Bravo cooking competition series “Top Chef” is returning on Thursday, March 3 — and this time, it was filmed in Houston. Episodes air at 7 p.m. Central Time and will showcase the Bayou City in all its diverse culinary glory.
The Emmy and James Beard Award-Winning series, produced by Magical Elves, returns for its 19th season with host Padma Lakshmi, an Indian-American author, activist, model, and chef, head judge Tom Colicchio, chef and owner of Crafted Hospitality and Gail Simmons, Canadian food writer and cookbook author. As the show description proclaims, “Expect the unexpected as 15 talented chefs from across the country vie for the coveted title bringing their unique skill sets, variety of cuisines and gamut of flavors.”
The trailer highlights the “cheftestants” at iconic Houston-area locations, such as NASA, Discovery Green, Asian Night Market, historic Freedman’s Town, the Houston Farmers Market, 8th Wonder Brewery, the University of Houston’s TDECU Stadium, the “Houston Is Inspired” mural and city skyline, the choppy waters of nearby Galveston Island and recently opened food hall POST Houston — which sets the stage, or staircase should we say, for Season 19’s pivotal challenge, Restaurant Wars.
Filming took place last September through December. When the series airs, viewers in other cities who wonder what the Houston food hype is all about will get some answers. The nation’s fourth-largest city is famed for its diversity, so some of the cuisines highlighted this season include Nigerian, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Tex-Mex, Middle Eastern, Creole, Cajun, Mexican, and, of course, Texas barbecue.
Only one of the show’s contestants is from Houston: Evelyn Garcia of Kin HTX and formerly of the now-closed Decatur Bar & Pop-Up Factory. Born and raised in Houston and a previous winner of Food Network’s “Chopped.” She attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York and then gained experience at Spice Market under Jean-Georges Vongerichten and at Masak, a Singaporean restaurant under chef Larry Reutens. In addition, she has staged in kitchens around the world to develop expertise in a variety of cuisines. No stranger to adversity, Garcia founded Kin originally in Politan Row food hall in Rice Village, and carried on with it as her own independent business when the food hall closed during the pandemic.
The only other Texan is Jo Chan, executive chef at Eberly, a New American restaurant in Austin’s South Lamar neighborhood.
Even though they’re not competing, several other Houston chefs make appearances this season, including:
- Aaron Bludorn, Bludorn
- Chris Williams, Lucille’s
- Christine Ha, The Blind Goat and Xin Chao, and winner of a different competition series, Masterchef)
- Greg Gatlin, Gatlin’s BBQ
- Hugo Ortega, H Town Restaurant Group, prior James Beard Award-winner)
- Irma Galvan of Irma’s
- Kiran Verma, Kiran’s
- Monica Pope, Sparrow Cookshop, prior James Beard semifinalist chef)
- Ope Amosu, ChòpnBlọk
- Robert Del Grande, The Annie Café and Bar
- Trong Nguyen, Crawfish & Noodles, prior James Beard semifinalist chef)
The remainder of the contestants come from all across the country:
- Ashleigh Shanti, Good Hot Fish, Asheville (James Beard Rising Star Chef finalist)
- Buddha Lo, Huso, Brooklyn
- Damarr Brown, Virtue Restaurant & Bar, Chicago
- Jackson Kalb, Ospi and Jame Enoteca, Los Angeles
- Jae Jung, KJUN, New York City
- Leia Gaccione, South & Pine, Morristown
- Luke Kolpin, formerly of Canlis, Seattle
- Monique Feybesse, Tarts de Feybesse, Vallejo
- Nick Wallace, Nissan Café, Jackson
- Robert Hernandez, formerly of Octavia, San Francisco
- Sam Kang, formerly of Momufuku Ko, now teaches, Brooklyn
- Sarah Welch, Marrow, Detroit
- Stephanie Miller, Butterhorn, Bismarck
The contestant who cooks his or her way to the top will receive $250,000, a feature in Food & Wine magazine and an appearance at the annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. Winning the show could be a real game-changer in terms of reputation and brand expansion for these determined chefs.
With all this talent on board, one would think it must be difficult to critique the culinary creations, but not for the veteran “Top Chef” judges. Last fall, I had the opportunity to ask Judges Tom Collichio and Gail Simmons about their experiences filming along the Gulf Coast region. Known for his stern demeanor and honest opinions, Collichio was upfront when said he hasn’t been to the Southern part of the Lone Star State before, only North Texas where his brother currently resides.
“I come to Houston [and every other host city] with no expectations, but I did rely on Gail for guidance. She is known to methodically research our destinations, often asking cross-country friends and family where to go,” said Collichio.
“I am so impressed by all there is to offer here in Houston, and am surprised I haven’t been here sooner,” said Simmons excitedly. When asked about the restaurant suggestions she received from family and friends, she said it’s an endless list, because the city has something for everyone.
While the judges were Houston transplants for a few months, they were not without some talented tour guides. Both Simmons and Collichio looked to another Houston chef, — Midwest-raised, James Beard Award-winning Houston chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly Hospitality — for culinary counsel. Shepherd also makes appearances in the upcoming “Top Chef” season as does Beaumont’s Tiffany Derry, a season 7 “Top Chef” Fan Favorite Winner, “Top Chef” guest judge and founder of Tiffany Derry Concepts. Esquire Magazine recently named Derry’s Roots Chicken Shak in Plano, Texas, as one of the best new restaurants in America.
“Top Chef: Houston” won’t be the only “Top Chef” series airing on Thursday nights. “Top Chef Family Style”, which aired last year only on the Peacock streaming network through paid subscriptions, will air on Bravo. That’s not all; “Top Chef: Last Chance Kitchen”, will also air through on-demand streaming and online.
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article had incorrect information on Evelyn Garcia’s background. We regret the error.