The newest episode of Top Chef Kentucky features two music-themed cook-offs and a judges’ table where one of the big winners from previous challenges gets the boot. Here’s how it all goes down:
At the start of the episode, the chefs are still reeling from the Lake Cumberland boat party. “Between this Lake Cumberland challenge and Restaurant Wars, they were the hardest, but I feel like this one was harder,” Michelle observes. The remaining cheftestepants are sad that Brian, a friendly and talented guy, got sent home for serving a porchetta that tasted like a honey-baked ham. They pack up their suitcases, leave the party boat dock, hop in their fancy new Mercedes SUVs, and begin the drive to the Grand Ole Opry, the site of their next challenge. During the trip to Nashville, Adrienne asks her team to pull the car over for a bit, presumably so she can barf on the side of the road. “When I got sick at Lake Cumberland, the whole competition turned into survival mode and it’s not getting any better,” she explains. “This is definitely a struggle.”
When they arrive at the Opry, Padma greets them on a stage lined with kitchen stations and a temporary pantry. “Countless artists have performed right on this stage, from Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton to Blake Shelton and Carrie Underwood — and now it’s your turn to perform,” she tells the chefs. Their challenge is to make dishes for “one of country music’s most exciting rising stars” based on a tour rider, but the hitch is that the chefs won’t find out who the performer is until the cooking is complete. Justin reveals that he’s very familiar with riders, because he and his friend Matt had a music promotion company and had to cook for people like Ozzy Osbourne, who only eats baked potatoes, apparently.
Adrienne — who’s still feeling sick — selects some beef, corn, and onions, remarking, “I know I can put good flavor onto a plate with them, with very minimal effort.” Sara is preparing a cauliflower salad. Michelle is working on a “grilled cheese salad with avocado-buttermilk vinaigrette and charred jalapeño.” Eric is whipping up a fancy oatmeal. David is making an omelet with a cheese fondue. Justin is preparing a skirt steak salad. Eddie is plating a shaved vegetable salad with chicken. And Kelsey decides to make shakshuka, a dish that she learned about from an ex-boyfriend who worked with her and Sara at Dovetail in New York City many years ago.
The surprise guest that the chefs are cooking for is country music star Hunter Hayes. He’s generally enthusiastic about all of the dishes, but finds that the sauce on David’s omelet is a bit too fancy for his taste. The musician also thinks that the ingredients in Eddie’s salad “sat in the same flavor profile,” and Hunter is not loving the shakshuka because he’s “really cautious about acidic things.” But the country star digs Eric’s oatmeal, as well as the “combination of the savory and the sweet” in Sara’s salad. And his favorite dish of the challenge is actually Adrienne’s seared filet mignon, a composition that he says offers “a good balance of things I would be craving.” As her prize for cooking the best dish, Padma tells Adrienne she’s winning “an advantage in the next elimination challenge.”
That next challenge is to prepare dishes inspired by musical memories for a panel of judges that will include the three founders of the Music City Food + Wine Festival: chef Jonathan Waman, event guru Ken Levitan, and Kings of Leon frontman Caleb Followill. Justin is particularly excited about Caleb’s participation. “The first time I saw Kings of Leon was here right outside of Nashville, and I followed their career very closely after that,” he says.
After the requisite sprint through Whole Foods, the chefs begin preparing their dishes. Adrienne, who gets an extra hour to prep as part of her prize, is making a New England seafood salad inspired by the song “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. As a throwback to his time in Portugal when he listed to the Incubus song “Morning View” a lot, David is cooking a combination of clams and pork. Eddie decides to make red snapper with puffed rice, as a nod to his wife and the song, “Love You Madly” by Cake. Sara, meanwhile, is preparing a seafood gumbo file as an homage to her dad, who loves the song “Jambalaya” by Hank Williams.
Because he’s a huge Prince fan, Justin is working on a “Purple Rain” inspired dish of beet gnocchi with braised cabbage and seared New York strip. Kelsey is cooking her husband’s favorite meal, chicken pot pie, inspired by the Etta James song “Sunday Kinda Love.” Michelle is making a red snapper dish as a callback to working in the garden and listening to the Beatles as a kid. And, referencing a line in Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa,” Eric is making a riff on “steak, cheese-eggs, and Welch’s grape.”
During the prep for this round, we learn that Michelle’s father killed himself when she was a teenager. It was the hardest moment in her life, and she still doesn’t feel like she’s found closure 16 years later. “The hardest part about this challenge is it makes me think about my father,” she says. On a much lighter note, Eddie reveals that his snapper dish was something he prepared for his wife on their first date after learning that she didn’t like fish. “Classic Eddie,” Eric remarks. And David is deep in the weeds during this dish prep, because his clams are too big and he originally planned to use octopus anyway.
When prep time is over, the chefs run their dishes up to the top of the Sky Nashville, a tall building overlooking the city. The food-tasters for this round are: Padma, Tom Colicchio, Graham Elliott, Sean Brock, model Lily Aldrige (who’s married to Caleb Followill), and the Music City Food + Wine trio. During service, Justin accidentally misses one plate, a move that means he can’t win the competition. David, meanwhile, over-reduces the sauce he was making for his pork, and tries to fix it at the last minute by adding butter. During her presentation for the judges, Michelle starts to tear up explaining the inspiration behind her dish. “I think you’ve done a great tribute to your father and the memories that you had in the garden,” Padma tells her. After Michelle leaves the dining room, Sean Brock remarks, “I would like to hire her, actually.”
At the end of the competition, Tom proclaims that there was “very good food” overall. In terms of the wins from the meal, the judges loved Justin’s Purple Rain gnocchi, Michelle’s snapper with garden vegetables, and Sara’s seafood stew. Michelle’s dish is singled out as the best of the evening, and Jonathan Waxman jokes, “Sean Brock’s going to call you tomorrow.” On the other end of the spectrum, the judges were not fans of Eddie’s bland and somewhat confusing snapper, David’s salty clams with pork, and Kelsey’s equally sodium-rich pot pie.
“We have two salty dogs, and we have one person who kind of mailed it in,” Waxman explains once the chefs have left the room. Ultimately, the judges decide that it’s time for David to pack his knives and go. “David, I’m sorry, I really couldn’t tell what I was eating, the sauce was way over-reduced,” Tom says. “It was just way too salty.” Of course, as always, there’s a chance that David could get sucked back into the competition through winning Last Chance Kitchen.
“I definitely tripped up today, and I’m really heartbroken, because I really think that I have what it takes to be Top Chef,” David says on his way out the door. “This competition has been an incredible journey and there’s so many things I’ve learned along the way, I’m really proud of how I’ve performed, and I hope that one day when [my son] Cole watches this, he has a great example to follow.”