Top Chef Kentucky
The Tao of Macau
By Jason Lee
March 13, 2019
Top Chef: The Two Towers. Oh sorry, is that too dated a reference? How about Top Chef: The Last Jedi. My point is that we’re in the second part of Top Chef: Kentucky’s three-part finale, which means that elimination this week is going to sting even more than what Adrienne experienced last time. Being one step away from the final dinner is so much more excruciating than being two steps.
Padma meets our chefs in front of a gorgeous Macanese temple alongside Abe Conlon, a Chicago chef and James Beard winner whose restaurant was inspired by Macanese food. Today’s Quickfire is straightforward—make a dish featuring one of the most infamous Asian ingredients around: durian. For those who aren’t familiar with it (and I most certainly am), durian is a stinky, smelly, overwhelmingly fragrant fruit. Its aroma is an assault on one’s olefactory system. Seriously, my family once inadvertently bought a bag of durian cookies and it stunk up our pantry (and a two-foot radius outside of it) for weeks. It’s hard to exaggerate the strength of its smell.
And now the chefs have to make a dish with it. Given durian’s notoriety, this is an entirely foreseeable challenge, and I would have expected all of the chefs—or at least one of them—to have arrived in Macau with at least some semblance of a plan for a durian-centric dish. Alas, no. Not only do the chefs have no plan on how to deal with it, they seem surprisingly unfamiliar with the ingredient overall.
The chefs take different routes on how to deal with it. Michelle is at least aware of durian’s popularity as an ice cream ingredient, and thus makes an espuma of chilled durian and coconut cream with a shrimp ceviche and molho cru sauce. Sara tries to cover it up with curry in her dish of bass and vadouvan spices. Kelsey decides to overwhelm the durian with other flavors in doing a spin on a fruit and yogurt parfait. Eric simply tries to give the durian other dance partners in his salad of tomato, celery, and pickled sea bass.
Kelsey and Eric fall into the bottom for their lack of focus on the fruit (Kelsey) and watery dilution of the durian’s flavor (Eric). Sara draws praise for how well the curry paired with the durian, but for putting the durian front and center and playing off of its savory and sweet qualities, Michelle takes top prize and wins a huge advantage in the Elimination Challenge—while the other chefs will only have 2 ½ hours to prep their dishes, she will have an extra hour.
Those dishes, Padma explains, will take inspiration from the fact that Macanese food was one of the world’s true fusion cuisines, integrating Portuguese, Chinese, Malaysian, and Indian flavors. The judges want the chefs to look to their own heritage and make a dish that reflects it using Chinese ingredients. They’ll be serving a table of eight at Café 360 in Macau Tower—a stunning setting—in a challenge that will decide the three chefs who’ll advance to the final round of the season.
To help the chefs wrap their heads around the challenge, Abe is going to take the chefs out to lunch at Literol Restaurant, after which, they’ll shop for 30 minutes. The chefs arrive at the restaurant and, in true Top Chef fashion, are dumbfounded to find their mothers (Kelsey, Sara, and Michelle) and sister (Eric) at the table. Thus, over a gorgeous spread of Macanese dishes, all featuring a variety of different flavors and cuisines, the chefs reminisce about their own personal backgrounds, their respective childhoods in the kitchen, and the life occurrences that brought them (eventually) to Macau.
From there, it’s off to the market, where the moms are flabbergasted to learn that, yes, shopping is limited to 30 minutes and no more. Eric and his sister make good use of time, buying more than he’s likely going to need, while Sara implores her mother to run, and not walk, through the aisles to make best use of time. Kelsey’s mom causes 4 minutes of sheer panic by losing track of her cart 5 minutes before check out must commence, but luckily, the errant cart is located.
During breakfast the next morning, the chefs are all contemplative, thinking about the stakes and the pressure of cooking for their loved ones. Michelle notes that this will be the first time her mother gets to taste her “restaurant style” food. Luckily, she has an extra hour (without any of the distractions and noise of other chefs) in the kitchen to get all of that ready. Despite that, she gets behind prepping all the different components in her dish and lacks the time to carefully portion everything out on her plate.
In the end, she serves seafood, beans, and chorizo on top of a “cioppino”-style sauce. The judges invite Michelle to join them—an invitation for which Michelle is completely not ready (she immediately asks for a glass of wine). While maybe this seemed like a good idea on paper, it’s incredibly awkward in reality. The judges ask Michelle to critique her dish and seem unwilling to say anything critical while she’s at the table. Finally, Michelle finishes her plate and heads back to the stew room with her mom, leaving the judges to talk. They all really appreciate the dish and its wonderful flavor, and they find that every ingredient has been prepared correctly. Padma, however, laments the lack of a broth that would normally accompany a cioppino dish, and Tom faults it for not really integrating any Chinese flavors. Though the dish is incredibly taste, it doesn’t seem really in the spirit of the challenge.
Sara is next with her Asian spin on matzo ball soup: chicken thighs with matzo balls made from water crackers with a mushroom consommé. The matzo balls are perfectly light, and the dish overall is spicy and warm. Tom finds that Sara nailed it, and Nilou describes it as everything coming together in a perfect bowl.
Might as well book her for one spot in the finale.
Eric has a Ghanian egusi stew with panko-fried fufu dumplings with shrimp. I gotta say, though he describes it as a stew, it’s a very dry looking dish. The flavors are good, though Tom finds the shrimp balls too salty, but the diners’ (apart from Tom) biggest issue is the off-putting texture of the panko breading, which includes ground “pumpkin” seeds. The shards of the seeds are very sharp and thus not pleasant in one’s mouth. Abe suggests that Eric might have inadvertently used wintermelon seeds instead of pumpkin seeds.
Finally, Kelsey presents her take on a low country boil. The broth is very flavorful, with its incorporation of dried scallops, mushrooms, and oysters . . . but maybe too aggressive. Padma says she would never be able to eat an entire bowl of the dish, but Tom finds it well-spiced and well-seasoned.
There’s no drama at Judges Table, as Sara wins the challenge by a Kentucky mile. Her dish deftly integrated her heritage and Chinese ingredients, and captured both her essence as a chef and the locale of the challenge. Which two other chefs will join her?
Kelsey seems safe, despite the fact that Padma finds her broth a bit too salty for the portion (Tom disagrees, simply describing it as “intense). Thus, it seems to come down to Eric versus Michelle. Eric had great flavors but the textural element on the shrimp is a big sticking point (though Tom disagrees, finding the overly salty shrimp balls to be the problem). As for Michelle, her flavors were great and the seafood was all cooked perfectly, but the problem is somewhat textural (her bean puree and sauce were too similar) and conceptual (many a few too many elements, and certainly too few that were Asian).
As usual, Tom rules over the judges panel with an iron fist. Whoever he finds most lacking is the chef who goes home. He might as well take a page from RuPaul’s Drag Race and say, “SILENCE. I’ve made my decision,” because that’s effectively what happens week to week, regardless of what the other judges think. Nilou can complain all she wants about the fact that she couldn’t eat a bite of Eric’s dish without having to spit parts out (the parts with the shards of wintermelon seeds), but if Tom decides that Michelle didn’t do enough in the spirit of the challenge, then that’s the final word (“I’ve made my decision.”).
And thus, because her Chinese flavors were lacking, Michelle is going home. As every other eliminated chef this season, Michelle is incredibly disappointed, but professes excitement about what the future has in store for her. She has gained a ton of confidence in herself through this season and that’s going to serve her really well.
In the meantime, though, come back next week to see which of our three finalists—Kelsey, Sara, or Eric—will be able to take home the title. My prediction: despite four of the five finalists being women, Eric wins for his innovative Ghanian flavors. BUT if someone is going to upset, it could be Kelsey. She’s the only chef with significant pastry experience, and thus she could have the dessert round in her pocket already.