Houston's Black history takes center stage in new episode of 'Top Chef'

The cheftestants head to Freedmen's Town to cook their renditions of soul food.

Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy executive director Zion Escobar, left, shows "Top Chef" contestants around Houston's Fourth Ward.

Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy executive director Zion Escobar, left, shows "Top Chef" contestants around Houston's Fourth Ward.

David Moir/Bravo

Houston chef Evelyn Garcia made an introspective comment on the ninth episode of this season's "Top Chef" that gets at the heart of why cooking is more than just technical proficiency.

"I feel like as a chef … it's our job to educate [people] about our history and our culture," Garcia said in a confessional.

When a group of talented chefs comes together to compete on a show like "Top Chef,'' it's a given that they will make delicious and beautiful food. Less obvious from a viewer's perspective are the ways food evokes sense memories and a connection to stories that bring the past into the present.

This latest episode brought meaningful food and an important part of Houston history to the forefront.

As a primer to their Elimination challenge, the seven remaining cheftestants were led on a tour of Freedmen's Town in Fourth Ward by Zion Escobar, the executive director of the Houston Freedmen's Town Conservancy.

What is now a small stretch of homes and a park on the site of the former Bethel Church was once a bustling community started by nearly 1,000 formerly enslaved Black Texans. Following June 19, 1865—now celebrated as Juneteenth—freed Black families, led by "father of Black Houston" Jack Yates, traveled from plantations south and southwest of Houston and created Freedmen’s Town.

Over the years, Freedmen's Town became the backbone of Houston's Black community as homes, churches, businesses and restaurants were added. Starting in the 1930s, city development began to encroach on Fourth Ward, despite its importance as a historic and cultural center, to make room for a new City Hall and the Gulf Freeway, among other projects.

In time, more land and buildings would be lost and Black residents would move or be displaced to other parts of Houston.

Today, there's a renewed push to revitalize, preserve and protect Freedmen's Town through the conservancy, and community efforts like the recently established Freedmen's Town Farmers' Market aiming to combat the neighborhood's food desert status.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, left, made a brief appearance on "Top Chef."

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, left, made a brief appearance on "Top Chef."

David Moir/Bravo

"Top Chef" brought a further spotlight to Houston's Black history and present. Flanked by guest judges chefs Dawn Burrell of Houston and Kwame Onwuachi, host Padma Lakshmi asked the cheftestants to create "a dish that speaks to your soul" for a Freedmen’s Town Conservancy fundraising event at the Bethel Baptist Chapel Church, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. (Those who wish to donate to the conservancy can do so on its website.)

To set the tone for the challenge, before heading off to shop for groceries, the chefs enjoyed a lunch prepared by This Is It Soul Food, a Black-owned Houston institution founded in 1959 known for yams, braised oxtails, chitlins, barbecue ribs and biscuits.
All of the cheftestants channeled their mothers and grandmothers to create their own dishes for the fundraiser.

Jae Jung was crowned the winner for her "Mama Kim's" flaked cod with Korean sweet potatoes, kimchi and shrimp bisque, while Luke Kalpin packed his knives over his dry meatballs.

Hometown chef Garcia chose sopes—a fried masa dish with savory toppings—in honor of her grandmother. She made the dough with Maseca and beet puree to give them a stunning magenta color, then topped them with pureed black beans, charred pineapple pico, salsa verde and chorizo made from her mother’s recipe.

"Top Chef" alumna Nyesha Arrington was impressed. "That may be a top for me today," she said. Judge Gail Simmons said Garcia "clearly took her roots, this memory, this comfort food and just worked a little bit of chef magic in there." Actor Kendrick Sampson of Issa Rae's HBO show "Insecure," one of many notable guests at the star-studded fundraiser, also praised Garcia's dish as a favorite.

Mayor Sylvester Turner made an appearance, alongside Houston City Councilwoman Abby Kamin. Though viewers didn't get a comment from him about Garcia's dish, he did greet the judges with some words about the importance of the neighborhood.

"I'm just excited to be working with the Freedmen's Town Conservancy to make sure we hold onto it, we restore it, and we breathe life into it," Mayor Turner said.

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