'Top Chef' Kentucky Recap: Episode 11 — 'The Greatest'
Dishes inspired by Muhammad Ali's greatest fights knock another chef out of the competition.
There are only six chefs left before a winner of Top Chef in Kentucky is crowned, meaning things are about to get a lot more intense. As we saw last week, one simple mistake, like ribs that are too wet, can send a chef home.
Sara is still smarting after being taunted by the crowd for using boxed waffle mix because of her emotional connection to University of Kentucky basketball but she still gets to move on in the competition so she’ll be alright. At the house, Eric is Facetiming with his (very) pregnant wife and feeling the strain of being away from his growing family. He won the Elimination Challenge last week so he’s feeling good, but this season has shown that winning one week doesn't mean you won't be sent home the next.
In the Top Chef kitchen, Padma Lakshmi says there’s some unfinished business for the cheftestants to tend to. They’ve been in Kentucky for 11 weeks now and they have yet to do a fried chicken challenge! That’ll be remedied with a deep-fried, finger-lickin' Quickfire.
Right on cue, Art Smith, legendary chef and fried chicken aficionado, rolls in with buckets of KFC. "My first job at 14 was at KFC," Art says. "My momma didn’t teach me to fry chicken, the Colonel did!" The chefs will have to create their own signature blend of herbs and spices, just like the Colonel did — but first, they’ll have to identify those spices blindfolded. Each chef has five minutes to correctly identify as many spices as they can and will then only have use of the spices they get right to cook with.
At the end of the blindfolded spice tastings Sara gets 12, Kelsey gets 11, Eric gets seven, while Justin, Eddie, and Adrienne get six each. Justin didn’t get salt so he has to improvise with a Japanese style fried chicken (also known as kaarage) marinated in shoyu. Fried chicken seems easy but it’s actually a delicate balance of cooking at just the right temperature to create a crisp skin that’s not too dark while cooking the meat to the perfect doneness at the same time. Kelsey and Adrienne’s chicken cooked too low so the meat is still raw as time runs down while Justin’s heat was too high and has made his chicken too dark.
In the end, Justin, Kelsey, and Eric (who Art says "over-fried" his chicken) are on the bottom. On top are Sara, Eddie, and Adrienne, for her Moroccan inspired chicken. The winner is Sara who feels redeemed after last week’s chicken and waffles fiasco.
Sara barely has time to soak in her win before the cheftestants learn that they’ll be paying tribute to a philanthropist, activist and arguably the greatest boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali.
Padma tells the cheftestants that they’ll have to make a six-course, progressive menu for 100 guests at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville. Each course will be inspired by one of Ali’s most famous bouts. They’ll have three hours to learn about these events, prep and cook in the Top Chef kitchen before heading to center tomorrow. "And if there wasn’t enough pressure, our guest judge will be none other than Laila Ali," Padma adds. Not only is Laila Ali an accomplished boxer herself, she’s also the daughter of the greatest boxer of all time, adding an extra layer to this challenge. "She’s just an extremely influential and powerful woman," Justin says.
The cheftestants put their heads together to decide the order of the dishes. Sara is upset because she’s going first, and the first fight occurred at Freedom Hall in Louisville. "I’ve been making Kentucky food all season," she says. "I don’t want to make Kentucky food." To make it fair, the chefs pull numbers and Sara gets number one meaning she’ll have to go first anyway. She’s not happy about it but respects the results.
Here’s how the meal played out:
Fight: The Fight at Freedom Hall
Dish: King salmon with ‘thunder and lightning’ pickled tomato and cucumber
Sara is inspired by Ali’s ‘fast as lightning’ movements in the ring to create a pickle using ingredients that you grab before a summer storm hits, potentially ruining the garden. The judges seem to like the beet cure on her salmon and the lightness of the dish. "It just shows that you don’t have to add a lot of ingredients to get good flavor," Padma says.
Fight: Liston Two
Dish: Saffron and seafood soup with scallops, clams and mussels
Justin is inspired by the fact that Ali won this fight in Maine with one knockout punch and hopes to do the same with this gorgeous looking, daffodil-colored soup inspired by coastal Maine. "Lewiston, Maine is nowhere near the coast," laughs Tom. Whoops. The geographic slip-up doesn’t seem to bother anyone since the soup is "so luscious yet light" as Padma says.
Edmund "Eddie" Konrad
Fight: The Fight of the Century
Dish: Brown butter roasted chicken, collard green puree, red wine poultry jus and toasted hazelnuts
Eddie uses the location of his fight (NYC) as inspiration and tries to find NY duck breasts at Whole Foods to no avail. He switches to chickens instead and roasts them in brown sugar to add some of that caramelization that duck skin gets when it’s cooked. His plate looks very streamlined and simple with a piece of chicken, two purees and toasted hazelnuts on top. Laila says the chicken is "very tender" and Tom agrees that it’s perfectly cooked but "the dish is just not exciting." "There’s no sizzle," Nilou adds.
Fight: Rumble in the Jungle
Dish: Fufu, plantain, and cassava dumpling with Congolese red sauce
Eric is deeply moved by this fight and Muhammad Ali’s pilgrimage back to Africa, similar to the one Eric took to Ghana to connect with his ancestral roots. Tom seemed confused by fufu when he visited Eric as he was cooking, but as he’s eating it, he loves the texture. "I also love the fact that Eric took something that was really humble and just said 'you know what, I’m going to do this because this is what I want to do,'" Tom adds.
Fight: Thrilla in Manila
Dish: Braised shortrib with mango and herb salad
Adrienne is doing a Filipino dish but there’s only one problem: She’s never been to the Philippines and doesn’t know much about the food there. Tom and Nilou say that her dish is more Vietnamese than Filipino. Uh oh. Adrienne sticks to her guns and doesn’t change course despite the fact that the dish doesn’t match her fight. Laila Ali loves the salad on top of the beef saying it has "a lot of flavor" while Tom questions the use of bottled hot sauce to mimic the heat that the fighters faced in the ring.
Kelsey Barnard Clark
Fight: Fight in New Orleans
Dish: ‘Unanimous’ bread pudding with corn three ways
"I wanted to do this dish like seeing Muhammad Ali through a child’s eyes," Kelsey says of her dish. Lucky for her, bread pudding was a favorite of the late boxer and Laila looks pleased that Kelsey chose to honor him this way, if unintentionally. Nilou isn’t a fan of the caramel corn on top because "it’s too crunchy" but Laila loves the lime in the dish because it breaks up the richness of the bread pudding.
"I’m pretty amazed with all of you," Laila says. "We’re getting close to the end and it’s good to see that all six of you are putting out the best food all of you have put out all season long," Tom says. The two chefs who made the judges favorite dishes are Sara and Eric. "I’m so glad that you made this dish because I don’t think a lot of Americans know about this food," Padma says to Eric. Sara admits that she didn’t want to serve her dish first but realizes that she loves Kentucky food. "It was an absolute perfect start to the meal," Tom says. Laila says both dishes were "knockouts" but one chef really stood out for their ability to synthesize the inspiration for the fight into their dish. The winner is Eric!
This is Eric's second win in a row, third overall, and he’s overcome with emotion for winning with food that he’s grown up eating. Even Tom seems moved at Eric’s win and tells him to keep bringing his flavors to the table. "The time is now," Tom says.
On the bottom are Kelsey, Justin, Eddie, and Adrienne who put up really good dishes but were just outshined by Eric and Sara. "We really had to nitpick," Padma says. Adrienne’s short rib was good but the use of a bottled sauce shortened the longevity of the flavor, Tom says. (Wouldn’t it be interesting if Adrienne went home for using a premade product after taunting Sara last week?) Laila thought Justin’s soup was lukewarm and the seafood component a little underdone. Eddie’s chicken seemed "disconnected" to Tom. Kelsey really loved Muhammad Ali’s story of giving back to children because she is missing her eleven-month-old so much. The judges seem to like her dish and how she teased out the story.
In the end, it’s Eddie, who couldn’t find a connection to the fight and made a dish that didn’t speak to the challenge. The chefs are really sad to see him go after such a great run.
Next week, Last Chance Kitchen will pay off for either Eddie or Michelle as one of them reenters the competition for a chance at the title. Then, the chefs hit the auction house to bid on ingredients in an Elimination Challenge that will determine this season's top five.