Top Chef 19 episode 11 recap: Family Vacation

No more “Last Chance Kitchen.” Sarah Welch beat Jae Jung, tying the record for the most “LCK” wins in “Top Chef” history. And no more immunity from elimination. So the six remaining chefs had no margin for error. Joining Sarah in the top six were Damar Brown, Evelyn Garcia, Buddha Lo, Ashleigh Shantiand Nick Wallace. So what happened when they traveled to Galveston to make dishes for a special family reunion in “Family Vacation”? Read on to find out in our episode 11 recap.

Quickfire Challenge

Immediately after Sarah’s “LCK” victory, the chefs were told they were going on the road. And Sarah was already worried, half-jokingly admitting to Padma Lakshmi when they arrived at their destination that she was “horrified” to be back since “LCK” required a different skill set than the main competition. She had more freedom of choice during her almost unprecedented winning streak on the web show. Now she would have a lot more time, but also a more rigid set of strictures for each challenge.

Indeed, the Quickfire Challenge announced by Padma and “Top Chef” All-Star Shota Nakajima was highly specific: the chefs would create two shellfish dishes, one hot and one cold, for the “ultimate communal appetizer,” a seafood tower. The winner would get an advantage in the Elimination Challenge. They only had 45 minutes to complete the whole challenge, and Sarah was certainly no stranger to having to beat the clock, though cooking at the beach she found herself missing the fully-stocked “LCK” kitchen she just left. Damarr was also worried about the limited amenities during their cook, while Buddha bemoaned all the sand blowing in his radicchio.

Oysters were the name of the game. Evelyn was making raw oyster for her cold dish. Ashleigh was also making raw oyster. nick was also making raw oyster. Damarr was making — can you guess? — raw oyster! Sarah looked around her and decided that she could stand out by cooking oysters for her hot dish, which showed good instincts for how to impress the judges … as long as you cook it well. Nick was having trouble in that regard: he’d planned on making his own tortilla for a taco, but there was no tortilla press, so he had to improvise by making an orzo dish instead, despite not having much time to cook that orzo.

Surprisingly, Nick’s orzo salad and oysters on the half shell made for one of the best seafood towers of the challenge, as were Ashleigh’s gulf oysters and jerk shrimp and Evelyn’s oysters and Thai-Cajun boil. Turns out all those cold oysters weren’t a problem after all; maybe they really are an aphrodisiac? Evelyn was named the winner of the Quickfire, which is actually a first for her despite her stellar track record in Elimination Challenges. Each reward was 30 extra minutes of cooking time for the Elimination Challenge — three hours compared to two-and-a-half for her competitors.

Sarah’s dill pickled shrimp needed more salt, so she ended up at the bottom with Buddha’s jumbo shrimp cocktail and crab taco, which were too creamy and heavy for the judges’ tastes. This is Sarah’s first disappointing dish since… well, since she was eliminated way back in episode four, “Doppelgangers.”

Elimination Challenge

It was time for a family vacation. There would be a very important family reunion at a rented house nearby, and the six cheftestants were going to cook for a party of 20 right there in the vacation home. The chefs received dossiers each detailing the likes and dislikes of a particular family member, and they were instructed to create dishes inspired by those flavor profiles. But the dossiers didn’t include names. Who were they cooking for? Did the chefs know them?

Buddha was the first to recognize that his dossier described his wife. Evelyn’s figured out her father was her assigned family member. Sarah clocked her sister in her dossier, with her aversion to mushrooms being a dead giveaway — Sarah even called bullshit on her sibling for lying about being allergic to them. Ashleigh’s mother was her family member. Damarr’s friend, culinary mentor, and boss was his familial connection. And Nick … was still confused. He still couldn’t figure out who the heck he was cooking for, even though he knew it were supposed to be someone close to him. “Is this person from Mississippi?” Nick wondered, looking over an incongruous list of likes and dislikes.

So what would the chefs make for their loved ones — or in Nick’s case, a complete stranger? Well, we were done with oysters, though Ashleigh was still going all in on seafood by making a seafood rice with squid like her mother loved. Buddha planned on a cake dish he closely associated with falling in love with his wife (he called it “marry me cake”), though he worried it would be too simple to be competitive. Indeed a risk, as the judges’ expectations rise the simpler a dish is. When you do very little, what you do needs to be damn near perfect.

Understanding this principle, Sarah decided she’d make an elevated dish that didn’t perfectly conform to her sister’s desires. Smart in theory, but I worried about her straying too far from the spirit of the challenge. I was even more worried when she said she’d be making ahi tuna … which she’d never made before. I was kinda stunned by that strategic choice because she made mincemeat of her “LCK” opponents by leaning into dishes she had a personal connection to. You can’t get less personal than a food you’ve never cooked before, and goodness knows I wouldn’t want to be judged by Tom Colicchio and company for my first attempt at cooking something — or honestly, even my hundredth attempt, as I am no chef. Better yet, I’d just let Tom do the cooking. There were further warning signs when she decided to get fancy with her plating, fanning out the fish to be aesthetically pleasing, but thus isolating it from the peanut sauce that was meant to provide much of the flavor.

She wasn’t the only chef I had a sinking feeling about. Ashleigh commented about playing musical chairs with her different meal elements, juggling baking sheets and casserole dishes — “It’s kind of a disaster,” she said, though that could have just been a misdirect leading to a moment of triumph at Judges’ Table. The real concern came when Ashleigh was grilling her calamari, making a special point of explaining that she needed to avoid overcooking them. That sure as hell seemed like the “Top Chef” editors foreshadowing some seriously overcooked calamari.

Then the chefs’ families arrived at the vacation house, and all their predictions turned out to be correct as we were introduced to Buddha’s wife, Sarah’s sister, Evelyn’s dad, Ashleigh’s mom, and Damarr’s friend and mentor. As for Nick, his mystery guest turned out to be… his mother, who now has a wealth of ammunition for guilt-tripping her last over his inability to recognize her culinary likes and dislikes.

Table Service

The meals were served family style, so all six chefs brought out their dishes at the same time. And they were met with another surprise, though this was a friendly twist. the final diners who would be partaking of the meal would be the contestants themselves, giving them the opportunity to enjoy the company of their family; Damarr’s friend delivered him a letter that made him cry from his wheelchair-bound mother, whose health prevented her from being part of the Galveston get-together.

As for the dishes, the judges thought they were mostly well executed. Buddha’s “marry me pasta” surprised the judges for how rustic it was compared to the neat and refined aesthetic of his previous dishes. But he “knocked it out of the park,” according to Tom. It was executed well with flavorful spice and beautifully roasted tomato. They also loved Evelyn’s crispy red snapper for its great acidity and herbs and the stellar frying job on the fish. And Damarr’s herb bread-crusted red fish was cooked perfectly with great use of onions and beans to add or capture the flavor of the whole dish.

Unfortunately, all the problems that had been previewed earlier in the episode for the other three chefs were exactly their downfall. Nick’s confusion over who he was cooking for led to a confusing dish with too many clashing elements and overcooked cake. Sarah’s inexperience with ahi led her to cut and cook it wrong, and her elegant plating indeed kept the judges from getting the peanut sauce the dish needed. I was wrong about Ashleigh, though. She didn’t overcook her calamari after all — she undercooked it, drastically. It was practically raw, and Padma even to spit it out, which is perhaps the worst critique any chef can get. There are technical mistakes that can spoil a meal, but if you can’t even get it down, where do you even go from there?

Judges’ Table

It was a dark and stormy night as the chefs stood before the tribunal. Very dark and very stormy. There was thunder in the background, the wind was kicking up, and Tom’s hat flew clear off his head. “Oh f*ck!” Sarah exclaimed after an especially alarming lightning strike. So everybody had to pack their knives and go … back inside the house, where the judges had to sit shoulder-to-shoulder at a cozy little table that made them delightfully less intimidating.

Their top three chefs were no surprise: Buddha, Evelyn, and Damarr, with Buddha named the winner for capturing the spirit of the challenge and showing a softer side of his cooking. “I met my wife through this dish, and now I’m on ‘Top Chef’ winning this Elimination Challenge,” he said. His prize was a stay at a vacation home of his choice anywhere around the world. He planned to take his wife to Rome to enjoy some more “marry me cake.”

So it was down to Nick, Sarah and Ashleigh for elimination — Sarah having just fought every way back from “LCK” and Ashleigh having emerged from there several weeks ago. I figured one of those two would be on the chopping block since Nick’s biggest flaw was cake that was too soft, and I expected it to be Ashleigh since inedible calamari was probably a bigger deal-breaker than Sarah’s improperly cut tuna. I was right. Ashleigh was eliminatedconcluding a tumultuous run on the show in sixth place.

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