'Top Chef' Kentucky Recap: Episode 1 — 'The Fastest Two Minutes in Cooking'
Horses. Bourbon. Flames. Top Chef is back for its 16th season with Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, Graham Elliot, Nilou Motamed, and a rotating cast of guest judges. Kentucky, the Bluegrass State, will play host to some of the best culinary talents in the country and challenge them to put out the best cooking of their careers. Like children on the first day of school, the cheftestants enter the ring, not knowing anyone or what awaits them on the other side.
The show wastes no time emphasizing its locale, with the cheftestants walking onto the grass of the famous Churchill Downs racetrack, the home of The Kentucky Derby. They hear a bit about its history and then it's time for the first Quickfire Challenge of the season.
The cheftestants break into groups of three and are assigned colors as team names. The teams have two minutes to do their mise en place and twenty minutes to create a dish from a pantry of various proteins, produce, and spices. You read that right. Two minutes to do mise en place for a Top Chef-caliber dish. Once the two minutes are up, all knives will be collected meaning the chefs won't be able to do any more cutting, dicing, slicing or chopping and their mise en place can't be further broken down. No biggie right?
The teams get to work prepping during the two minutes. And while most are getting along swimmingly, some trios are clashing. Brandon has made himself the leader of his team and is "being bossy' according to his other teammates, Nini and Adrienne. Elsewhere, the chefs are working hard to get everything prepped before their knives are taken away. "There isn't a single person that I've seen where I've been like "[they're the] weakest link'," Kelsey Barnard Clark says incredulously. "Everyone is rocking it. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing because that means this competition is going to be fierce."
Once the two minutes are up, the chefs regroup and start cooking. "A team Quickfire is nerve-wracking because I don't know these people," says Nini Nguyen, a chef from Brooklyn. Correct. These chefs just met each other and are each bringing distinctive styles, experiences and point of views to the kitchen and now they have to synthesize their visions into one cohesive dish even though they just met each other.
Here's how things shook out for each team.
The Blue Team: Adrienne Wright, Nini Nguyen, and Brandon Rosen
Brandon comes out the gate with a clear vision in mind and starts giving Nini and Adrienne directions for prep. At the end of the two minutes, Adrienne has cleaned a pork tenderloin but hasn't had a chance to portion it. Nguyen assures her that they'll figure it out and "make it work". They serve a pulled pork tenderloin with sweet pepper relish, corn cake, and gravy. Tom says the pork is perfectly cooked while Padma comments that the dish has "nice flavor.'
The Green Team: Justin Sutherland, Pablo Lamon, and Sara Bradley
Justin steps into the role of leader which comes naturally for this Minnesota chef who's missing the opening of his restaurant to compete on Top Chef. Sara portions a beautifully marbled NY strip steak in the two minutes and the group discusses serving it tataki-style, a Japanese style where the protein is marinated and seared on one side. Sounds great except the steak hasn't been sliced and their knives are taken away. The team switches gears to a poached egg dish instead. The finished product is a beet-pickled poached egg with beef fat roasted carrots, roasted corn, and mint. Padma says the change to a poached egg is "smart' while Tom compliments the acidity and is seasoning.
The White Team: Eddie Konrad, Kevin Scharpf, and Natalie Maronski
We don't see much of this group during the Quickfire shots. They serve a coriander and turmeric corn broth with poached tilefish, herb salad, and fresh corn. Padma finds the seasoning on the fish lacking. "It's really subtle," Tom says while complimenting the team on the decision to do such an understated dish.
The Yellow Team: Brian Young, Michelle Minori, and David Viana
Brian suggests rabbit as a protein because he apprentices as a butcher and can break it down quickly. During the cooking time, David puts a lid on the rabbit which alarms Brian because he thinks it will overcook. The yellow team puts forth a pan-seared rabbit leg and thigh over two gorgeous-looking basil and corn pancakes. Just as Brian feared, it's a touch overcooked. "The meat could've been cooked a little less," Padma says to Tom who agrees and says the rabbit is also "aggressively seasoned." But it's still "a really nice dish" for Tom.
The Red Team: Caitlin Steininger, Eric Adjepong, and Kelsey Barndard Clark
This team seems to get along really well. When time is called they've managed to put together a beautiful bowl consisting of a cornmeal crusted fried oyster with corn sauce, curry sauteed lima beans, peppers, and tomatoes, a really interesting play on a classic succotash. "It's a great twist on southern food," Tom says. "I think I like this more than succotash," Padma says with a head tilt. Tom goes on to say that the dish could be a signature dish one day for one of the chefs. Things are looking good for the Red Team.
Results: The Yellow Team lands in the bottom thanks to the overcooked and over-seasoned rabbit. Right above them is the White Team due to the lack of seasoning on their tilefish. The Red Team and Green Team are in a dead heat for the prize but the winner is the Green Team! Each person receives a VIP ticket to next Kentucky Derby.
Tom is practically giddy at how good the food is so far. "There's really no bad dish and we're nitpicking," he says, smiling. "You guys are really fast out of the gate so keep it up."
Those good feelings are cut short when Padma explains the season's first elimination challenge. The chefs will host a Kentucky Derby party for 200 guests where each chef has to make a dish and cook against the chefs that were just their teammates in the Quickfire challenge. Each chef from a group of three will either win, place, or show — a nod to horse racing results. The chefs who win from each of these (former) teams will be up for winning the entire challenge, while the chefs who place will be safe and the week's eliminated chef will come from the pool of chefs who show.
The ride from Churchill Downs to Whole Foods gives the chefs a chance to get to know one another. Cailin and Kelsey are both moms who gave up time with their brood to be on the show and want to win to prove to their children that hard work pays off.
At Whole Foods, the chefs have 30 minutes and $350 to spend to buy their ingredients. Then the chefs step into the Top Chef kitchen for the first time and start prepping. The personality of the chefs really shine through with Justin says he's not in shape enough for the Top Chef Kitchen. "My body is probably 60% bourbon, 20% pot, 40% fried food and a whole lotta sexy," he laughs. Interestingly, Kelsey and Sara admit in their confessionals that know each other from working together at Dovetail in New York City, and both agree to keep Kelsey's pastry skills a secret (for now, at least). Things go awry for Adrienne who switches from making stuffed tortellini to fettuccine when she realizes she's going to run out of time.
Time's up and the cheftestants get to check out where they'll be staying. It's a southern mansion complete with pool table, dope—ass kitchen and bidet. "We'll be well bathed and clean—butted," says Justin.
At the venue the next day, the chefs have an hour or so to finish up their dishes before the bluegrass starts and the doors open up for 200 hungry Kentuckians to descend onto their stations. Padma, Tom, Graham Elliot, and special guest judge David Danielson, executive chef at Churchill Downs, make their way through a sea of big hats to the stage where they'll taste each chef's dishes against their respective teammates.
In order, here's what each chef served and what the judges had to say about it:
The Red Team
Eric Adjepong — Raw bay scallop with Ghanian shito honey glaze, pickled shallots, and celery garnish
The dish packs some heat as well as complexity from rendered crawfish that's been turned into a glaze. Tom is impressed by how Eric has infused his culture in a "modern' way.
Kelsey Barnard Clark — Pimento deviled egg with a spring salad of pea shoots, radish, parsley, and dill
Kelsey points out that none of the other chefs know how to throw a "southern soiree' like she does. David loves how the dish is a tribute to Kentucky Derby time and says the presentation is great.
Caitlin Steininger — Tomato cobbler with salt and pepper biscuits and homemade ricotta
At the venue, the biscuits aren't getting hot enough quick enough so Caitlin starts warming them separately in a toaster oven and adding them back to the cobbler. Graham Elliot calls the dish "a southern version of a panzanella salad," but knocks Caitlin for her execution. The biscuits have soaked up the tomato liquid and don't have the crisp top that you expect from properly made Southern biscuits.
Results: Kelsey pulls in a win with her deviled eggs. Eric is safe and Caitlin lands in the bottom.
The White Team
Kevin Scharpf — Roasted and pickled beets with homemade ricotta, olive oil, and arugula salad
The dish is a classic, a universal salad option that has to be absolutely perfect to be memorable. Tom likes the simplicity but says it needs some salt and some acid. "Simplicity is fine but you still need flavor," he says. Ouch.
Edmund "Eddie" Konrad — Scallop crudo with haricot vert puree, apple slaw, and puffed wild rice
The puree is an interesting choice since haricot have an excellent snappy texture when cooked perfectly, but Eddie has added some ginger and wild mint to the mix to make the dish stand out. David really likes all of the textures that Eddie has been able to pull off. While Graham says it's an impressive first dish.
Natalie Maronski — Halibut ceviche with pickled bell peppers, confit potatoes, and laksa curry
Natalie is making a laksa, a southeast asian coconut curry with halibut. She says she feels rusty in the kitchen because she took a 10-month hiatus from working to spend time with her mother once her mother was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. With a smile on his face, Tom says he likes the dish a lot because of the mashup of Vietnamese and Spanish flavor profiles.
Results: Natalie's ceviche with curry takes the top spot, followed by Eddie's crudo. Kevin's beet and ricotta salad comes in at the bottom.
The Blue Team
Adrienne Wright — Hand cut fettuccine with snap peas, mortadella, arugula pesto, pea and mint puree
Adrienne's understandably nervous and upset as she puts her fettuccine in front of the judges. Tom, the resident pasta expert, really enjoys the flavor of the sauce but says the ratio of the flour and egg in the pasta is way off so it's not firm. That's probably because she was making tortellini dough which requires a bit more flexibility to shape it.
Nini Nguyen — Blackened catfish and Vietnamese cabbage salad with nuoc nam
Nini is "not here to play' and wants to show her fellow team members and judges the best of what she can do right out of the gate. Graham says the cabbage itself is the star of the plate and says he really enjoyed the dish.
Brandon Rosen — Roasted prime New York strip steak with smoked gouda polenta, charred broccoli, and chimichurri
During prep in the event space, Brandon taunts Adrienne and Nini by telling them that his polenta cakes are awesome. The judges have good things to say but find the dish a bit pedestrian. David says the presentation is "beautiful' and the cookery on each component was very nice.
Results: The judges enjoyed each dish but agree that nothing was really outstanding. Nini's flavors put her in top with Brandon right behind her. Adrienne's pasta comes in third.
The Yellow Team
Michelle Minori — Carrot top tagliatelle with braised chicken, oranges, yogurt, sumac, and berbere spice
There's a lot going on with Michelle's dish and a lot could go wrong with such strong flavors on the same plate. Padma says the dish is "very comforting' and reminds her of chicken and dumplings. Tom says the pasta is perfect.
David Viana — Potato porcini soup with bok choy pesto, pickled morels, and fried leeks
David planned on making gnocchi but forgot to buy flour (which immediately endears him to me, a cook that always manages to forget something and realize after I've left the grocery store). He comes up with a plan B: a potato and bok choy soup which doesn't sound terribly appetizing. Tom tries the soup and looks at the bowl as if it just sprung two heads. "I have no idea what's in this," he says cautiously. "But I'm really enjoying it!" Whew. Almost looked like it was going to really badly for David. The judges love his "fantastic," "umami-bomb" that's "creamy and rich."
Brian Young — Spicy Thai country ribs with bourbon and mint
"My hair is excellent and so is my food," Brian says at the event. His dish is one of the oddest plates I've ever seen on this show — a slab of meat on a thin slice of daikon and shiso leaf, striking because of its simplicity. It's bold but does it taste good? The judges think it tastes like a mint julep. Graham's piece is undercooked and Brian tells him it may actually be the brine that's making it appear pinker. Correcting (chef) judges on cooking techniques never works out, Brian! Graham quickly points out that his piece has connective tissue and fat that hasn't been rendered making it undercooked, not the color from brining.
Results: Chef David's plan B soup bests his teammates' dishes. Michelle is safe while Brian finds himself in the bottom for his country ribs.
The Green Team
Justin Sutherland — Coconut shrimp and grits with pink peppercorn and spiced, candied orange zest
He's sticking with the southern theme and making shrimp and grits. Tom says the dish is "nice stuff' and gives Justin some great, approving head nods. David compliments Justin on his grits but says they can use a bit more salt.
Sara Bradley — Ale 8 and bourbon braised pork belly, BBQ spiced carrots and pickled pecans.
Sara is the sole representative of Kentucky and is really showing some home state pride by serving pork belly braised in Ale-8-One (a regional ginger and citrus soda) and bourbon. Graham asks her if she feels pressure because of this. She says yes but that she wants to bring it home for Kentucky. Tom tells her everything is perfectly cooked but that she should play up the uniqueness of the pickled nuts on the dish.
Pablo Lamon — Tilapia crudo with a green apple vinaigrette, sweet potato bourbon puree and togarashi (a Japanese chili) chips
Pablo is looking to combine Miami (his adopted hometown) and Kentucky with a raw fish and bourbon dish. David says the dish feels "luxurious' while Tom wants to make a cocktail with the vinaigrette. A good sign!
Results: Tom says it's a toss-up between Pablo and Justin's seafood dishes. Pablo's tilapia crudo comes out on top, followed by Justin's shrimp and grits. Sara is up for elimination.
And now it's time for the very first Judges' Table of the season. Tom seems genuinely happy with this group of cheftestants and congratulates them on "good dishes across the board'. Graham is also "really psyched' to see what the chefs produce during the rest of the season.
Natali, Pablo, and David had the judges" favorite dishes of the day. Pablo, in addition to masterfully combining his Miami roots with bourbon, was also a crowd favorite because of his articulateness, Tom says. Natalie says the number of people attending the event was the impetus for making a cold dish. David gives her props for doing so. Tom raves about David's "powerhouse" of a soup with unexpected bites thanks to pickled leeks. David confesses that the soup was actually supposed to be gnocchi to which Tom asks him if he even needed flour to make gnocchi if he had potatoes. Whoops. In the end, Chef Natalie pulls out the win!
And now in the bottom we have Kevin, Caitlin, and Adrienne who served the judge's least favorite dishes of the day. Graham says that Kevin's combination of beets, ricotta and arugula is so well-known that it needed to be the best possible version and it was not. Tom tells Caitlin that while he's sure she can make a good biscuit, the moisture in the tomatoes of her tomato cobbler steamed the dough. Adrienne admits that her dish didn't go as planned to which Tom responds, "welcome to Top Chef." Yikes. David says her pasta was so overdressed that it lost its identity.
Tom uses the Kentucky Derby to illustrate what's really on the line during a Top Chef competition. "There's the horse, the trainer, and the jockey. Training got you here, I think the dish is the horse and you guys are the jockeys." The jockey getting eliminated this week is Chef Caitlin because of her biscuits, which were a soggy mess. "I just wish I could've shown you more," a tearful Caitlin says as we see her pack her knives and go.
So, there we have it. The first episode of Top Chef: Kentucky in the books.