Although this episode was clearly filmed last spring, it’s actually Christmas week on Top Chef Kentucky, and all the cheftestepants must compete in a series of yuletide challenges peppered with surprises from a bunch of guest stars.
The pricey lamb still haunts Eddie
At the start of the episode Nini is still stoked about her elimination challenge win in the last episode, and, indeed, it seems like it will be hard for her to top the universally-praised spoonbread étouffée that she made for the judges. Eddie, meanwhile, just can’t get over his ill-advised Whole Foods lamb purchase, which effectively threw several of his fellow teammates under the bus during the last challenge. “I’m not trying to be the villain, I’m not trying to hurt anyone on purpose,” Eddie tells the camera. “I don’t think this guilt’s going to go away quickly.” In other news, it appears that there is a bromance brewing between tall guys Brandon and Brian, who bond over the fact that they’re both a little obsessed with their hair.
Yankee Swap in the Quickfire kitchen
When the cheftestepants arrive at the Top Chef Kentucky culinary bunker, they are greeted by Padma Lakshmi, Season 4 favorite Richard Blais, and Season 14 winner Brooke Williamson. Jersey David is particularly excited to see Mr. Blais. “I’m geeking out right now,” he says. “I have a man crush, sir.” As you may recall, David also had a similar reaction to learning he’d be cooking for Gail Simmons in the last episode, suggesting that he may just have a thing for Quickfire judges.
For this challenge, the chefs have two minutes to collect whatever they can from the pantry and put their loot in boxes decorated like Christmas presents. When the mad dash is over, Padma reveals that the competitors will then participate in a White Elephant/Yankee Swap, a tradition that Brian correctly describes as “a mean-spirited gift exchange.” After some strategic trading, the team then heads to the kitchen to turn those boxes into dishes for the judges, with 30 minutes on the clock. Justin gets the short end of the stick here by picking up Kevin’s box. “This dude picked five different kinds of flour, but no eggs to potentially turn this into a kind of dough or a pasta,” he remarks.
In between all of the chopping and de-boning of poultry, the chefs talk a bit about their holiday traditions. “I’m like the one Jewish kid in Kentucky,” Sara says. “Having Hanukkah in the South is kinda fun. You get a lots of fried food. My mom always cooked chopped liver, latkes, matzoh ball soup, all kinds of stuff.” Kelsey, meanwhile, is not having such a great time working through her box of asparagus and ham. “I do like the way my plate looks,” she says once the dish is finished. “It’s bright green, it’s pretty, but it’s stupid.”
That riff on bacon-wrapped asparagus proves to be one of the judges’ least favorite dishes of the challenge, along with Justin’s kimchi meatloaf, and Eddie’s carrot curry. The judges determine that the best dishes of the Quickfire are Sara’s riff on chicken liver, Nini’s cranberry chutney, and David’s leek carbonara. For the second week in a row, David wins immunity.
A Christmas Eve feast with a surprise guest
Before leaving the barrel-lined bunker, Padma tells the crew that they have a surprise waiting for them back at the Top Chef Kentucky mansion. As soon as they walk through the doors of the palatial estate, they are greeted by judges Top Colicchio and Graham Elliot. “We decided to surprise you guys with a little holiday cheer,” Tom explains. The mansion’s long dining room table is adorned with place settings for the whole group, holiday decorations, and dozens upon dozens of San Pellegrino bottles. After the 13 contestants sit down, they are also surprised to learn that they will be dining in the company of one Eric Ripert. “It’s great to see you here, and this is a fantastic way to celebrate Christmas — in French, the Reveillon de Noel,” Ripert remarks. “It’s what we do in France. We celebrate with family and friends — just fun.”
All of the chefs seem legitimately stoked to be breaking bread with the legendary Le Bernardin chef. “I’m at an absolute loss for words,” Justin says. “I can’t tell if I’m shaking or I’m going to crap my pants. It’s a scene straight out of A Christmas Carol.” Meanwhile, the chefs start swapping stories about their own holiday traditions: Eric and his family play board games as a throwback to the Blackout of ’96; Kevin’s kith and kin do all the cooking around the holidays so he can get a break from the kitchen; and Nini’s family usually makes a Chinese-inspired feast, although she hasn’t celebrated with them in three years, ever since her brother lost his battle with cancer.
After the chefs have tucked into the Christmas feast and drained most of the wine, Tom tosses a surprise their way: there is no dessert course, because they actually have to cook it in the kitchen of the Top Chef Kentucky mansion as this week’s elimination challenge. “Well, here we go, it’s actually midnight — this should be fun and interesting,” Eddie quips. “If I get sent home, at least I got to eat dinner with Eric Ripert.”
Although Tom and Padma have set up the kitchen with enough ingredients and equipment to prepare all manner of desserts, the challenge is still fairly chaotic. “This is brutal,” Kelsey says. “We’ve got 13 people sharing these ovens constantly, and they’re opening and closing them constantly, and you cannot do that with macarons.” During the competition, Brandon reveals that while he is not a pastry chef, he did grow up working at his family’s sweets shop, which was called “Leogold’s Fantazel-madazel Chocolate Factory.”
The ricotta cake that ruined Christmas
At around 2 a.m. the bleary-eyed chefs serve their dishes to Tom, Padma, Eric, Brooke, and Richard, and then head upstairs to bed. In the morning — Christmas morning in Top Chef land — the chefs receive the verdicts on their midnight desserts. After acknowledging the unusual circumstances of the challenge, the judges reveal that they liked Eddie’s strawberry-fennel shortcake, Kelsey’s chocolate pot de crème with biscotti, and Nini’s blackberry & lemon vacherin. For the second week in a row, Nini wins the elimination challenge.
The bottom three desserts are Kevin’s way-too-salty ricotta cake, Brian’s acidic biscuit nightmare, and Pablo’s uneven chocolate and black pepper ganache. Ultimately, the judges decide that the salty ricotta cake was so bad that it shouldn’t have even been served, and it’s time for Kevin to pack his knives and go. “The dessert was just so salty it was inedible, but we’ll see you in Last Chance Kitchen,” Tom tells the Iowa-based chef on his way out the door.
“One thing Top Chef teaches you about yourself is how much there is to evolve,” Kevin says after leaving the barrel bunker. “This has recharged me to reconsider how I look at food and not look at that evolution just because I might be in a small town. This is definitely inspiring me to get out there. Now there’s something that I can work on and build off of, and I’m excited for that.”