The Final Plate
Thirteen weeks ago, Padma Lakshmi kicked off Top Chef: Houston with a promise of greatness. The competitors this season had impressive accolades, experience working in multi-Michelin Star–awarded kitchens, and name recognition in their hometowns and across the country. It would be a brutal, grueling fight to be the last chef standing. Winning Top Chef is career defining, and the $250,000 prize money is an excellent start toward opening a restaurant. After surviving an extensive gauntlet of challenges, Evelyn Garcia, Buddha Lo, and Sarah Welch are the final three chefs remaining. The fierce competitors will battle it out on one final meal, a four-course progressive dinner for all the marbles.
Throughout the season, Buddha and Evelyn were obvious front-runners. They’ve dominated nearly every challenge; each only found themselves in the bottom at the Judges’ Table twice. After Buddha won immunity in the very first Quickfire, he was set on his victory-laden path to the finale. Our only Houston native, Evelyn, felt the pressure to represent her city. She consistently offered thoughtful, inspired dishes that blended her Mexican roots and Southeast Asian passions. Evelyn and Buddha were storytellers with their food this season, bringing the judges on a journey each time they presented a dish. As it all comes down to a final meal, they know just how perfect they’ll have to be to come out on top.
And then there’s Sarah. A wild card from the beginning, she was eliminated in a double elimination way back in episode four. She dominated Last Chance Kitchen and came back with a fiery will to win. Struggling to find her footing in regular competition, Sarah’s strength comes from her scrappy, underdog energy. She may not have the Elimination Challenge track record her competitors boast, but her spot in the finale was earned by victory after victory against the other eliminated chefs. She left Houston with a win and won the first Elimination in Tucson. Consistency isn’t her forte, but when she succeeds, she blows the judges away.
In this last challenge, each of our very different finalists took very different inspirations. After gimmick challenges and specific requirements, finally, they’re given a chance just to cook a meal. No strings attached. The freedom could be paralyzing, but Sarah, Buddha, and Evelyn have been dreaming about this for weeks. Buddha decides to go with a family-inspired meal, with each of his first three dishes representing one of his family members. His fourth and final dish on Top Chef will be an “ode to America,” a Thanksgiving-inspired dessert. Evelyn’s inspiration comes from her journey of finding her unique cooking style. She blends unexpected flavors and just seems to see food in a way the judges haven’t considered. She’s proud of the Mexican flavors embedded in her earliest memories of food but works hard to elevate those ideas and bring out unexpected combinations. Sarah decides to tell a story in her final meal. As a chef, she’s passionate about minimizing waste. Her inspiration comes from the hunter-gatherer mind-set, and she plans to use the local Tucson ingredients to tell her story. All three are wildly passionate about their final meals.
For the first time, the finalists will get to choose their sous chefs. Everyone who has been eliminated is on standby, ready to fly out to Tucson if picked. Jackson and Buddha are reunited, as are Jo and Evelyn, and Robert and Sarah. In order to succeed here, the chefs will need someone they trust completely. Joining Padma and Tom for our very last panel of judging are Éric Ripert and Top Chef: Chicago winner Stephanie Izard. In addition, the chefs will present their meals to an esteemed panel of diners, including Top Chef alumni Edward Lee and Gregory Gourdet, Tucson chef Janos Wilder, restaurateur Bricia Lopez, and chef Alexander Smalls. They’ll be dining in the gorgeous Sonoran Desert, and everyone’s ready to see what these extremely talented chefs will offer up.
When the chefs come to present their first meals, everyone is amazed at just the first glance. Buddha, always one for flashy, hard-to-accomplish techniques, earns the most praise. Tom argues that the hamachi and caviar dish is as good as a three-star Michelin first course, and Padma calls it “flawless.” While Evelyn and Sarah both come out guns blazing, each has tiny missteps that can’t compete with the perfection of Buddha’s meal. This trend continues throughout the rest of the dinner. It’s rapidly becoming clear that unless he has some sort of act-of-god mistake, this is Buddha’s finale to lose.
While the second and third courses are again pretty perfect for Buddha, Evelyn’s goat curry mole is good but not great. The judges love the idea of blending curry and mole but disagree with how she dressed the protein. Izard is a noted goat fanatic, with each of her restaurants having goat in the title. It’s a lot of pressure on Evelyn, but everyone enjoys the way she cooked the goat; it’s that she combined the already-cooked goat with the developed curry mole that isn’t perfect. It’s more meat in sauce than a fully cohesive dish. Sarah also struggles a little in the middle courses. She is full of ideas but doesn’t self-edit well. Unlike Buddha, whose cache of techniques was employed effectively, she piles too much on the plate. The elements don’t blend perfectly, and perfection is necessary here.
But it’s the dessert course that is most impressive. They each pull out their absolute bests, and it’s clear they aren’t shrinking from the pressures of dessert. Sarah makes a butter for her first dish and, with the resulting buttermilk, makes ice cream, showing off her zero-waste inclinations. In addition, she makes an acorn cake that everyone adores. Evelyn’s dessert is a buñuelo and panna cotta, and while all the diners love the buñuelo, the panna cotta is too firm. Again, a minor mistake that wouldn’t be a deal-breaker in another challenge suddenly seems like a much bigger problem in the finale. Buddha’s “autumn in America” dessert is topped with beautiful but essentially pointless leaves, and although they love it, it’s a little unbalanced. It’s not enough sauce and too much cake. But again, the high praise outweighs the nitpicking.
After a Judges’ Table full of love and praise for everyone, deliberations begin. Naming the next Top Chef is daunting and high pressure for the judges, but I think at this point, you’d be blind to think anyone but Buddha would take home the victory. Sarah and Evelyn put up amazing dishes and fought until the very end, but it is Buddha who claims his well-earned title of Top Chef. It’s arguably anticlimactic to see Buddha win the grand prize and $250,000, but that’s only because he was so dominant throughout the whole competition. He’s an amazing, focused chef who is fulfilling his childhood dreams in this moment of victory. He’ll undoubtedly have a long career, and all the judges seem so proud of him.
Top Chef may be past the days of dramatic drunken fights and stolen pea purees, but it’s proving worthwhile to take the focus in a different direction. It’s not the reality show fraught with chaos it used to be, but I’m willing to look past it based on how inspiring the last few episodes of this season have been. I think this calm approach is just a double-edged sword. The first few episodes all showcased great talents, but before we got to know any of the chefs well, it was just a bunch of people all cooking well-received food. When everyone is a James Beard–nominated chef or has experience in world-class kitchens, no one really has an edge. In the home stretch of the season, we got to see the chefs who really stood out. Top Chef: Houston also prioritized the ability to work together as a team, which, while well intentioned, dragged a few episodes along. It also resulted in Sarah — clearly an amazing chef — getting sent out the door very early. But being a good communicator and leader in the kitchen is tantamount to being a successful chef. A new story is being told here, and the victors will be revered rather than reviled. There are still kinks to be worked out in the new era of Top Chef, but the fans are welcoming the change.
• Buddha and Evelyn were both very family-oriented, and I love the connections they made from childhood memories to elegant, composed meals. Buddha honored his family so well in this finale, and the story about his father passing just a few days before he got the call to be on Top Chef clearly motivated him throughout. With such a firm grasp on what he wanted to do — and how he wanted to win it for his father — Buddha hit it out of the park this season.
• Seeing Padma, Gail, and Tom cook for the chefs is always so fun. Reversing the roles of judge and judged, the chefs are reminded why this panel is so respected. After 19 years, these three are still the heart and soul of Top Chef.
• Although Sarah made the most mistakes tonight, I found her inspiration the most endearing and intriguing. I love the idea of limited-waste cooking and really thinking about where your food comes from. We’re so desensitized to the grocery store experience, where ingredients are just taken for granted, but she clearly respects the process from farm to plate.
• I’m so proud of Evelyn for making it to the very end. She no doubt made her city proud, and the joy she cooks with is contagious even through the TV screen. In this house, we stan a hometown hero.
Top Chef Season-Finale Recap: The Promise of Greatness