After a drama-filled Restaurant Wars double-header, the cheftestepants of Top Chef Kentucky get a blast from the past in a cocktail party-themed episode that contains one of the biggest surprises of the season so far.
Fresh after his win as maitre d’ of the pop-up North East, Brian feels a renewed sense of confidence, while Kelsey is starting to feel a bit rundown. “I literally feel like an 89-year-old woman,” she says at the start of the episode. “I’m 29, I’m not even 30 yet.” Some of the contestants are shocked by the Restaurant Wars elimination of Nini, a talented chef who crushed every cooking challenge, but faltered as the host of her Restaurant Wars pop-up. As the crew is getting ready to head back to the Top Chef culinary bunker, Kelsey makes the prediction that Nini will return, somehow.
When the gang arrives in the kitchen for the next Quickfire challenge, they are surprised to see Nini running around with a box of vegetables, suggesting Kelsey may, in fact, possess psychic abilities. Nini greets her friends by yelling, “Last Chance Kitchen bitches!” Indeed, she has folded herself back into the competition — perhaps momentarily — by acing the Tom Colicchio-hosted, not-ready-for-primetime cooking challenge featuring a slew of eliminated Top Chef cast members. Nini is competing against Brother Luck — a competitor from Top Chef Colorado — in what Tom describes as a “mini Restaurant Wars.” Nini and Brother chose knives with the names of the remaining chefs in the game to see who would be helping them prepare three dishes for this challenge. “This is my redemption,” Nini says. “I want to get back into the house and kick down the door and say ‘I’m here.’”
She has picked “Mekong Delta meets Mississippi Delta” as her theme, while Brother is aiming for a “Southwestern-Japanese” menu. “To me, Southwestern food is special — I spent most of my career there,” Brother explains. “But Japan is a part of my soul. Both of my parents were exotic dancers, and they traveled all through Asia. I really want to showcase my perspective of that cuisine.” It’s pretty clear that the chefs are stoked to work with Nini, but could care less about cooking alongside Brother — at one point during the challenge, Eric even says to his teammates, “I don’t care about this dude.”
Nini’s team prepares po’ boy-style shrimp, grilled pork chops with a corn salad, and a tapioca pudding version of bananas Foster. Brother’s crew, meanwhile, makes a fancy jalapeño popper, scallops with yuzu, and tuna with apple pico de gallo. Much to everyone’s surprise, the winner of this challenge is actually Brother. “Nini, I love what you did, I just thought there were a couple of missteps,” Tom explains. But in the judge’s eyes, Brother created “three fantastic dishes” that were strong enough to put him back in the competition. In her second farewell in less than one episode, Nini says she views this experience as a lesson about “embracing what makes me a little different.”
“I don’t know about the rest of you, but after watching that competition, I could use a stiff drink,” Tom says. “Cocktails anyone?” This is the judge’s segue into announcing this week’s elimination challenge: preparing canapés for a cocktail party at Louisville’s historic Seelbach Hotel. Nic Christiansen, the beverage director at Butchertown Grocery, then rolls out a cart bearing six Prohibition-era cocktails, which the chefs must use as inspiration for their one-bite dishes. The team then heads to Whole Foods for the usual madcap dash through the produce and meat aisles, and then it’s back to the kitchen to prep for the cocktail party the next day.
Along the way, several of the chefs share their gripes about Brother’s surprise entry into the competition. “I feel like there’s a stranger in our house,” David remarks. “Brother’s the new kid in school — he’s got to catch up really quick,” Sara says. “A lot of feelings going on... honestly we don’t want anyone in this house,” Kelsey explains. Brother, meanwhile, is stoked to be back in the competition, but he also says it feels a bit like being “Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.”
The next day, in the swanky barroom of the Seelbach Hotel, Tom and Padma Lakshmi are joined by special guest judges Graham Elliott and Ken Oringer. The guys are sort of dressed in period-appropriate garb, but Padma outshines her colleagues by wearing both a flapper dress and a Louise Brooks-style wig. Back in the kitchen, a few of the chefs are in the weeds: Eric has to shuck 150 oysters in an hour, Brian’s gnocchi and sausage are taking way longer than he had anticipated; and Michelle’s stuffed gougères do not look like she’d hoped they would. After three rounds of sampling the canapés with their cocktail inspirations, the judges have a pretty clear idea of who succeeded and failed at this challenge.
Back in the barrel-lined Top Chef culinary bunker, the judges announce that the top three dishes were Eddie’s crudo with brown butter crumble, Kelsey’s scallop ceviche, and Eric’s oyster with pumpernickel. That last dish, a creation inspired by the “12 Mile Limit” cocktail, gets singled out as the winner of the night.
Meanwhile, the bottom three dishes are: Sara’s boring bay scallops with avocado, Brian’s greasy gnocchi, and Brother’s confusing banh mi-inspired chicken salad. Ultimately, the judges decide that Brother had the worst dish of the night, and he’s asked to pack his knives and go, just one day after he entered the competition, mid-stream. “I’m a bit disappointed because you made amazing food in Last Chance Kitchen — I thought you were going to go far,” Tom says to Brother. “You know chef, I could’ve used a break,” he replies.
And so ends Brother Luck’s strange run on Top Chef Kentucky. On next week’s episode, the cheftestepants will face a meat-centric challenge featuring guest stars Nancy Silverton, Lena Waithe, and Dario Cecchini.