Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio talk about the Bluegrass State's "meat-forward" food culture.

Credit: Courtesy of NBCUniversal

When Bravo announced the next season of Top Chef would take place in Kentucky, some fans might have found the choice surprising while others found it long overdue. You can count two of the cooking competition's judges in that latter category. I spoke with Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi on the set of the series, currently taping its 16th season in and around Louisville and Lexington. Both have already been spotted hitting up famous local spots, so I asked what they expected to find in the Bluegrass State and what they've eaten so far.

"I don’t know what I expected to be honest because I’ve never been here. I knew that it would be beautiful, the natural beauty of this state would be very bucolic and lovely," Lakshmi said. "The food, I knew would be very meat-forward, and it has been. I have to kind of watch it." However, unlike Colorado (the site of last season) which Lakshmi says had a more rustic palate, Kentuckians go bolder. "They really like their cuisine flavorful and umami. This is a place that has a banana croquette, for example, which is banana, mayonnaise, and peanuts... They have a black barbecue sauce which is like strong barbecue sauce to begin with and then you throw a bunch of Worcestershire sauce in. As someone who grew up eating Indian food, it’s completely different, but not. We’re very intense about how we flavor food, too."

"I don’t know that I’ve had anything that I’d say is 'Kentucky cuisine,' but there’s been some good food," Colicchio admits. "I haven’t been out much to tell you the truth. We’ve had a couple of really late night shoots where we’re going until two o’clock in the morning. But for the next month, I’ll probably be getting out more. I had dinner at Butchertown Grocery and we tried some entrees, we had fried livers which are great and fried pickles at Silver Dollar. I had a great experience at Please & Thank You. Really cool place, the coffee was good and I had a little pressed sandwich that was yummy."

"Obviously, there’s the fried chicken and the barbecue—and the barbecue here is different than Texas barbecue which is more brine-based or than Charleston which has its own version," Lakshmi explained. "When you go to these places, you really find out how regional American food is. I don’t think people realize that in all it’s subtleties: The Hot Brown, the mint julep slushie, that’s a revelation. You know, there’s only so much hard liquor you can drink and I don’t like mixed drinks really, I order stuff neat or on the rocks or with soda. To have a slushie made out of a mint julep was, to me, the best way to drink it. But also I had a pork cake at Feast, and that was an experience."

Both judges also made note that cities like Louisville are on the forefront of the new American dining experience. "I don’t think Kentucky has yet had the acknowledgment or Renaissance that, say, Charleston has had or Atlanta or Nashville. But I think it’s on the cusp of that," Lakshmi observed. "Lousiville is more diverse than I thought I would be. There are a lot of chefs doing really fun and interesting things. These little sub-communities, whether that’s Vietnamese or Iraqi, there’s also Greek and there are a lot of Sri Lankans in Lexington, I want to go to this little food truck called Tuk Tuk. I’m more interested in the little truck stops. I don’t have the time or the stamina for a three-hour tablecloth meal. I just think those scrappy bread and butter chefs who are just serving it out, those are the hidden gems."

"There’s a lot of exciting things happening food-wise outside of the big cities. Everybody knows that there’s great food in San Francisco and Chicago and New York, so it’s great to showcase other areas," Colicchio said. "I think that we’re seeing there’s a trend that a lot of chefs are coming to big cities, they’re getting experience, then going back to their homes because the economics of opening a restaurant are a little easier in some of the smaller cities. The rents aren’t crazy. New York, the rents are pricing everybody out of the market, and it’s going to happen to L.A. soon. You see more and more chefs that have a lot of experience and are coming back home."

As for how they discover new places to eat, Colicchio laments that Gail's absence this season (due to the recent birth of her new baby) is being felt a little. But Gail was sure to leave her mark. "Usually Gail provides us with a good list," Colicchio revealed. "There’s no Gail this season, but she did provide a list. We’ll work through that. The crew is here early and they usually know the good spots and the good bars already. I think you just kind of walk a bit, get a good sense, talk to locals, find out what they like and go from there."

In our conversation, I also asked Colicchio how he makes himself at home while on the road. "I play guitar." Apparently, he and some of the crew form a makeshift jam band in the hotel. Speaking of hotels, I also spoke with Lakshmi about how she settles in for six weeks of shooting. Hint: It involves cooking on a hotplate.