Top Chef Kentucky
Bourbon, Barrels and Burgoo
By Jason Lee
December 18, 2018
One set of challenges down, thirteen or so left to vanquish. Lets see who hits a sophomore slump.
We rejoin the cheftestants as they explore the confines of their group house. Somewhere in the back, they find a huge plot of land just perfect for planting herbs or vegetables. It provides a good opportunity for chef bonding before they head back into the crucible of the Top Chef Kitchen. And who do they find there but Gail checking in via a satellite feed. She can’t be there in person because she’s pregnant. Like uber-pregnant. As Gail puts it, she’s only “days away.”
That’s long enough for Gail to still be struck by pregnancy cravings. And what type of cravings, you ask. Red meat, spicy food, middle eastern cuisine, Asian cuisine, pasta . . . sounds like all foods hearty and filling. Who better to fulfill those cravings than our 14 cheftestants. For their Quickfire, they’ll have 30 minutes to make a dish that will satisfy Gail’s pregnancy cravings. Nilou Motamed, the editor of Food & Wine Magazine, will taste all of the dishes with Padma and select two finalists. Nilou will then fly back to NYC and make the dishes with Gail, who’ll select the winner of the Quickfire (what a fun way for Gail to participate in this season!). The winner gets immunity.
We and the cheftestants all know how crucial immunity is, regardless of what point in the season we may be in. Most chefs are sticking to the types of foods that Gail mentioned—spicy food, tons of beef, etc. Some chefs, however, are making the type of food that they enjoyed when they (or their partners) were pregnant.
Before we know it, time is up and the food looks amazing. The first group has a ton of steak—from NY strip from Adrienne and Brian, to rib eye and skirt steak from David and Brandon. Nini tries something a bit different with a Vietnamese braised pork dish. The second group has a bit more variety. Pablo does curried beets, Nathalie has a totally undercooked farro salad, Kevin has a beef and pork meatball, and Justin does beef tonkatsu. Kelsey, taking a cue from her own pregnancy cravings, does a grilled country ham.
In the end, Pablo and Nathalie from the second group both have the worst dishes of the day, having undercooked their couscous and farro, respectively. As for the winners, it’s David with a perfectly cooked steak and frat-boy Brandon with great BBQ flavors who’ll have their dishes made for Gail. One will get immunity, but they won’t know until the next day.
Before that happens, the chefs get treated to an amazing visit to the Maker’s Mark distillery. It’s an amazing campus, with tons of foliage, cool architecture, and, of course, tons of bourbon. They’re even treated to a gigantic feast of classic Kentucky dishes. With the booze flowing and the food stacked up by the plateful, the chefs get yet another fantastic opportunity to bond.
The Judges won’t let that go on for too long. Predictably, Padma shows up with a knife block. As probably every cheftestant saw coming, they’re split into two teams and will cook a family-style meal for 48 folks, with each chef responsible for doing at least one take on one of the dishes they just ate. The challenge is to take something quintessentially Kentucky and make it their own.
Furious bouts of menu planning commence, each led by a female chef. On the Black Team, Kelsey organizes things, even as a lot of chefs start pulling off into a number of different directions. On the Red Team, Kentucky Girl Sara keeps a tight grip on the dishes and composition—she does NOT want to see her team mess up her adopted city’s cuisine. Also, she’s looking to get a little bit of vindication after coming in last in her group during the previous Elimination Challenge.
Meanwhile, Nilou and Gail are cooking up a storm in Gail’s condo. They dig into Brandon’s bulgogi bowl, which has nice heat and is super savory. They also whip up David’s rib eye dish, which is sweeter than Gail expected, but has an interesting combination of flavors. Nilou leaves without disclosing Gail’s decision.
The next morning in Kentucky, the chefs ransack Whole Foods for ingredients, and one chef has thrown his entire team into turmoil. Eddie had planned to do lamb loin in his dish, but as Whole Foods is out, he picks rack of lamb. Which is way more expensive. Way more. In fact, he uses up more than 1/3 of his team’s total budget, which results in his teammates having to jettison multiple items at the check-out counter in order to try and stay within budget. Ingredients are chucked left and right—poor Nathalie, already a loser in the Quickfire, can barely get enough lemons to make her lemon curd dessert.
To his credit, Eddie is wracked with guilt and can’t stop talking about how bad he feels. He even offers to help his other teammates with their dishes. Few take him up on that.
Things go from bad to worse on his team as cooking ensues. Eric doesn’t have enough oranges for his marmalade, Nathalie doesn’t have enough lemons for her dessert and the Kentucky heat is melting her lemon curd, someone knocks over Justin’s roasted corn, which means he’s barely going to have enough for his dish . . . it’s catastrophe after catastrophe for them.
Meanwhile, some folks on the Red Team are behind schedule, but it’s nothing like what’s going on with the Black Team.
Service arrives and the Black Team is up first. Kelsey has a cornmeal-fried catfish that is way too dry. Justin’s roasted corn hoecakes are good, but frat-boy Brandon’s confit chicken wing and biscuits are awful (they’re basically raw and dry in the center). Pablo offers up an Argentinean version of a Kentucky stew, but it’s super greasy and thin. The judges love Eric’s brûléed bananas, but Nathalie’s lemon curd pie is missing acid (not enough lemons!) and her dough is undercooked. Meanwhile, the partial cause of all this (Eddie) looks like he’s done enough to save himself, as the judges heap praise on his rack of lamb dish.
It doesn’t appear that this is going to be a close competition, though, as the Red Team has a number of great dishes. Brian’s chicken and dumplings are great, as is David’s lamb, which has nice flavor but isn’t quite up to Eddie’s version on the other team. The judges love Michelle’s ham and cheese tartine, though it strays a bit far from its inspiration, and they adore local-girl Sara’s take on a chow chow, which feels homey and warm. Kevin has a bizarre take on a corndog (it’s a banana inside, instead of a hot dog) is a perplexing hit—the judges can’t figure out why they like it—but it’s Nini who hits it out of the park with an amazing spoonbread that features flavors from her Vietnamese and New Orleans homes.
Sure enough, the Red Team is the clear winner . . . which means that David’s Quickfire win (and the resultant immunity) won’t matter. One dish stood out, though, and it’s Nini’s spoonbread. In addition to hearing the editor of Food & Wine call her sauce “haunting” (in a good way), she wins $10,000. Pretty snazzy.
So who’s going home on the Black Team? To his credit, Eddie immediately owns up to having monopolized their budget, but he’s not going home—the judges loved his lamb, and if it had been on the other team, he might have been up for the individual win. Rather, it’s between Brandon (who was THISCLOSE to getting immunity in the Quickfire) with his disaster of a take on chicken and dumplings, Pablo with his thin and bland stew, and Nathalie with her melting lemon curd, which lacked acid and a properly cooked crust.
Though I’m rooting my heart out for Brandon to be sent home for his undercooked biscuits, Nathalie goes from winner one week to eliminated the next. I suppose it’s hard to make it through when you have both flavor and baking issues with your dish.
“She’s really strong,” Tom notes to his fellow judges after she’s eliminated. “She won the last challenge.”
And so it goes on Top Chef. With a seemingly stronger cast than ever, one slip up can cost you. And here, with bad dishes in both the Quickfire and the Elimination Challenge, it cost Nathalie. “When life gives you lemons,” she says sadly, “ask for more.” Tru dat.