'Top Chef' Kentucky Recap: Episode 15 — 'Finale'
The finale of Top Chef Season 16 is here! Only Sara, Kelsey and Eric remain in Macau to battle it out to find out which two chefs get to make a four-course meal for the title of Top Chef. “I’m in fight mode. There’s no other way to put it,” Kelsey says. Game on.
The chefs enter the MGM Theater in Macau where they watch a montage of their time on Top Chef. Kelsey is up first and she’s surprised to see Tom Colicchio in one of the clips, praising her for her technical skills in the kitchen. Eric is next and Padma has a lot of kind words about his food. “You can tell he has great passion in his heritage,” she says. Sara’s journey from hometown favorite to top contender is a blend of “town and country” says Graham Elliot. At the end of the video, Padma and Tom walk onto the stage and greet the chefs. Tom has some advice: “Keep doing what got you here. Don’t forget that. Don’t ever forget that.”
For the final challenge, the chefs will have to cook the best four-course meal they’ve ever made and they’ll have some help in the form of the other contestants from the season. They’ll get two sous chefs to assist with the execution and preparation of the meal. Kelsey picks Brandon because of his “insane knife skills” and Nini. Eric goes with Justin because they made a promise to one another that they’d work together if either of them got to the finale and Michelle because “she’s a badass warrior.” Sara chooses the reliable duo of Eddie and David. They get three hours to shop and six hours to prep and cook but there’s a catch: Two hours into the meal the chefs will serve Graham, Nilou Motamed, Tom, and Padma their first course. “The chef that is the least successful will be eliminated immediately,” Padma says. Wow. No pressure!
With half an hour to plan a meal, the teams split off and start brainstorming. Kelsey is going to use the south as her inspiration with a menu of takes on southern classics. Eric is using the transatlantic slave trade as his inspiration and telling the story of how African ingredients came to the deep south. Sara is making a meal that combines Asian ingredients and flavors with her Kentucky roots. All of the menus sound really delicious and really personal which is exactly what Tom wanted.
The next morning, the chefs hit the kitchen to make the best first course of their lives and earn a spot in the finale. Here’s each chef’s first attempt at their first course:
Dish: Chili prawns with boiled peanuts
Sara’s making a shrimp dish with peanuts, grapes, and homemade xo sauce, a fermented, funky, savory sauce that is sure to impress the judges. “It’s a dish that reminds me of trips to South Carolina and get boiled peanuts on the way and have a shrimp boil when we got there,” she says to the judges.
Kelsey Barnard Clark
Dish: Cornbread and buttermilk
Kelsey is serving a cornbread and buttermilk dish with fruit and pickles inspired by the matriarchs of her family and even brought her grandmother’s cast iron cornbread pans for good luck. About an hour before serving the first course, Nini realizes that the texture of the cornbread is great but the flavor is really salty. They make another batch that comes out perfectly crispy and tender in the middle, which is exactly what Kelsey was looking for. In front of the judges, she tells them that her meal will focus on summer southern staples in Alabama.
Dish: Jerk steak tartare with honey gel
Eric and his sous chefs Justin and Michelle seem to be getting along great during the cook time except that Michelle is frying lotus root chips for the tartare and worried that the thickness will make them brown before they get crispy. Later, while the judges are trying his dish Tom asks how long the beef was able to marinate in the jerk paste which means it’s either too intense or not intense enough.
First Course Judges' Table
Nilou says she could see the chefs' nervousness on the plate. Graham appreciates Eric’s commitment to the vision of West African food that he’s expressed this entire season. Tom enjoyed the dish but thought there were four too many ingredients. Sara’s chili prawns seem to be a big hit because of its simplicity. “I think the flavors that she developed were really mature especially for a cold dish,” Tom says. Padma adored Kelsey’s buttermilk soup and her tribute to the south. “She took me to this sense memory that I’ve never had but I could taste in her dish,” she says. Nilou says the only drawback to the dish was that the only flavor was buttermilk.
So who gets eliminated after their first course? It’s Eric, which is a bummer because he had such an important story to tell with his finale meal. Ultimately, Tom couldn’t get over the burned lotus root chips and the jerk paste that overpowered the beef flavor.
That means Kelsey and Sara are going to be cooking against one another for the title! “You both keep coming back to these southern roots but the food that you’re cooking goes beyond that,” Tom says. The chefs will have four more hours to cook and then two hours the next day to finish their meals before serving.
That night Kelsey and Sara relax by having multi-course dinner at Aji in the MGM Grand Macau but the competition is still top of mind for both chefs. Sara is a little scared because she’s cooking with ingredients that she’s never used before and she’s working with produce, meat, and spices that are a world away from Kentucky. “It’s really changed my perspective,” she says.
The next day, while the cheftestants and their sous chefs are putting finishing touches on their meal, Alvin Leung of Bo Innovation, chef and restaurateur Alexander Smalls, Melanie Hansche of Food & Wine, chef May Chow, chef Dan Hong, and chef Mitsuharu Tsumara of Aji join the judges at the table.
Here’s how the meal went down:
First course: cornbread and buttermilk with crawfish, boiled peanuts, cucumber, and watermelon
Kelsey added crawfish to her buttermilk dish on the second day and the judges seem to really enjoy it. Alexander says Kelsey nailed the cornbread while May says she really enjoyed the “light and refreshing” flavor of the buttermilk.
Second course: French oysters, vicychssoise, Chinese chives, pickled green tomato, and cheese straw
Nilou praises Kelsey’s ability to provide back-to-back “delicate” dishes featuring seafood. Mitsuharu says it’s one of the best things he’s eaten this year which is high praise. It’s good news but Kelsey is regretting making this dish her second course and not third on her menu.
Third course: Soft shell crab and field peas with a pistou sauce
Tom says the crab isn’t fresh or crispy while Melanie finds the integrity of the dipping sauces to be a problem. “I know that crab wasn’t my best work ... so that means this dessert has to wow them at the end,” Kelsey says.
Fourth course: Peach cobbler
Kelsey’s last dish is stunning, a pool of peach colored puree with brunoised peaches, biscuit rounds and quenelles of ice cream. It stops the judges in their tracks. “This is just a beautiful love letter to peaches and cream,” says Padma. “I love the honeysuckle ice cream,” says Dan.
First course: Chili prawns with boiled peanuts
Tom says the dish is even better the second day because the shrimp are perfectly cooked. Graham says this dish is “a kick in the door” which I think is a compliment?
Second course: Braised bacon with razor clams, baby corn, and pickled peaches
Sara’s second course is a beautiful looking slab of braised bacon but she’s worried it might be too salty. Nilou agrees but Melanie and Tom think it’s okay because the pickled peaches cut through the salt. Tom also says the dish is “screaming for something green” like fresh herbs.
Third course: Roast duck with black-eyed peas and pickled beets
Sara combines two things she hated during her childhood (beets and black-eyed peas) to accompany a beautifully cooked piece of duck breast. Everyone at the table is impressed with how beautifully cooked the duck breast is.
Fourth course: Ribeye steak with dirty rice, shiitake broth, and maitake mushroom confit
Sara’s inspiration for her final course is her mother’s dirty rice made with chicken livers and ground beef. This version is more decomposed with a slice of perfectly cooked steak and plenty of roasted mushrooms for umami. Tom loves the texture in the mushroom and the rice while Nilou says she doesn’t miss dessert at all.
“Regardless of what happens here both of you gave us extraordinary meals,” Padma says to Kelsey and Sara. Both had hits and misses. Tom praises Kelsey’s first course saying, "This is the dish I think I'll remember you for." He tells Sara that her braised bacon dish missed the mark. Nilou gives Sara a lot of props for her shrimp dish while knocking Kelsey’s oily soft shell crab dish. It really seems like it’s anyone’s game. Before the chefs leave the judges to deliberate, Padma commends them on being great role models for the “millions of little girls watching” them. It’s a really sweet moment and shows how much the judges have come to admire Sara and Kelsey as people.
So who wins? Drumroll, please…
Kelsey Barnard Clark is Top Chef. It's a well-deserved win for a chef who proved time and again throughout the season she had the skills — both in technique and improvisation — and the strong culinary voice to tell her stories and share her flavors in every dish. Be on the lookout for Kelsey's feature in the July issue of Food & Wine.
That's it for Season 16. If you're keen to take your Top Chef viewing experience to the next level, plan your own Bluegrass State getaway with a tour of the shooting locations and guest judge restaurants around Kentucky.