"Where's the beef?" — the judges, basically.
After season 15 contestant Brother Luck’s surprising re-entry and elimination last week, Top Chef returns and the remaining chefs breathe a sigh of relief. “Last week Brother Luck won Last Chance Kitchen and made it back into the ring,” says Eric. “He’s no longer here and it feels normal again.” The chefs pop some bubbly to celebrate the fact that the house is back to the way it was. At the house, Eddie has an adorable video chat with his son at home in Philadelphia before heading to the Top Chef kitchen for the next Quickfire Challenge.
The chefs find Padma Lakshmi hanging out with one of the coolest people ever, actor and producer Lena Waithe. They’ll be making hot browns, the classic sandwich invented at The Brown Hotel in Louisville. “The hot brown is essentially just an open-faced turkey sandwich smothered in mornay (a classic French sauce made with cream and cheese),” Justin says. As a chef with a hot brown on the menu at both of his restaurants, he wants to bring this win home. “There’s no way I’m going back to my cooks having lost a hot brown competition.”
The cheftestants have 30 minutes to “reimagine the hot brown” any way they want but they have to use turkey and some kind of sauce, and serve the whole thing in a skillet. Winner gets immunity. As the clock starts, the chefs rush to the pantry to see what they have available to make their hot browns. Some chefs are really pushing the boundaries of what a hot brown can be. Brian is using Nashville style hot chicken as the inspiration for his dish, giving fried turkey a dousing in hot chili oil. Home-state favorite Sara is showing off her charcuterie skills by making a turkey sausage with fennel and pancetta to encase a perfectly cooked egg. It’s risky but she believes she can pull it off. Kelsey is using a trip to France as her inspiration and making a play on a Croque Madame sandwich, which is basically a mashup of a grilled cheese sandwich and a ham sandwich, covered in cheese sauce.
Time's up and the chefs have plated two dishes each of their beautiful interpretations of the hot brown. Well, everyone except for Sara whose Scotch eggs weren't serveable and her backup batch didn’t manage to get on the plate in time. “I needed like three more seconds,” she says. On the bottom? Sara because Padma and Lena couldn’t taste her dish and Brian for using a lean cut of turkey. “It was a little dry and I needed some sauce,” Lena says. On top? Justin’s sweet and savory take which Lena says is her “jam.” Eddie’s version may not have looked like a hot brown but hit the mark because of its great flavor. Adrienne’s turkey tenders with a bourbon corn sauce also made Lena happy because she wouldn’t feel too guilty eating it at 3 a.m. Justin wins because he made something that Lena says “people would want to eat all the time.” It’s Justin’s first solo Quickfire win and he has immunity going into the Elimination Challenge.
As Lena exits, renowned chef Nancy Silverton enters and the cheftestants are (rightly) floored. “Nancy Silverton is a god,” David says. “Someone who I strive to be like every day.” This challenge is going to be all about local beef, which Kentucky is becoming known for as the largest beef-raising state east of the Mississippi. The chefs draw knives with cuts of beef on them and will have to use that cut of beef to make a dish. But there’s a catch. The chefs won’t be getting portioned pieces of their cut. Nope. They’re sharing an entire side of Bluegrass beef. “You have to break it all down first,” Padma says. They’ll have a little help in the form of one of the most famous butchers in the world, Dario Cecchini, known as the “Butcher of Panzano.” Cecchini will show them how to break the side of beef down into larger cuts and the chefs will have to take it from there. They’ll have 10 minutes to look through a pantry of local Kentucky ingredients, 30 min and $100 at Whole Foods, and two hours the next day to make their dishes for a group of local Kentucky producers and purveyors.
Adrienne is particularly excited. “I grew up on a 60-acre farm in Connecticut,” she says. “I’m so excited to have some locally sourced ingredients.” Sara is feeling uneasy because she drew the “plate” cut, which she’s unfamiliar with. If she were familiar with the cut, she’d probably still feel uneasy because it’s typically a tough cut from the cow’s belly. She decides to make sausage. Again. It’s a gamble because the challenge is to show off the meat itself and sausage won’t really do that. At Whole Foods, David and Brandon realize that they’re both doing steak tartare, which is also a risk because it doesn’t necessarily showcase a chef's cooking talents. Both are unwilling to change their dishes so there’s going to be a tartare face off.
The next day at Decca in downtown Louisville, the cheftestants are face-to-face with Dario and trying their best not to fangirl or fanboy. They proceed to watch him break down a whole side of a cow while sporadically yelling “Carne!” At the end, he wishes them luck and it’s time to get cooking.
The judges are joined by Decca chef (and Top Chef season 14 contestant) Annie Pettry, Maggie Keith of Foxhollow Farms in Kentucky, Dario and his wife Kim. Here’s how things shook out for the chefs with their various cuts of beef and what the table had to say:
Cut: Beef Loin
Dish: Asian style beef tartare with miso egg sauce, black raspberries, crispy potatoes and asparagus
Right at the last second, Brandon drops the top of a squirt bottle of grapeseed oil into a blender throwing the consistency of his vinaigrette out of whack which he then decides to thicken up with xanthan gum. Tom definitely notices the oily texture and makes a face as he tastes the tartare. “All I taste is alliums, I don’t taste the beef,” Annie says.
Cut: Beef Round
Dish: Cold smoked beef tartare, allium confetti, Kentucky cave aged cheddar and dijonaise
David is nervous to cook for one of his culinary idols and decides to stand out by cold smoking his tartare. Nancy Silverton says David’s tartare tastes like ground hamburger meat (ouch) and farmer Maggie says "I can't taste my beef."
Cut: Flank cut
Dish: Flank steak, creamy polenta, braised mustard greens, local carrot puree
Justin keeps it simple with a gorgeous plate that puts perfectly medium rare steak front and center. “This challenge is about the meat,” Tom says. “I think Justin gave us a great beef dish.”
Dish: ‘Black and Blue’ NY Strip with collard greens and pickled green garlic salad
Nancy Silverton says Adrienne’s dish is “well seasoned and well cooked” while Padma praises the “light and acidic” preparation on the collard greens.
Cut: Beef plate
Dish: Beef plate sausage, young turnips, mulberry and garlic scape vinaigrette
Sara struggles in the kitchen once she realizes the casings on her sausage are thick and the texture is really soft. She sears the slices at the last minute to add a little crunch. Graham says “half of the sausage is casing.” Dario thinks the original idea to make a sausage was a good one but it didn’t work out.
Dish: Charred ribeye with charred spring vegetables and raspberry infused Bordelaise sauce
“I don’t know how you could cook a piece of meat this poorly,” Tom says after tasting Brian’s charred ribeye. Everyone at the table just looks offended by what they’ve just consumed. “If you butcher a whole animal it should be a celebration,” Tom says to nods from the other judges. Looks like Brian will be in the bottom.
Edmund “Eddie” Konrad
Dish: “Golumpki” brisket stuffed romaine with ragu, beet and berry sauce
Eddie is making, ‘golumpki’ a stuffed cabbage dish inspired by his Polish heritage. Brisket is notoriously temperamental so it’s a gamble to serve it this way. “I really think he nailed it,” says Maggie. “In the time he had to work with his brisket he could not have made a better dish,” Dario says.
Cut: Beef chuck
Dish: Braised chuck, ginger berry sauce, white corn grits with cheese and charred fennel
Michelle has beef chuck and has chosen to braise it which is ambitious since braising usually takes three hours and the chefs only have two hours for their dishes. The end result is a bit dry. “And the grits are a little coagulated,” says Nancy.
Kelsey Barnard Clark
Cut: Beef shank
Dish: Braised shank, carrot and saffron grits, braised greens, red pepper vinaigrette with pickled salad
Kelsey’s shank is braised well according to Dario but Annie wishes the carrot flavor was more pronounced in the grits. “It’s a saffron bomb,” she says.
Dish: Braised cheeks, beef tongue mousse, lentils, and seasonal vegetables
Eric has a beef head to work with and breaks down the cheeks and tongue to braise which is risky in the short amount of time that they have. The table has to ask Eric to point out the dots of tongue mousse in the bowl, which is never a good sign. Tom thinks the dish is ok but the spices overpower the beef.
Overall the judges were completely underwhelmed by the dishes and think the chefs missed the mark across the board. “It’s like you all had collective amnesia on how to deal with beef,” a flabbergasted Tom says. But there were some favorites. Justin, Adrienne, and Eddie served the favorite dishes of the day. Nancy picks Eddie as the winner because he “not only had the best tasting dish but paid the most homage to the beef.” It’s his first solo win and his prize is unbelievable: Eddie gets to go to Tuscany for a week to study with Dario and a nice signed apron from Nancy. He also gets jealous glares from Brian.
Padma tells everyone else that they missed the mark in some way but picks Sara, Brandon, and Brian as the bottom three. Tom is stunned that Brian chose to remove the bone from his ribeye because he was scared “to serve a big piece of meat.” That’s exactly what the judges were looking for. “You can’t be scared,” he says to Brian before addressing all of the chefs. “I’m going to give everyone a little piece of advice: be yourself. That’s when you cook the best.” Sara had one of the hardest cuts to cook. Padma is wearing the expression of a disappointed parent and says as much. “I have to say I’m disappointed because it came from you,” she says as she points a finger Sara’s way. “These are local Kentucky products.” The judges are dumbfounded by Brandon’s decision to use xantham gum to thicken his vinaigrette before putting it on raw beef. Nancy Silverton jokes that “olive oil does the trick” while Tom says he’ll be scratching his head for a few days on that one. Brutal.
It’s a tough call. Any one of these three chefs can go home. In the end, it’s Brandon for making “a slimy tartare.”
Sorry, Brandon — you mess with the tartare, you get the horns. See you in Last Chance Kitchen.
Episode 8 of ‘Top Chef’ in Kentucky airs Thursday, January 24 at 8 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.