May 26, 2022


Top Chef’s ‘Don’t Mess with BBQ’ episode shows contestants messing with barbecue

3 min read

It was only a matter of time before the cheftestants in this Houston-based season of “Top Chef” encountered a barbecue challenge, and episode 5 is where the brisket hit the smoker.

Judging contestants on their barbecue when some of them have never smoked meat before is a pretty big ask. But challenging the chefs to put their own twist on the classic gave us flashbacks to the queso-tastrophe of episode 2.

Cue the eye-roll-inducing comments from queso-defamer Jackson Kalb, who seems determined to spit in the face of all that is good and Texan once again.

While planning for his dish, the California chef announced he planned to commit a “cardinal sin” by taking his brisket and grinding it up as a filling for pasta. Later, he looked down at his glistening hunk of slow-cooked beef and said: “I almost feel bad.” Then he shoved the meat into a grinder.

In the previous challenge, featuring Texas Toast, Kalb groused: “​​Why does it need to be Texan? Can’t it just be toast?” It’s like he’s trying to provoke us. (And no, dude. The answer is no).

In fairness to his skills as a chef, his risky ground-brisket choice paid off, as his pasta dish was one of the judges’ top three favorites. Yet we won’t soon forget his cavalier attitude to the season’s host state and its culinary treasures.

Kalb wasn’t the only one to mess with barbecue, though at least other contestants didn’t have the disrespect to offend with their words. Monique Feybesse sliced her brisket incorrectly and paired it with bland potatoes and an underwhelming homemade brioche bun. Ashleigh Shanti undersalted her brisket and cut it so thick that it drowned in her sweet potato slicks and cream of collard soup. She ultimately was asked to pack her knives and go.

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Chef Evelyn Garcia represented Houston during the "Top Chef" barbecue challenge and came out on top, naturally.

Chef Evelyn Garcia represented Houston during the “Top Chef” barbecue challenge and came out on top, naturally.

David Moir/Bravo

Thank God there was a Texan in the room to appease us. Houston chef Evelyn Garcia was in her zone. She understood the assignment, using the challenge as an opportunity to make curry, something the judges hadn’t seen yet from her.

Her brisket curry with aromatic rice, pickled vegetables and a burnt-end crumble led to rave reviews from the judges. Head judge Tom Colicchio called it an example of “destination food” that people would travel to a restaurant to eat. (Good thing Garcia has one in the works.)

Garcia truly represented by delivering something that was creative while still doing the brisket justice. She ended up winning the challenge, returning victorious after a near-elimination just last week.

The barbecue challenge was held in the impressive setup of Willow Villarreal’s new J-Bar-M Barbecue restaurant in the East End, a reminder that Houstonians are spoiled with a city full of talented pitmasters who have perfected the art of smoking beef low and slow. Many have worked for decades to turn out moist beef brisket encased in a dark, crispy bark with just the right amount of salt.

Unlike the much-lauded barbecue of Central Texas, styles from Houston pitmasters often reflect the diverse flavors of the city. Houston’s been ahead of the curve for thoughtful barbecue adaptations for years, with celebrated Mexican, Asian, Cajun and soul food-inflected offerings, from humble tents and food trucks to high-end brick and mortars.

When judge Gail Simmons asked guest judge Greg Gatlin, owner of Gatlin’s BBQ, how he felt about the challenge stretching the boundaries of barbecue, he gave a very Houston answer: “I love it. It invites some other folks from different cultures, different tastes, different flavors, different ways to do things.”

That’s why when Garcia trots out a curry, or Buddha Lo makes a brisket in the French style of beef bourguignon, our first reaction isn’t to sound the purist’s alarm, it’s to think about where we may be able to find something similar in town ourselves.

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