‘Top Chef’ contestants butcher Texas queso in front of iconic Houston chef

There are few things more sacred to a Houstonian than a bowl of queso. And while recipes may vary, the basics are essential: Queso must be creamy, salty and thick enough to coat a tortilla chip, but thin enough that it still threatens to drip on your shirt.

So when “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi told the contestants on this week’s episode they’d be creating their own versions of queso for the Quickfire challenge, collective groans from home viewers in Texas would not be out of line.

Do we really need a fine-dining version of queso with lots of fancy ingredients?

Tasked with answering this question was guest judge Irma Galvan, hailed by Houston contesting Evelyn Garcia as a “local celebrity” who “represents not just Houston but the Mexican community.”

Galvan’s restaurant, Irma’s Original, has been a staple in downtown Houston for more than 30 years. Long before the area became a hotspot for dining and entertainment, Galvan was drawing in locals and tourists with her Mexican comfort food and hospitality, earning a James Beard America’s Classics Award and the respect of fellow Bayou City chefs.

Facing a literal wall of cheese and the formidable Galvan is enough to make any local chef quake in their (cowboy) boots, let alone those who have no reference or taste memory for chile con queso.

Some of the 14 remaining chefs were able to rise to the challenge. Others, to our horror, overcomplicated the dish or floundered completely.

The most offensive offering came from Los Angeles-based chef Jackson Kalb, who became the villain of the episode when he said that “everybody’s going to do a big vat of creamy gross cheese.”

His blasphemous “solution” was to create a “crispy” rather than “gooey” queso by caramelizing mozzarella and Parmigiano Reggiano in a pan. This gamble did not work in his favor, which became immediately clear by Lakshmi’s reaction as she bit into what was essentially a cheese cracker and winced.

“Top Chef” challenging Jackson Kalb, pictured here committing quesocide.

David Moir/Bravo

“There’s nothing to dip,” she said, somewhat obviously. Galvan rightfully put this queso-hater in his place by calling it out as her least favorite dish of the Quickfire challenge.

But Kalb wasn’t the only cheftestant to slander queso’s good name. Fine-dining chef Buddha Lo aerated three types of cheddar—in a canister!—for his spring rolls because he “finds cheese to be a little bit heavy.” Clearly, this man has never enjoyed a bowl of Texas queso.

Robert Hernandez, a private chef from San Francisco who specializes in Mexican food, noted that Tex-Mex is completely different. “I couldn’t give you the definition of queso if you asked me,” he deadpanned to the camera. This was a prescient statement, as Galvan deemed his queso Oaxaca fonduta with salsa to be “really thin” and a poor match for his fried white asparagus.

When New York’s Sam Kung earnestly presented his queso blanco with Gruyère and a pepper pancake to Galvan, he noted, “I don’t make a lot of queso.” Galvan’s response, a simple “yeah” with a frown, had to sting.

Stephanie Miller’s pepper jack and extra sharp cheddar queso was judged by Galvan to be “a little watery.” This was the beginning of a bad run for Miller, as she fully capsized during the Elimination challenge over poorly cooked rice. At the end of the episode, she was asked to pack her knives and go.

The dishes that came out on top not only earned praise from Galvan, but managed to make cheffed-up queso look desirable.

Houston "Top chef" contestant Evelyn Garcia received high praise for her adobo con queso.

Houston “Top Chef” contesting Evelyn Garcia received high praise for her adobo con queso.

David Moir/Bravo

Our Houston gal Garcia’s adobo con queso with taro chips was lauded for its presentation and its combination of gooeyness, heat and crunch. Chef Nick Wallace impressed with a pork belly and blue crab “surf and turf queso” that Galvan enjoyed.

Damarr Brown ultimately won the Quickfire challenge for his mild cheddar queso with pickled serrano chiles and toasted bread crumbs. As the competition shifted to a Friday-Night-Lights-themed cookoff at the Tomball ISD football stadium, Brown also won the Elimination challenge with a bowl of farro in the style of dirty rice.

The Chicago chef’s cooking bonafides and delicious-looking queso almost made us forget that crispy “queso sandwich” monstrosity.

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