Hard choices at a soulful fundraiser in Freedmen’s Town

By now I should be used to “Top Chef Houston’s” tonal ricochets, which carom from cornball cartoonishness to kumbaya solemnity. I always wonder which Padma we’ll see as mistress of ceremonies: the gung-ho camp counselor or the earnest high school social studies teacher.

This week, as the seven remaining chefs visited our Freedmen’s Town national historic district, we got the social studies teacher. All to the good, as far as I’m concerned. I’d rather see the contestants cook for a Fourth Ward fundraiser than watch them engage in a tortured mock football battle.

The setting in the shadow of downtown’s skyscrapers was rich. Magnificent, even. The front facade and empty shell of Bethel Baptist Church, built by the Reverend Jack Yates in 1889 and destroyed by fire in 2005, now delineate a grassy pocket park. From the front, the soaring Gothic Revival facade has a Petra-like grandeur.

Step through the vaulting doorway, and an airy steel grid conjures an imaginary nave. It made the perfect place for an outdoor food-fest on a sunny afternoon. Forget those token skyline shots and the manicured aisles of Whole Foods Market; for once Houston looked like it had some juice.

First, however, came a ratatat Quickfire Challenge. Cook a monochromatic vegetable dish, the chefs were told, as they pulled knives for their assigned color. Our gal Evelyn pulled black. She did not take it as a good omen.

“I’ve eaten a lot of meat since I’ve been in Houston,” said Padma, sounding slightly aggrieved. Um, yeah. No kidding. For better or worse, that’s us.

Los Angeles chef Nyesha Arrington, the winner from Season 9, parachuted in to guest judge this week. Nick’s fried rice on an orange theme and Ashleigh’s curried vegetables in yellow both fell a little flat with her and Padma.

But Noma-guy Luke’s handsome plating of roasted purple cauliflower, brown-buttered purple carrots and purple potato puree earned plaudits — finally! — and that sauce-like puree had such an enticing rosy-magenta hue I longed to taste it. His relief to earn compliments was palpable.

Buddha’s structural white composition involved regular cauliflower roasted over a wood fire with butter, garlic and thyme; with vadouvan spice and salted grapes for contrast. “Menu-ready,” said Padma. “Really, really high art.”

But here came Evelyn’s charred eggplant-and-black-bean soup, seasoned with black lemon (actually dried limes) and black garlic, with a snowcap of dilled yogurt and one of her signature crumbles — this a dark melange of black radish and walnut. “It’s delicious!” said Padma. “Impeccable,” added Nyesha during final judgments, and “I have to say super-bold of you to make a soup.”

That sounded pretty encouraging for our hometown fave. But Jae rang some bells with her vivid red plate of strawberry-gochujang glazed beets streaked in walnut puree, too. And look out, here came stealth candidate Damarr for the win, with a green-on-green dish of harissa-glazed broccoli “steak” with a flourish of chermoula spiked with hazelnuts and shavings of romanesco, the fractal broccoli. He got immunity.

Then it was on to the educational and good works portion of our show. Dawn Burrell showed up, looking super glam, to instruct the chefs on the history of Houston’s Freedmen’s town. They heard how rural Texas Blacks congregated and flourished here after Juneteenth, in 1866, when word of the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached the state, two and a half years after the fact.

With Zion Escobar, a drop-dead gorgeous guide from the Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservervancy, they walked the surviving narrow brick streets, peeked into the park at Bethel Church and surveyed the 19th century frame cottages that still remain.

They ate a soul food lunch from This is It, which was located on Andrews Street back when I first ate there as a baby restaurant critic in the 1970s. This is It now holds forth on Blodgett in the busier Third Ward, but I recognized the deep gooey glaze on the candied yams and the gelatinous glisten of the oxtails on the contestants’ plates. Buildings may come and go, but foodways persist.

Then they shopped for dishes meant to reflect their own souls and family generations. They’d have to feed 100 paying guests, with the proceeds going to the Conservancy. I immediately loved the sounds of Nick’s cast-iron salmon cakes, a festive dish from his Nana, which he made his own with a remoulade sauce and… the kicker… a cap of Hoppin ‘John relish.

As they prepped, Jae dove into childhood memories of her Korean mom deboning fish for her and putting it in her spoon. “I want to create the moment of Korean baby eating fish!” she exclaimed as she peeled bulbous purplish Korean sweet potatoes to make a puree.

Damarr wrestled sheaves of collard greens while narrating the origin of hoecakes, the simple batter of cornmeal and water cooked on the blade of a garden hoe.

Evelyn tinkered with a sope idea involving her mom’s chorizo ​​recipe. Buddha worked on his grandma’s Malaysian curry and returned to the touchstone of his dad’s recent death. He never got to tell his dad he’d made “Top Chef.” “I’m gonna win this for him,” he swore.

Luke gravitated to his mom’s meatloaf, only griddled in Danish frikadeller (meatball) form. Ashleigh hit on combining a Low Country dad’s crab rice with her mom’s famous oyster gravy. “She is the gravy queen!”

Then it was the next day, sunny and perfect in the Bethel churchyard. As the guests filed in, I looked for familiar faces. Mayor Sylvester Turner was on hand with Councilwoman Abbie Kamin, who wore turquoise sunglasses. They schmoozed the judges’ table and rated identifying captions. I caught a glimpse of Gracie Cavnar, Recipe for Success founder; and Eileen Lawal, president of the board of the Freedmen’s Town Conservancy.

As Evelyn pinched up the sides of her sopes, she explained their unusual rosy hue. The little masa boats were tinted with beet juice, a decorative tribute to her grandma. “She always got done up even for the simplest task,” she said. Hair dyed, lipstick applied … ergo these blushing little balls of dough to flatten and pinch just so.

Damarr had trouble keeping his hoecakes from burning at first. It looked like he might crater under the pressure. “It’s a volume thing,” he muttered. “They take six minutes to cook. I do not have enough battery to continuously throw these in the garbage.”

But … fake out! His greens, rich with smoked raw hocks, ended up great, served with a hoecake the judges pronounced “so tender,” plus a livening spritz of pepper vinegar. “This shows how a few things put together well can be so delicious,” said Tom.

The judges found good things to say about everyone’s dishes. And great things to say about some: including Evelyn’s beet sopes, filled with her family-recipe chorizo, charred pineapple pico (yum!), Pureed black beans and salsa verde. I’d eat more than my share of those.

The judges kept muttering about how hard it would be to send anyone home as they made their rounds. “There were no bad dishes,” announced one. “The competition must go on,” Padma said more than once. eventually Luke got the ax, felled by the “tight” texture of his meatballs; while Ashleigh and Buddha’s offerings both came in for some criticism.

It was Jae who won the night with her meltingly tender flaked cod, Korean sweet potato puree and shrimp bisque, set off by a kimchi salad sharpened with pomegranate.

“That’s one of those things that you eat and go, ‘Where have you been all my life?’” raved Tom.

I was happy for her. I have learned to admire Jae’s pluck and resilience, as well as her off-kilter humor and great laugh.

And I was happy the Freedman’s Town Conservancy — and Houston itself — got its moment in the sun.

During prep for the fundraiser, Ashleigh said something illuminating for me. “Being a top chef is technique, it’s flavor, but it’s also being able to communicate with your community. Chefs have to start seeing themselves as community leaders.”

That’s a movement well underway in Houston. It first crystallized for me during Harvey, when local chefs leaped into action to feed our flooded, stricken city. Chris Shepherd’s Southern Smoke keeps raising funds to support food and beverage folks in need. The industry women of I’ll Have What she She’s Having have stepped to the forefront of women’s health issues.

The pandemic, when chefs like Chris Williams and so many others came forward to do what they could, has made such efforts even more meaningful.

That, to me, was the episode’s big takeaway. good show.

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