The cheftestants take on pregnancy cravings and classic Kentucky staples.
Are definitions important in food? On one hand, they help create boundaries around specific regional food and drink, like Champagne versus sparkling wine. But they can also be stifling when they’re rigidly adhered to and immovable. This week’s Top Chef finds the 14 cheftestants considering this as they bend the definitions of Kentucky classics to match their own unique backgrounds.
We find the chefs exhausted from the previous week’s challenge and still in shock over being on Top Chef. They start touring the grounds of their sprawling Kentucky compound (introduced in last week's episode) and come across a cute garden with a note from Tom Colicchio. He has given them each a little plot of land to start growing their own vegetables because he enjoys it so much (sure... do we smell a future challenge?). Some of the chefs are more comfortable in the garden than others. Michelle says she knows her way around a garden because her grandmother grew herbs and vegetables for one of the most dangerous cartels in Mexico. You know, that old story.
After they plant their veggies, they head to the Top Chef kitchen to find Padma Lakshmi and Nilou Motamed, who has been a guest judge before on previous seasons, waiting for them. A very pregnant Gail Simmons appears via video chat to say that she’s sad she can’t be there to taste all of the dishes this season and is craving lots of spicy food, red meat, and pasta in the last stages of her pregnancy.
This week’s Quickfire Challenge is to make a dish inspired by Gail’s pregnancy cravings in 30 minutes. Nilou and Padma will decide which dish Gail would like the best and then Nilou will travel to New York City with the ingredients and instructions in tow. Nilou and Gail will cook the dish together at Gail’s home and she’ll pick which one she likes the best. The winner will get immunity but the chefs won’t find out who won this challenge until the next day.
With 30 minutes on the clock, the chefs get to work creating their dishes and we’re treated to lots of cute baby photos as the chefs talk about their kiddies at home. Kelsey is the only chef that’s given birth to a baby so she feels very confident about this challenge. Eric shares that he has ‘a baby baking in the oven right now’ as in his wife back home is pregnant, so the challenge speaks to him. Natalie wants to make a farro dish which is ambitious given the amount of time that they have. “Farro’s kind of a tricky one to get done quickly but to stand out from the rest of the competition I need to go with my gut and not play it safe,” she says.
Time is up, and Padma and Nilou taste all of the dishes and announce the bottom two. Natalie’s farro stood out for the wrong reasons and is in the bottom because the grain is underdone. Pablo’s curried beets with chermoula couscous and charred beet greens also land on the bottom thanks to couscous that was “wet and mushy” according to Padma.
On top: David’s Viana seared rib eye with a corn chermoula and harissa red wine reduction. “The steak was perfect,” said Nilou. “That’s a dish that I would be happy to share with Gail.” Also on top was Brandon’s Korean BBQ bulgogi bowl with sushi rice and brussel sprout kimchi that Nilou said “had a nice barbecue flavor and I could see Gail and me hanging out in our pajamas eating this dish.” The ingredients and handwritten instructions are packed up and sent on their way for a quick flight to New York City.
With the Quickfire done, the chefs head to Loretto, Kentucky to visit Maker’s Mark, the oldest operating bourbon distillery in the world. They step out of the cars and onto the Maker’s Mark property, complete with rolling green Kentucky hills, a stream, and cute silos. “It smells like malt and yeast and sweet corn,” Michelle says. “It feels like we’re in a bourbon fairytale.” They meet Rob Samuels, grandson of the founders and chief operating officer for Maker’s Mark. After tasting through a variety of bourbons, the chefs are led to an outdoor table where they’re treated to a feast of Kentucky classics by Chef Newman Miller. The crew passes around platters of golden fried catfish, deep-fried frog’s legs, soup beans, rabbit and dumplings and burgoo, a roux-based stew, that’s a cross between gumbo and an Irish stew that features four kinds of meat. Miller, the chef in residence at Maker’s Mark, talks about the history of each dish as the chefs eat and enjoy more bourbon.
This relaxing meal is short lived as Padma appears with a butcher’s block full of chef’s knives that the chefs will draw from to create two competing teams this week.
The chefs are charged with putting their own mark on Kentucky cuisine. “I have never been more excited to cook this food in my entire life,” the ever-enthusiastic Justin says. Each chef will be responsible for one dish and everything will be served family style, like the meal they enjoyed at Maker’s Mark. There must be enough for 48 people and each team only has $1500 to spend at Whole Foods to make it all happen. The winning chef will win $10,000 in addition to bragging rights. “This is my challenge to win,” Sara says. As the only Kentuckian on the show, she feels pressure to represent her state well.
That night, the chefs are planning their menu and Eric decided he wants to make a play on the baked bananas based off of a dish he had in Gabon that infuses baked bananas with oranges. Brandon is worried that the dish might be too far outside of what a southern banana dish is. Kelsey jumps in. “Everything [Eric is] doing is from Africa which is the south,” she says. It’s true. A lot of the dishes that we associate with southern cooking have roots in Africa, specifically western Africa.
The next day it’s a mad dash at Whole Foods as chef load up their carts with the ingredients they’ll need for the challenge. Eddie on the Black Team was hoping to use boneless lamb loin to make his version of mutton barbecue that the chefs tasted at Maker’s Mark, but can’t find it at the butcher’s counter so he decides to switch to lamb racks. The team budgeted about $250 for all of the lamb that they’ll need but at the register find out that the lamb racks will cost over $500. “My stomach just drops,” Eddie says. The team scrambles to decide which ingredients to keep or let go of to stretch the budget. Natalie’s lemon curd is at risk because the team can’t afford all of the lemons and Pablo has to sacrifice herbs and spices that he was going to use to build flavor for an Argentinian-style burgoo. With only $1.16 to spare, the Black Teams checks out and heads to the kitchen, with some members of the team feeling stiffed out of all the ingredients they need to make a great dish. “I created this sense of panic and I feel terrible,” Eddie says on the ride to the kitchen. “If we fail today it’s mostly my fault.”
It’s hot in the outdoor kitchen and the chefs are sweating over pots and pans as they put together their family style meals. Both teams are frantic as they cook but the Black Team seems to be in full on chaos mode. Natalie only has three lemons to make lemon curd for 48 people. One of the shelves in the refrigerator breaks and all of Justin’s roasted corn falls to the floor. Eric can’t find the blood oranges for his blood orange marmalade. On the Red Team, Brian is 30 minutes behind in prep and he’s got two very labor intensive challenges: making a chicken and pork sausage from scratch, and biscuits. Nini jumps in and helps him with his prep.
Inside the cooking tents the chefs are working furiously to finish their plates before the timers go off, while outside, Padma, Tom, Nilou, Newman, and Rob are sitting at a table in a picturesque Kentucky vista.
Here’s how the meal played out:
The Black Team
Kelsey Barnard Clark — Southern fried catfish with green goddess dressing, pickled cucumber, and chow chow
Kelsey served her fried catfish with a cute mason jar of pickles and chow chow. While the judges appreciated the presentation, they thought the fish was “dry” and the pickles tasted like “soggy vegetables”.
Justin Sutherland — Roasted corn hoecakes with bourbon bacon gastrique, and smoked chili butter
Despite dropping most of his roasted corn, Justin was able to develop really good corn flavor. Newman praises the hoecakes by saying Justin took the original and made it his own.
Brandon Rosen — Roasted garlic confit chicken wing with spring vegetables, and biscuit dumplings
In the kitchen, Brandon was afraid that his biscuits weren’t flaky but hoped that he could turn them into drop biscuits. Tom says they’re undercooked while Nilou calls them “an atrocity”.
Pablo Lamon — Argentinian locro burgoo with ham hocks, short ribs, seared sausage, and chili drizzle
Pablo made locro, an Argentinian stew made with pork, veal, and hominy but without herbs and spices to build flavor, it doesn’t have the depth that he was hoping for. Padma and Tom disagree on whether it’s seasoned enough. Fred Minnik, author and bourbon critic, says he got a lot of grease in his bowl.
Edmund “Eddie” Konrad — Bourbon cured lamb with sweet potato puree, Kentucky style BBQ sauce, and crispy corn
Everyone at the table is raving about Eddie’s lamb with Tom saying that he did “a nice job” and that “it’s about the only thing on the table that’s well seasoned.”
Eric Adjepong — Bruleed bananas Gabon with Meyer lemon, and blood orange marmalade
The judges are blown away by Eric’s take on baked bananas. “Eric’s dish is blowing my mind,” Nilou says incredulously to the group at her table.
Natalie Maronski — Meyer lemon curd pie with mascarpone, and bourbon glaze
Things are looking rough for Natalie. Her lemon curd hasn’t had a chance to set by the time she has to plate and the heat of the outdoor kitchen is causing it to melt. “Natalie’s [curd] is just lacking that acid, that bite that you want out of a good curd,” Tom says.
The Red Team
Brian Young – Chicken and pork boudin blanc with biscuit dough dumplings in brodo
Brian’s take on the rabbit and dumplings dish is an impressive looking bowl of homemade sausage and dumplings. Both biscuit dough and sausage are tasks that take a fair amount of time and talent so this is an ambitious dish. Tom says the sausage is “on the rubbery side” but he likes the dish overall.
David Viana – Worcestershire sweet and sour glazed lamb with old-fashioned swiss chard
David’s lamb isn’t as well cooked as Eddie’s on the Black Team but he did a good job of incorporating the inspiration into his dish, the judges say. “He embodied that black BBQ sauce,” Newman says.
Michelle Minori — Ham and cheese tartine with truffled honey
Kathy Clary, executive chef at Lilly’s Bistro in Louisville, says that while Michelle’s tartine is a “nice little amuse [bouche]” it doesn’t hit the mark of what it’s supposed to be. “That’s far from a Benedictine,” she says.
Sara Bradley — Burnt cabbage with soup beans and country ham chow chow
“Sara’s chow chow tastes like Kentucky to me,” Fred says. When Padma shares that Sara is a “Paducah girl” the table nods in agreement. She’s done her home state proud with her take on soup beans.
Kevin Scharpf — Deep fried banana with candied pecans, and peanut butter mayonnaise
Kevin’s take on baked bananas looks like it came straight out a carnival and it’s immediately a hit with the judges, especially Padma who claims she must have carnie roots. “If that’s what carnie food tasted like, I would still be in the carnival,” she says. High praise!
Adrienne Wright — Cornmeal fried catfish with Vietnamese red cabbage salad and ginger pepper jelly
Newman says Adrienne’s catfish is a crispy “home run” which is nice to hear given her difficulties last week. Looks like she’ll fare well at the judge’s table.
Nini Nguyen — Spoonbread with shrimp etouffee sauce
Rob is blown away by Nini’s mashup of New Orleans and Kentucky flavors. “She brought together flavors that we don’t traditionally bring together,” he says. Tom agrees. “That should be a new Kentucky thing,” he says to deep head nods of approval all around the table.
First, Nilou announces the winner of the Quickfire. It’s David’s steak with chermoula corn! He has immunity as the teams wait to find out who’s on top and who’s on the bottom.
The winning team is the Red Team thanks to the chefs' deft incorporation of flavors from their own backgrounds. Nini’s spoon bread with shrimp etouffee sauce, David’s lamb and Adrienne’s Vietnamese slaw, were standouts but Tom picks Nini as the winner for the week meaning she gets $10,000 as a prize!
In front of the judges, Eddie cops to being the reason that a lot of chefs on the Black Team didn’t have all of the ingredients that they needed to make amazing variations of Kentucky classics. Tom says Pablo’s take on burgoo was “bland and thin” which Pablo blames on a lack of spices. Natalie’s lemon curd had crust “that was undercooked” according to Tom. He also has an issue with Brandon’s confit chicken that “wasn’t tender enough” and his raw biscuit dumplings.
So who goes home? “A lot of the dishes just didn’t have that spirit, that inspiration,” Tom says of the Red Team. Natalie is asked to pack her knives and go.
It comes as a shock after last week when she won the top spot. She’ll have a chance to redeem herself in Last Chance Kitchen against veterans Brother Luck and Jim Smith.
Episode 3 of ‘Top Chef’ in Kentucky airs Thursday, December 20 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Bravo. ‘Last Chance Kitchen’ streams immediately following the show at BravoTV.com/Last-Chance-Kitchen. Find additional interviews, chef bios, and more at BravoTV.com/TopChef.
Read our Q&A with last week's eliminated chef, Caitlin Steininger, here.