Top Chef Kentucky

Hoop Dreams

By Jason Lee

February 11, 2019

This one was a bummer.

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We’re back in Kentucky from our sojourn in Nashville. As Kentucky is the home of Fort Knox, Padma breaks out a whimsical part Escape Room, part Top Chef Season 1-type challenge. She brings out a locked, glass case filled with bouillon cubes in them. Those will be the only seasoning the chefs have access to during the Quickfire—even salt and pepper are off-limit. In order to unlock the case and get access to the bouillons, they’ll have to solve four cooking clues in order to get the four numbers that serve as the combination for the lock.

The first clue asks for a food with the same name as the agency tasked with protecting the U.S. treasury at Fort Knox. They identify mint and Justin sends Adrienne (isn’t she still sick???) to run off and get the first number.

Next is a kitchen tool that doubles as something used to pan for gold. That’s something called a “tammy”? Never heard of it, but the chefs have and they grab that number, too.

Third is a food popular around the world—one of the oldest, in fact—and doubles as a term for money. That’s bread (or is it dough?) and again, Adrienne has to run and grab the number.

Finally, the clue asks for a slang term for money, dating back to when the item was traded in lieu of modern currency. That’s a clam, and with all four numbers (gathered in a mere four minutes), the chefs are in business.

With Guest Judge Ed Lee presiding with Padma over the Quickfire—not only is he a Top Chef alum, but he also has multiple restaurants in Kentucky—the chefs aim to please but run into difficulties early. Justin messes up by adding too much bouillon, Adrienne burns her bread cubes . . . it’s a rocky start but the chefs bring it home.

Michelle has a fritto misto with beef bouillon with an achiote puree and a tarragon aioli. The flavors are good but Ed can’t find much bouillon flavor. Sara has a roasted monkfish with chicken and vegetable bouillon stock. The broth is great—salty, but balanced. Eddie stays with the Gold Knox theme by cooking all yellow vegetables to go along with his poached bay scallops and mint. Padma adores his use of preserved lemon to add more flavor. Adrienne’s few remaining bread cubes go into a panzanella salad with a herb vinaigrette. Eric’s grilled Chinese eggplant with hanger steak is great, with the vegetable bouillon importing a ton of flavor to the dish. Kelsey makes a very fresh-looking dish in the form of a bruschetta-meets-BLT, with tomatoes, pancetta, and vegetable bouillon.

Finally, there’s Justin, who failed to find a way to cover up his overuse of bouillon. He has clams with chorizo and chicken bouillon, alongside some crispy potatoes, but the entire dish is way too salty. One bite and Padma lets out an involuntary, “whoa.” Ed follows with an equally surprised, “wow.”

His salt-bomb-of-a-Quickfire easily lands him on the bottom, along with Michelle’s underuse of bouillon. On top are Sara, Eric, and Eddie, who takes home the crown for his delicate and refined dish. Padma promises that he has won an “incredible advantage,” and that’s a lie. It’s not an advantage . . . it’s a total exemption from the Elimination Challenge altogether. While the other six chefs are going to be battling in a three-on-three, head-to-head cooking competition in Rupp Arena, home of the University of Kentucky basketball team (hometown girl Sara emits a high-pitched, excited squeal when the challenge is announced), Eddie will sit on the sidelines and simply enjoy the spectacle.

That’s a huge win for Expressionless Eddie, who somehow manages to form something resembling a smile and human joy in response (I mean this in the nicest possible way—Eddie’s just such a nice, fun guy and it’s fun to rib him a little bit on this).

The remaining six chefs break off into three teams—the Blue Team with Kelsey, Michelle, and Sara, and the White Team with Adrienne, Justin, and Eric—to discuss the dishes they plan to serve to an arena full of fans. Top Chef sure has loved its head-to-head challenges lately. They already did one version of this for the Kentucky Derby challenge that opened the season, and had a memorable Olympic-themed challenge last season.

The chefs smartly plan to make food that’ll appeal to the sports masses—ribs, chicken and waffles, fried chicken . . . it’s all fatty, salty food that should satiate any UK basketball fan. Meanwhile, Eddie waits around eating an apple.

It’s then off to Whole Foods to spend a $2,000 budget. Eric gets a ton of chicken drumettes to make fried chicken, lollipop style. Kelsey grabs a bunch of vegetables to make a dumpling with (spoiler alert: it’s more of a pot sticker than a dumpling). Meanwhile, we’ll have a showdown between chicken and waffles, with Adrienne doing it on the White Team and Sara doing it on the Blue Team. There’s a bit of drama as Adrienne notices Sara grabbing a boxed waffle mix—some information that she stores away in the back of her mind.

Meanwhile, Eddie, eats some sushi by himself by the Whole Foods café.

The next day arrives and we’re at Rupp Arena for the challenge. To provide a bit more manpower behind the challenge, each team gets some help in the form of eliminated chefs from this season—David and Kevin for the Blue Team, and Brian and Caitlin for the White Team.

Prep starts off a bit rocky for the Blue Team. Michelle wants to do ribs in the style of what she makes at home for Golden State Warriors games, except that those ribs are cooked over the course of 4-5 hours. She isn’t getting the same type of caramelization today with the shortened timeframe. Meanwhile, on the other side of her station, the fryer that Sara is using to cook her fried chicken keeps turning off. Both of them decide that they’ll have to finish cooking their proteins on the stadium floor.

Tom and Graham enter the kitchen to check out how things are going, and it’s a pretty calm affair until they saunter over to Adrienne. Tom notes that Sara is also doing chicken and waffles and asks Adrienne whether she’s making her own waffle batter. Adrienne is all smiles, responding in the affirmative and wondering how anyone on Top Chef could even think about using a boxed mix. That said, she notes slyly, throwing a dark look Sara’s way, there might be some other chef who’s using a box mix to make her waffles. She arches her eyebrows and gives one last knowing look before turning her attention back to her chicken.

Damage done.


The challenge arrives and it’s an insanely raucous atmosphere. The Top Chef producers have packed the arena with screaming fans, acrobatic cheerleaders, smoke, lights . . . it’s the whole shebang. Even the judges have gotten into the mood, with Padma rocking CORNROWS. Yes, someone actually talked Padma into wearing CORNROWS. Who does she think she is? Justin Timberlake in the early 2000s?

The two teams are angling for a chicken-and-waffles battle to kick things off, but Sara’s chicken is not ready yet, so Kelsey takes her place. She offers her “Kentucky proud” dumplings with pistou and ponzu against Adrienne’s fried chicken and waffles with bourbon maple syrup and pickled watermelon rind. The judges are positive in all of their comments—a trend that will continue through all phases of this competition, given the packed stands full of fans on either side—complimenting the flavors and textures of both dishes. In the end, though, Kelsey wins the judges’ vote, four to two.

Next up, we have Sara putting her chicken and waffles with coleslaw up against Eric’s tamarind-glazed drumette with herb confetti. Tom notes that he’s heard one chef might have used a boxed waffle mix, which flusters Sara. Justin then makes a complete jackass out of himself, yelling from behind that their waffles were made from scratch and elicits a chant of “HOMEMADE, HOMEMADE” from all of the fans. Sara is clearly shaken and can only muster a half-hearted “Ours are also homemade,” which goes completely unheard by the screaming crowd. Though the judges praise Sara’s chicken, Eric’s drumettes win the vote of all six judges. The teams are now tied one to one.

Michelle knows that all the pressure is on her to bring home a win for the team . . . and Sara reiterates as much. David, who’s been helping the girls out, tries to console Sara by telling her that it was lost as soon as the crowd learned that she had used a box mix. Sara responds that she’ll be going home unless Michelle can win this head-to-head battle.

Unfortunately for her, Michelle has not been able to achieve the caramelization that she wanted, though she’s plenty pleased with her sauce. She has sweet and sour ribs with cucumbers, peach, and a calabrian chili sauce. Against that, big-mouth Justin has a “Juicy Lucy,” which is a hamburger but with no bun (he didn’t find any to his liking at Whole Foods), and instead, pimento cheese, a mustard BBQ sauce, bourbon onions, and a duck-fat braised pork belly. Though it’s essentially a naked hamburger patty with toppings loaded on top, Justin wins all of the judges’ votes for a second consecutive sweep. Justin and Eric go nuts, running around the arena, whooping, screaming, and high-fiving fans, while Kelsey, Michelle, and Sara quietly make their way back to the locker room.

Once all the chefs are there, Sara makes her feelings known. This was a dream challenge getting to cook in Rupp Arena and she was mortified by Adrienne’s disclosure that she had used a box mix and Justin’s elicitation of chants of “HOMEMADE, HOMEMADE.”

Justin immediately tries to brush it off like it’s nothing important. “Oh you,” he says, pointing to Michelle, “were also trying to rile up the crowd.”

But it’s not about riling up the crowd. It’s about being in one of the most iconic places in your home state, presented as a competitor on Top Chef, and being ridiculed as someone who uses boxed waffle mix by a crowd of 4,200 spectators. And it’s not like Sara simply took the box mix and ran with it—she added her own flavorings to it and simply used the mix for its prepackaged measurements of things like flour and baking powder, not that such a nuance could break through the arena-wide chanting of the crowd.

Justin again protests that it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously—ignoring that HE wasn’t the one targeted by the chants, and that his intent in riling the crowd up isn’t relevant to whether Sara is justified in having felt humiliated in front of her home audience. Kelsey tries to point this out, saying “what does it matter? Sara’s feelings are hurt, just apologize to her.” Justin never offers any type of apology, however.

Instead, Adrienne defends her disclosure to Tom and Graham of the box mix, saying that it was “public knowledge” that Sara had purchased a box mix, saying that she shouldn’t be blamed for Sara’s own decision to purchase and buy it. And, moreover, that her comment to Tom was supposed to be playful.

What EVERYONE is missing is that, yes, the disclosure of the mix was embarrassing, but as Sara keeps trying to explain, it was the act of her (a Kentucky chef) being “heckled” (her words) by 4,200 Kentucky fans in the Rupp Arena that was so mortifying. That’s attributable to Justin and his big mouth (and refusal to apologize), not Adrienne.

To add insult to injury, Justin gets to revel in praise as a member of the winning team, while Sara has to watch from the sideline. His burger and blend of condiments created a great punch of flavor. His teammates also made good food, as Adrienne’s chicken and waffles may have lost but were tasty, and Eric’s decision to use a French cut on his drumettes (leaving a clean end by which to hold the drumstick and encasing the rest of the meat with chicken skin) elevated a pedestrian dish into something much more classy. He ends up taking home the win for that dish.

Predictably, it’s less good news for the Blue Team, save for Kelsey who won her head-to-head battle and made a really great broth for her dumplings. Sara’s chicken was great, but was done in by her waffle, which was soft and bland. As Ed notes, when your dish is made up of two primary components (the chicken and waffle), both have to be solid.

Michelle erred in trying to make a dish that, as she well knows, has to be roasted for 4-5 hours. Though her sauce was fantastic, her ribs lacked caramelization and thus came off as soft and wet instead of crunchy.

As it so often does on Top Chef, it comes down to who made the more fundamental mistake—soggy waffles or soggy ribs—and today it’s Michelle who’s going home. She’s pretty disappointed but consoles herself with the knowledge that she’s proven herself as a smart and talented chef—indeed, she proved that with last week’s dish, which still stands as the best thing cooked on the show this season. She also reminds herself of the multiple chefs who’ve emerged from Last Chance Kitchen to win the title. That’s her next aim.

In the meantime, it’ll be interesting to see what ramifications linger for Adrienne’s gossipy-ness and Justin’s total unwillingness to accept that he went too far.



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