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‘Top Chef Kentucky’ Recap: Slip-Sliding Into Restaurant Wars

The pop-up restaurant challenge is especially chaotic this time around

Left to right: Padma Lakshmi, Nilou Motamed, Nini Nguyen.
Michael Hickey/Bravo

After challenges involving Churchill Downs, Maker’s Mark, and a Christmas feast, the cheftestepants of Top Chef Kentucky are thrust into the gauntlet of Restaurant Wars. As always, this challenge involves the gang breaking up into teams to create pop-up restaurants — complete with full menus, design schemes, and staffs of bewildered cater waiters— in less than 48 hours. During the final judgement of this two-episode extravaganza, Tom Colicchio remarks, “Out of 16 seasons, this is probably the most difficult Restaurants Wars.” Here’s how it all goes down:

Baking biscuits and stressing out about the future

The first installment of the Restaurant Wars saga (which aired last week) begins with Brian lamenting the recent elimination of Midwestern nice guy Kevin, while also pondering whether he will suffer a similar fate in the near future. “I’ve been struggling, and I haven’t performed to the level that I know I can,” Brian remarks. “I need to cook things that I know I’m good at, and stop trying new things on a whim.” Meanwhile, Kelsey proves to be a proper biscuit boss by popping a tray in the oven and running upstairs to finish drying her hair, much to the surprise of David, Adrienne, and Brandon. In a foolish move, Brandon decides to remove the biscuits from the oven before they’re finished, only to find Kelsey walking into the kitchen a few seconds later proclaiming, “Those aren’t ready.” She seemingly has a sixth sense when it comes to knowing when people are messing with her biscuits, a skill that may come in handy later in the game.

An amuse-ing Quickfire challenge

Upon arriving at the barrel-lined culinary bunker, the competitors are greeted by Padma Lakshmi and James Beard Award-winning former Top Chef competitors Karen Akunowicz and Nina Compton. For this Quickfire challenge, the chefs are asked to each make an amuse-bouche, which Compton accurately describes as “something delicious that starts the meal off right.” They are given three vessel options for their tiny creations: soup spoons, ramekins, and small plates.

Left to right: Brian Young, Michelle Minori, Brandon Rosen
Michael Hickey/Bravo

After a frenzied half hour of cooking, the chefs present their amuses to the judges, and it’s pretty clear which ones are the winners here: Brandon’s chowder, Eric’s curry, and Michelle’s halibut. That last dish impresses the judges so much that Michelle wins the Quickfire and immunity for the next challenge. The bottom three dishes are Adrienne’s improperly seasoned lamb tartare, David’s undercooked ravioli, and Kelsey’s bone-dry hushpuppies.

Restaurant warriors unite

Padma then reveals that Caroline Styne, of the Lucques Group in LA, will be judging the elimination round along with special guests Nina and Karen. And the challenge itself is actually the granddaddy of them all: Restaurant Wars. Unlike previous seasons, where two teams were competing against each other, this challenge will actually feature three groups, broken up by the amuse-bouche vessels that the chefs picked in the previous challenge.

Nini, David, Kelsey, and Justin decide on a coastal Southern theme for their restaurant, which they call Third Coast. Pablo, Sara, Brandon, and Michelle cook up a seasonal, vegetable-heavy restaurant called Thistle. And Eric, Adrienne, Brian, and Eddie determine that their temporary restaurant will be called North East, a nod to the part of the country that they all know very well.

One of the biggest challenges of Restaurant Wars is deciding which chefs will manage the front of the house. Sara, always the confident one, nominates herself for the dining room manager, while Nini and Brian — two strong chefs who are relative newcomers to the front-of-the-house game — assume the maitre d’ positions at their pop-up restaurants.

After meeting with the designers, the teams start to sketch out the details of service, to varying degrees of success. Adrienne argues a bit with Eddie about the coursing of their meal, while Pablo complains that his teammate Sara is “a person who likes to feel like she’s always in control.” The Third Coast team, meanwhile, appears to be making the best of the situation by planning their service in the hot tub, while sipping Champagne. On the other end of the spectrum, Brian is taking his dining room job extremely seriously, remarking that he’s accumulated “a million pages of notes to compensate for the fact that I’ve never trained a front of house staff by myself before.”

The Restaurant Wars begin

Brian in GM mode
Michael Hickey/Bravo

At the beginning of part two of the Restaurant Wars saga (which aired last night), all three teams are running into logistical issues in the pop-up space. But when Tom, Padma, Nina, Karen, Caroline, and special guest judge Nilou Motamed show up, all of their restaurants are ready to roll.

The judges first visit North East, a restaurant that Padma immediately likes because of the wide spaces between the tables. Brian tells the judges that things are going well, but Tom and Padma quickly notice that nobody in the restaurant is eating any food — never a good sign during Restaurant Wars. Back in the kitchen, Eddie is plating Brian’s chicken ballotine, which he describes as “a very ambitious dish,” while also noting that he’s “doing everything in my power to make sure he’s not going home.” The judges love the chicken, but think Eddie’s crudo needs acid and heat. Eric’s scallop dish is met with general praise for the seafood, but some of the judges think his pork is too salty. The cheese course is also a big hit.

The judges then move over to Thistle, where the mood is a little more chaotic. Their meal begins with a comically long spiel from Sara about every ingredient of every dish on the menu. When she leaves the table, Padma tells her dining companions, “I was falling asleep.” So far, the service has been plagued by miscommunications between the kitchen and the dining room. “I’m just having a really hard time getting food to the right table,” Michelle remarks. Her agnolotti is the star of the menu, but the judges also like Sara’s green tomato soup (minus the candied ginger) and Brandon’s soy custard for dessert. Pablo’s dishes, however, are singled out as the flops at the table: the vegetable purée accompanying his scallops is too sweet, and his short ribs are generally unappetizing.

By the time the judges reach Third Coast, things are really going off the rails. Nini, a winner of two previous cooking challenges, has been struggling to get the servers to deliver the correct food to the right tables, and also reset the plates and utensils properly. “Nini’s not talking about what tables need to be turned,” Justin explains. “Nini’s not telling us how long the wait is at the door. It’s a full-blown catastrophe.” The chef’s seafood bisque fails to impress the judges. They’re also not fans of the broiled oysters, and Tom thinks the duck lacks seasoning. Justin snaps at Nini when she comes into the kitchen to try and sort out a dish mix-up. “This is one of the most ridiculous situations I’ve ever been in in my career,” he comments. The judges at least like Kelsey’s panna cotta, but the chocolate dessert, which Nini helped devise, is declared to be a dud.

The postwar double elimination

Left to right: Eric Adjepong, Pablo Lamon, David Viana, Adrienne Wright, Eddie Konrad, Brandon Rosen, Sara Bradley, Brian Young, Michelle Minori, Justin Sutherland
Michael Hickey/Bravo

All of the chefs are acutely aware of the fact that service was kind of a disaster. When they arrive back at the Top Chef bourbon barrel bunker, Tom tells them that there was no runaway favorite, but North East was the best restaurant overall, and Brian’s ballotine was the strongest dish of the night. All of the chefs on the North East team win $10,000.

There were a few notable slip-ups on both of the other two teams, but ultimately the judges determine that Nini’s mismanagement of the dining room and Pablo’s entree misfires are reason enough to send them both home at the end of this double elimination round. Of course, they both have a shot at jumping back in the competition via Last Chance Kitchen.

“It sucks to go home for just service, and I’m going to own my shortcomings, but I feel like Justin should have been accountable for some of the things that went down,” Nini says on her way out the door. “There’s just a lot more to me than this, and I’m going to fight to get back in.”