that, the last non-white winner was Mei Lin on Top Chef: Boston in 2015. Maybe Ashleigh will be the first Black woman to be named Top Chef! Any way you slice it, Houston‘s winner will make Top Chef history.

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