Top Chef Kentucky
By Jason Lee
March 18, 2019

Alabama Gulf Coast FTW.

From fifteen down to three. In Hunger-Games fashion, we’ve narrowed down our victors to a trio of candidates. We have Eric, who’s doggedly and determinedly sought to highlight West African cooking and cuisine throughout his stint on Top Chef. Along with him, we have two chefs who specialize in southern cuisine—Kelsey, an Alabama belle with nerves of steel and a sharp sense of humor, and Kentuckian Sara who has somehow managed to avoid the “local chef” curse that plagued every other season.

Three remaining chefs, but only two will get to cook the perennial “meal of your life” for the Title. The chefs are brought into a huge auditorium in the MGM Hotel in Macao and are treated to a fun highlight reel of their best moments on the season. Once those are done, Padma and Tom emerge onto the stage behind a cloud of dramatic smoke to congratulate the chefs for getting this far.

Again, the challenge is the same as it’s always been: cook the meal of your life. And, again as usual, the chefs will get a little help in doing so. They draw knives to decide the order in which they will select their sous chefs (the candidates being all of the chefs from this past season). Kelsey draws #1 and selects Brandon, which worked for her last time. Eric predictably picks Justin, and Sara goes with Eddie. Smart selections are again made for the second sous chefs—Kelsey goes with Nini (arming her with two sous chefs who have significant experience with Asian cooking), Eric picks Michelle (giving him two finalists in his corner), and Sara picks David (with his wealth of knowledge about Portuguese cuisine).

Our finalists will have 30 minutes to plan their menus and then 3 hours to shop. After that, they’ll have two hours the next day to prepare the first course of the “meal of their life.” The judges will sample that course and decide which two chefs will have the opportunity to keep cooking and present the rest of their menu.

If this sounds unbelievably stressful—like one more, incomprehensibly high stakes challenge that stands between the three chefs and what they really want to do (cook four courses of “their food” with no additional constraints or requirements)—then you’d be right. The finalists walk their sous chefs through their entire menu, but then train their sights on that first course.

For Kelsey, she’s following the blueprint of what she did when she’s been successful on Top Chef—cook from her gut and do something simple but perfectly executed. This time, it’s a spin on the buttermilk cornbread that she ate whenever she visited relatives growing up. Eric wants his menu as a whole to tell the story of how African food traveled to the United States through the slave trade, and to start off that journey, he’s going to make a steak tartare with jerk spices. As for Sara, she’s making chili prawns with boiled peanuts that are reminiscent of family trips (with boiled peanuts eaten along the way and shrimp boils at the destination).

Shopping is completed with some hand-gesturing by Michelle (for Eric) to get over the language barrier, and with some detailed explanations by Nini and Brandon of what can be found. With that out of the way, our finalists enjoy a nighttime stroll through Old Town Macao, sampling the exotic and infrequently experienced snacks along the way, like chicken cookies.

Morning arrives and everyone has their game faces on—and appropriately so, as it’s one course to decide whether you get to compete in the final round of the season. As can be expected, there are snags for all three chefs. Michelle is preparing lotus chips for Eric’s dish, but he wants them sliced thicker than she would normally do. She worries that, in order for the chips to cook through all the way with that density, they risk burning. Sara struggles with getting the flavor right for her play on Asian XO sauce, needing it to reduce and reduce and reduce even more. Kelsey seems to be having the biggest trouble, as her great grandmother’s recipe for cornbread just doesn’t taste right, with too much salt and too much baking powder.

Judgment time arrives and Sara is first up with chili prawns with boiled peanuts. Everything about the dish works, with mature flavors and components that all make sense together. The only complaint comes from Nilou about the slightly grainy texture of the peanuts. Eric has his jerk tartare with lotus chips. Tom complains that because there are 4-5 chewy ingredients in the dish, he can’t really taste the steak. Also, the cooking on his lotus chips is inconsistent. Finally, Kelsey has her spin on cornbread and buttermilk, with a fruit accompaniment. It looks gorgeous, but Tom finds the fruit work a bit “dated,” and Nilou laments that she mostly tastes buttermilk and wishes that there were other flavors incorporated.

The expressions on the finalists’ faces show one emotion: tension. They want this over with and they want to move on. But only two will do so, and Eric will not be one of them. Because the judges couldn’t taste his beef and because his lotus chips were burnt, he’s immediately eliminated. He disconsolately heads back into the kitchen to inform Justin and Michelle of the result. She asks if the judges explained their decision, and he recounts their criticism of the missing beef flavor and burnt chips. A response from Michelle—presumably, about how he should have let her slice the lotus chips more thinly, as she’d originally done—visibly hovers on her lips, before she simply casts her eyes downward and says (as the cooker of the chips), “sorry.”

With Sara and Kelsey palpably relieved to be heading into the rest of the final round, they take the next four hours to continue prepping their meal. The biggest drama comes in the form of Kelsey’s planned soft shell crab dish—they are simply not getting crispy enough. She attempts to triage with Brandon and Nini, soliciting every thought they have for fixing this.

At some point, Tom and Graham saunter into the kitchen to provide some feedback on the first courses, which Kelsey and Sara will have to prepare again as part of the full meal the next day. Tom suggests that Sara incorporate some type of herbal notes into her first course, and the Kelsey add some ingredient that will tie the entire dish together. This is the first time all season that the chefs have had the chance to try out a dish, get some feedback, and attempt a re-do with that constructive criticism. They’re grateful for this chance.

If the previous night as marked by nerves, the night before the final-final round is not. Sara and Kelsey decide to eat at Aji in the MGM Hotel, which is ranked #7 on San Pelligrino’s Top 50 Restaurants in the World list. The dishes look amazing, and the meal is less of a culinary experience than a whole sensory experience. It’s almost like, “here’s a front row seat for the best chefs in the world put out every night—good luck with your cornbread tomorrow.”

As before, the morning dawns and our two remaining finalists are raring to go. Kelsey has fixed, or so she thinks, the dredge on her soft shelled crabs and they are now coming out crispy. Sara is feeling good about her dishes, which take more inspiration from Macao than she would have expected for herself. She resolves not to simply cook the same produce and sauces she’s been doing all season.

In the dining room, we have the four people who’ll be making the final call—Tom, Padma, Graham, and Nilou—along with four respected American and Asian chefs. They’ll taste all of Kelsey’s dishes first, before moving onto Sara’s menu. Kelsey brings out her slightly reworked cornbread with buttermilk and crawfish (the addition). It’s improved from the day before, with really nice flavors and great texture. It’s a nice, nuanced start to the meal.

Next up is Kelsey’s powerhouse dish of French oysters, vichyssoise, Chinese chives, pickled green tomatoes, and a “cheese straw” in the form of a high-end Cheez-It. The dish looks gorgeous and tastes even better. The soup is amazing, the umami notes are perfect . . . Mitsuharu Tsumura (the chef at Aji) declares that it’s probably one of the best things he’s eaten all year.

With that home run in her pocket, Kelsey is now slapping herself for having put it second. She has her soft-shell crab dish next, and not only does she know it can’t compete with her oyster dish, it’s not even a dish she can be completely proud of. She presents the dish of crab with field peas and a pistou sauce, but the diners are finding it hard to eat all the components as a composed bite. Tom notes that Kelsey erred from the outset in deciding to use soft-shell crabs—because you can’t get it fresh in China this time of year, she had to use a frozen version, which makes it less crispy than it should be. Padma finds that the beans have too much acid and could have been cooked for a little bit more time.

Always self-aware, Kelsey knows how much depends on her next dish to regain momentum. It’s her dessert course—a deconstructed peach cobbler. Before she’s able to fully introduce the dish, Tom takes a bite and gives Kelsey a knowing look and a subtle nod. “You really nailed this,” he seems to say. Padma agrees, finding it a love letter to peaches and cream, while Nilou says that it has moments of pure brilliance, though she isn’t in love with the accompaniment of honeysuckle ice cream.

Sara is next up with her menu, which kicks things off with her absurdly delicious dish of chili prawns with boiled peanuts. Though Kelsey had a great first course, it seems clear that Sara’s is a total powerhouse of flavor and finesse. There’s nary a negative thing to be said about it.

Sara is struggling, though, with her second course of braised bacon with razor clams, baby corn, and pickled peaches. The bacon in Macao is simply much saltier than the bacon she works with, and though she’s tried to offset the salt with more of the pickled peaches, many diners find the dish too salty. Tom—whose opinion is the only one that matters, as I mentioned last week—doesn’t find it too salty, but questions many components of the dish, such as Sara’s use of saccharine. He also thinks that it’s “screaming” for something green on the plate.

Sara is back with roast duck with black-eyed peas and pickled beets. The duck is cooked beautifully, with an amazingly crispy skin, and the beets are a wonderful accompaniment. In fact, Tom and Padma wish that she’d given them more of them.

Smartly eschewing a head-to-head dessert battle against Kelsey—especially since Kelsey (herself a dessert expert) has Nini on her team (also a dessert expert)—Sara uses her final dish to make a play on dirty rice that features a rib-eye steak, a shitake mushroom broth, and a maitake mushroom confit. Sara started strong and finishes stronger, as this dish is a huge hit all around. The meat is cooked perfectly, the rice is great, the flavors are spot on . . . no one is missing a dessert.

Judges’ Table is equal parts illuminating and maddeningly indecipherable. On the first courses, everyone adored Sara’s dish, which had a ton of flavor and Nilou loved every bite. As for Kelsey, Graham points out that her cornbread was a bit better the day before (it was crisper), but Tom compliments the thought that went into its composition, saying it’s the one he’ll remember her for.

On the second course, Kelsey is the big winner with her absolutely amazing oyster dish. There were no negative comments at the table—indeed, Padma recounts to Kelsey the incredible remark Mitsuharu made about it. As for Sara, her bacon/corn/peach dish was just confused—Tom notes that he would not have recognized it as a dish from her.

Both chefs struggled in the third course. Sara cooked her duck really well and smartly seasoned it with tamarind, but Tom wishes that she’d brought it something to tie the whole dish together, like some sort of sauce. As for Kelsey, her soft-shell crab dish was simply not successful, and it came off as a bit too oily between the frying and the pistou.

The final courses were both awesome, though. Sara’s was “damn near perfect,” with an awesome steak, awesome seasoning, and awesome Carolina Gold rice. She nailed that dish. Kelsey also did really well with her deconstructed peach cobbler, though Nilou wasn’t a huge fan of the honeysuckle tea (which she feels distracted from the other flavors) and Tom thought it was a bit too sweet.

All in all, it seems like that while Kelsey was overall more consistent (Tom notes that she gave them three really delicious dishes), Sara’s highs were higher than Kelsey’s (Tom says that one could award Sara the title based on her first and last dishes, alone). In the end, it’s Kelsey who takes home the title in front of her mom, husband, and all of this season’s cheftestants. To her credit, Sara is an incredible gracious runner-up, immediately giving Kelsey a big embrace and, when Kelsey continues to stand there in shock, encourages Kelsey to “go hug your family!”

Watching Kelsey revel in her win, Sara notes that even though she came into the competition as the “local girl,” she’s leaving as much more. “Second place is not that bad,” she says, trying to convince ourselves as much as herself. As for Kelsey, she’s over the moon, and rightfully so. “I’ll never feel like an underdog ever again,” she declares—a feeling that tops even the title of Top Chef.