Top Chef Kentucky
By Jason Lee
March 7, 2019
It’s time for Top Chef in Macau, baby. Who studied up on the Chinese ingredients that the chefs will (inevitably) be asked to use?
One by one, the finalists arrive at the absolutely gorgeous MGM Hotel. Eric, master of African cuisine and flavors, is the last man standing. Michelle, our Last Chance Kitchen winner, is back to highlight California cuisine. Adrienne hails from the northeast and is the only finalist who lacks an individual win. Kelsey is our Alabama sweetheart who, like Eric, determinedly cooks her own style of food. Finally, we have local girl Sara who, unlike other local chefs, made it all the way out of her home state.
Once all our chefs drop off their luggage, a knock comes at the door. It’s this season’s judge, Graham Elliot, who has multiple restaurants in Asia, including one in Macau. As the semi-resident expert, he takes our chefs on a whirlwind tour of two mouth-watering food markets—Three Lanterns and Red Market—explaining ingredients along the way and noting that though Macau is technically in China, it’s run and managed by Portugal.
Kelsey, the smarty-pants, soaks up all of Graham’s explanations, predicting that she’ll either need to put that knowledge to the test during the Elimination Challenge or “in fifteen minutes.”
She’s right. The chefs arrive at the top of Red Market and find Padma standing next to a knife block. They’ll have to create a dish inspired by the food at the market, with 45 minutes to shop for ingredients to go with the seafood that Graham helpfully procured along the way. They draw knives to decide who’ll get first pick of that seafood—it’s Sara, who chooses the giant scallops. Kelsey shows great gumption in going for the gum fish, Michelle chooses cuttlefish, Eric the sea snails, and Adrienne happily goes with razor clams. It’s then a mad dash back to the market where the chefs do their best to surmount the considerable language barrier between them and the shop owners before scurrying back to the roof and prepping their dishes for Padma and our Guest Judge, Jowett Yu.
After all is said and done, Michelle serves cuttlefish noodles with Chinese beans, lotus roots, and fermented black beans. Padma appreciates how nice and tender the cuttlefish is, and Jowett loves how Michelle really embraced the challenge with her flavors. Eric is next with snails in a black pepper and oyster sauce with citrus oil. Unlike Michelle’s protein, his snails are, as Padma puts it, somewhere between chewy and rubbery.
Adrienne has a razor clam and watermelon ceviche with fried lotus root chips. It’s a smart dish that’s very “approachable”—I assume Jowett means approachable for a non-Asian audience. Sara has fresh scallops with celtuce, rose apple, and water chestnut. However, because everything is sliced so thinly, the dish overall tastes a bit watered down. Finally, Kelsey has fried gum fish done in the style of Alabama crab legs, with a sweet and sour sauce. Like Michelle, she really embraced the challenge with her flavoring components.
But it’s Michelle who takes home top honors, with her genius use of the cuttlefish. And she gets a big advantage for the first Elimination Challenge in Macau.
Apparently, Chinese new year is approaching (at least, during filming of this episode) and thus the chefs get the really fun job of catering a Chinese new year party for 200 people. We Chinese folks know how to eat—seriously, I inhale any food that’s in front of me, and I’m judgmental as hell when I go out to eat—and thus, this is not going to be easy. To help, each chef will get their own sous chef from among the eliminated chefs. Each sous comes with three ingredients that symbolize one important theme for Chinese new year. The sous chefs and the ingredients come as a package, and only the chef who gets that sous chef and trio of ingredients are allowed to use those ingredients in their dish.
As the winner, Michelle goes first and selects the order in which the remaining finalists can pick. She picks the Longevity trio of noodles, peanuts and peaches, which are being held by David (who’s Portugese, so smart move, Michelle!). She has Adrienne go next, who picks the Health trio of eggs, broccoli, and ginger, being held by Brian. In a Chinese new year challenge, it’s no small deal that Adrienne is the only one who gets to use ginger.
Sara goes next and picks Happiness (Eddie with cauliflower, shrimp, and walnuets). Then it’s Kelsey with Wealth (Brandon and cabbage, cashews, and oranges). By default, Eric gets Togetherness (Justin with water chestnuts, coconut, and lychee). Finally, because this year is the Year of the Pig, each chef must use pork as their main protein.
The chefs head back down to the market to grab additional sauces and ingredients—and as a Chinese-American, I’m really heartened to see how willing the chefs are to incorporate flavors and fermented items that they (1) may never have tried before or (2) have never seen integrated into a dish. Despite this openness to individual ingredients, however, many chefs seem to stick to whole dishes that they’re familiar with. For example, Adrienne immediately says she wants to either do a spring roll or a lettuce wrap. Yeah, if you’re celebrating Chinese new year in a P.F. Chang’s. Sara wants to do cauliflower grits, which would be near the top of my list of “non-Chinese dishes.”
After their shopping trip, the chefs come back to their hotel room and find that a complimentary dinner has been scheduled for them in the MGM Hotel. Wearing the fanciest clothes they probably brought to Macau, the chefs are treated to a sumptuous meal of Chinese dishes. It looks absolutely amazing. I only hope that the Chinese new year’s challenge comes close to this spread.
Things get rolling in the kitchen the next day, with plenty of counter space for cutting and prepping, and huge woks along the wall (sadly, none of them get used). Adrienne and Brian immediately start marinating pork belly for a spin on pork fried rice, which causes me to roll my eyes for two reasons. First, pork fried rice? Really? I’m pretty sure that Adrienne has only had pork fried rice from an American-Chinese restaurant (dare I say, P.F. Chang’s?) and may not have any idea of what authentic Chinese fried rice tastes like. Second, I’m not sure why everyone has such high praise for Brian’s meat skills. Brian botched the butchery challenge and he went home for incorrectly cooking porchetta in the yacht challenge. If there’s some reason why everyone in the kitchen seems to assume that Adrienne’s pork belly is gonna be da bomb, it’s lost on me.
Meanwhile, the guests soon start arriving in the MGM Hotel’s dining room, which is absolutely stunning, with its red and gold theme and rich décor. The only off-putting thing is the large number of Caucasian attendees who stream in for what was supposed to be a Chinese new year celebration in Macau.
The judges wander around—Tom with Graham and Padma with Jowett—and Michelle’s pork lettuce wrap with a cold noodle salad and pickled peaches are up first. It’s a big hit. The judges can taste every ingredient that’s in there, and the balance of flavors and textures are great.
Adrienne is next with a fried sticky rice cake holding up a hoisin sauce-braised pork belly and a roasted chili aioli. It doesn’t satisfy. Both Graham and Tom wish the portion was bigger and that more earthy flavors were used, and Padma’s bite is so hot (temperature-wise) that it burns her palette.
Eric has a coconut curry with braised pork shoulder with a lychee glaze, crispy pork ears, and Thai chilis. The dish is too sweet and needs some acid to balance that out. Additionally, the dish could have been more chili-forward given the locale, as Padma notes.
Sara has her shrimp and cauliflower grits with poached walnuts and a pork shank. It’s a tasty dish and has good use of fermented black beans, but the ham hock used in the broth made the dish too salty overall.
Finally, Kelsey has a play on black eyed peas with collared greens, serving a mushroom broth with peas, greens, orange rinds, Portuguese sausage, cashews, cilantro, and chives. She draws praise for how well she blended her food background with Chinese flavors. It’s a “family style” dish that people would want to go back for.
As has happened multiple times this season, someone is going to get eliminated for a good dish, but it won’t be Kelsey or Michelle, who have the judges’ two favorite dishes. Michelle smartly integrated lap cheong (which the judges call “Chinese sausage” . . . sigh) and pork belly into the stuffing of her lettuce wrap. Tom gives a huge compliment in saying that the dish felt like one that could have been made by a young, contemporary Chinese chef who traveled the world and came home to bring western flavors into a hometown dish.
But it’s Kelsey who brings home the win for her satisfying and soulful blend of vegetables and sausage. Tom laments how many chefs nowadays too often design dishes to be “Instagrammable,” whereas the focus should be on building flavor, as Kelsey did. She took things that she didn’t know and somehow made it work in a dish that boasted many layers of flavor.
With those two ladies safe, either Eric, Sara, or Adrienne will be eliminated today for something that tasted really good. Tom liked Eric’s curry but found it too sweet. Padma thought the ingredients muddled together and wasn’t able to pick out particular flavors. Eric pushes back, saying that all curries blend together and don’t taste like the component parts. Padma explains that she doesn't have to pick out flavors, but that they need to work together in a complex harmony that was lacking. Graham complains that two of Eric’s main ingredients—the lychee and the water chestnuts he was assigned—got little to no focus.
Tom really liked the idea behind Sara’s dish, but found it flawed insofar as there’s just no way of getting the same richness in using cauliflower as you would get using normal grits. Other judges comment on how the broth overpowered the other components, like the prawn, because of its saltiness.
As for Adrienne, everything was well cooked and well prepared, but it overall just seemed off. The single small bite wasn’t as indulgent as one would want for Chinese new year, and the component parts didn’t build upon each other to make something more complex as a whole. They just wish she’d done more—a bigger portion, more creativity, more punch, etc.
And because she left the judges wanting more, Adrienne is the one coming home. As Tom explains, the dish just didn’t come together and it lacked generosity. Adrienne is quite clearly pissed, shaking the judges’ hands with a palpable frostiness. Padma says that it was a pleasure getting to know her and her food, and Adrienne responds by saying that Padma has been an awesome “host” . . . which, I guess she is, but between the Quickfires and Elimination Challenges, Padma probably has judged more challenges than any other person in Top Chef history.
Adrienne’s disappointment is understandable, though. She wanted to go further, she wanted the opportunity to make a full course meal of “her” food in the final episode, but won’t get that chance. The good part for her: she doesn’t regret anything about how she handled this challenge today. That’s small, but not insignificant, comfort.