Top Chef Houston: Midterm Musings about Season 19

TOP CHEF -- "Doppelgӓngers" Episode 1904 -- Pictured: (l-r) Damarr Brown, Monique Feybesse, Ashleigh Shanti, Luke Kolpin, Evelyn Garcia, Jo Chan, Jae Jung, Nick Wallace, Robert Hernandez, Sarah Welch, Jackson Kalb, Buddah Lo -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)
TOP CHEF -- "Doppelgӓngers" Episode 1904 -- Pictured: (l-r) Damarr Brown, Monique Feybesse, Ashleigh Shanti, Luke Kolpin, Evelyn Garcia, Jo Chan, Jae Jung, Nick Wallace, Robert Hernandez, Sarah Welch, Jackson Kalb, Buddah Lo -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo) /

With just 7 of 15 chefs remaining on Top Chef Houston and one more still to emerge from Last Chance Kitchen to rejoin the competition, it seems like an ideal time to both reflect on what we’ve already seen and look ahead to the rest of the season.


Cheftestants aside, the heart of each season of Top Chef is the show’s locale. It’s within each city’s tapestry that we learn about its history, culture, struggles, achievements, and of course culinary narrative. When Bravo and Top Chef announced that Season 19 would be set in Houston, the response from loyal viewers ranged from indifferent to upset, yet, as is almost always the case, we’ve been treated to a deftly-painted canvas that continues to illustrate the engaging sum of the city’s many culinary parts.

From the inspiration provided by Houston’s Asian Night Markets to an introduction to local Nigerian flavors to a brisket-focused deep dive into Texas’ legendary BBQ to the honoring of some of the state’s most influential women, Top Chef continues to paint a compelling picture with a broad brush.

Despite a lukewarm response to Houston being announced as Season 19’s host city, Top Chef has continued to excel across the board. Do we get the occasional episode that falls short of our own expectations, sure, but on a macro level, Top Chef Houston hasn’t disappointed.


If anecdotal evidence gathered through Top Chef online communities is any indication, most fans of the show have an episode each season that leaves them wanting for whatever reason. For me, Top Chef Houston’s Jurassic World-themed cross-promotion slash Elimination Challenge missed the mark. As much as I enjoyed seeing Top Chef Colorado winner Joe Flamm cosplay in keeping with the Mesozoic Era vibe, I definitely wasn’t enraptured by the challenge itself. It evoked memories of Top Chef Portland’s pop-up drive-in challenge, another one that fell short for me.


Like Season 18 in Portland, Top Chef Houston’s competitors are eminently likable. There has been little to no drama within the group and I’m unable to identify a single chef who rubs me the wrong way or that I’ve been compelled to root against. Prior to Top Chef Portland, there was always at least one chef who either served as an antagonist within the competition or whose personality was so prickly that viewers waited with bated breath to see them pack their knives and go.

Looking at early departees, both Sarah Welch and Leia Gaccione shined upon arrival in Last Chance Kitchen, with each having the opportunity to show off their impressive culinary chops while also showcasing their wit and personalities.

Among the chefs who continue to battle for the title of Top Chef, I find each of them worthy of support among fans, though I personally feel that Luke Kolpin is simply treading water despite his impressive credentials. Could this observation age poorly, sure, but I’m not worried that it will.

Despite noticing a growing faction of viewers who feel that Buddha Lo is destined for Top Chef greatness as we build towards the finale, my own sentiment lies with Nick Wallace and Evelyn Garcia as potential finalists. Again, this projection may not age well, but Nick’s steady hand and culinary viewpoint continue to serve him well, while Evelyn’s modesty, passion, and performance to date lend themselves to a deep run in the competition.


Since Jackson Kalb was eliminated a week ago, there has been a large volume of comments shared in the aforementioned Top Chef online communities that defiantly feel that he was wronged. The recurring theme of such feedback has been that despite his poor performance handling Front of House duties for Restaurant Wars, Jackson had excelled leading up to that point and as a result, shouldn’t have been sent packing after one subpar challenge.

In what may be a reminder for people who feel this way or previously unknown to other viewers of the show, I’d be remiss if I didn’t push back against the pro-Jackson opinions by saying that Top Chef is NOT a cumulative competition. A chef’s prior excellence on the show isn’t banked and then cashed in at a later date should they stumble. Each Elimination Challenge stands alone and the cheftestants are judged only on the merits of that specific challenge. That rule of engagement has never changed, so yes, Jackson Kalb, despite the notches on his chef’s coat, should’ve been eliminated last week.


Fortunately for Jackson Kalb, his judge-phobic approach to handling FOH for Restaurant Wars doesn’t mark the end of his Top Chef road. He’s off to Last Chance Kitchen, which I always tout as being yet another outstanding ingredient in the Top Chef secret recipe. Despite only running in the ballpark of 10 minutes, each episode of LCK is the perfect intermezzo between each week’s Top Chef installment.

Not only does Last Chance Kitchen give chefs who are bounced early the chance to redeem themselves while also showcasing their personalities as mentioned earlier, but it’s been known to catapult chefs to actual Top Chef wins. Kristen Kish, Brooke Williamson, and Jurassic World cosplayer Joe Flamm all regained their footing in LCK and ultimately earned Top Chef honors, so there’s no reason to think that someone from Top Chef Houston can’t also catch lightning in a bottle and do the same.

This brings us to the host of Last Chance Kitchen, Tom Colicchio. As good as Tom has been throughout each of Top Chef’s 19 seasons, I’m here to suggest that the LCK version of the show’s stalwart judge is even better. Unencumbered by the scale and formality of a Top Chef episode, Colicchio clearly relishes the opportunity to engage more personally with two or three chefs who are cooking for survival in Last Chance Kitchen. As Top Chef continues to create spin-off shows, I think it’s high time for a separate iteration of Last Chance Kitchen with Tom at the helm. LCK is the perfect amuse-bouche of cooking competition content.


While not specific to the goings-on of Top Chef Houston, I’m compelled to share news of some James Beard Award finalists with ties to Top Chef since the announcement coincided with the timing of these midterm musings.

Not only does the James Beard Foundation recognize excellence in the kitchen, but it also honors greatness in books and visual media. In the former category, Top Chef alum Gregory Gourdet’s cookbook Everyone’s Table: Global Recipes for Modern Health was named a finalist, while Padma Lakshmi’s Taste the Nation: Holiday Edition took its rightful place as a finalist in the latter category.

Other Top Chef alumni who have been singled out by the James Beard Foundation as finalists in a variety of categories include Jamie Tran, Tiffany Derry, Isaac Toups, Sheldon Simeon, Tiffani Faison, and Kevin Gillespie. Winners in every category will be announced in Chicago in early June.


I wear my love of Top Chef on my sleeve, so it’ll come as no surprise that my overall midterm grade for Top Chef Houston is an A. Assigning that grade doesn’t mean that the show has been flawless, but very few shows are. What Top Chef Houston continues to do is engage, entertain, and educate viewers and in doing so, it remains the gold standard of cooking competition shows.

At a time where viewing options are seemingly endless thanks to a vast universe of content waiting to be sampled, Top Chef Houston continues to be appointment television every Thursday night on Bravo, whether watched live or recorded. The Top Chef magic endures. And now, it’s on to the stretch run of Season 19. There’s a Top Chef waiting to be crowned.

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Which remaining chef do you think will win Top Chef Houston? Which eliminated chef would you love to see return to the competition?