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‘Top Chef Kentucky’ Recap: A Culinary Tribute to Muhammad Ali

The chefs prepare a six-course meal inspired by Ali’s greatest boxing matches

Left to right: Justin Sutherland, Eddie Konrad, Eric Adjepong, Sara Bradley, Adrienne Wright, Kelsey Barnard.
David Moir/Bravo

By week 11 of Top Chef Kentucky, the cast has been narrowed down to six very strong competitors. The newest episode features a pair of high-concept challenges, a handful of guest stars, and an elimination round where a chef goes home for serving a technically flawless, but creatively uninspired dish. Here’s how it all goes down:

Immediately following the Rupp Arena challenge, where San Francisco chef Michelle Minori went home for serving mushy ribs, the remaining cheftestepants are grateful to still be in the game. Sara offers an apology, of sorts, to Adrienne over their waffle spat. While the Kentucky chef didn’t like getting taunted by the crowd at the arena for using a boxed mix, Sara wishes she hadn’t lashed out at Adrienne during the competition, even though her teammate is somewhat responsible for getting the ball rolling. “Adrienne, I’m sorry I jumped your shit earlier, it was inappropriate,” Sara says. “I’m trying not to cry again, but it was my grandpa who used to bring me to games as a little kid. It was really emotional for me to, like, stand on the floor.” It seems that, for the moment, Sara and Adrienne have patched things up.

Meanwhile, Eric gets a chance to FaceTime with his wife, Janell, who is pregnant with their first child. “I’m excited, I’m gonna be a dad in a couple of months,” Eric tells the camera. “It’s tough knowing that she’s pregnant and holding us down back home. But I just think about how much this is going to impact my family for the better and rely on that.”

When the gang arrives at the Top Chef culinary bunker for the Quickfire challenge, host Padma Lakshmi remarks, “There’s one thing we really have to do here in Kentucky.” After Eric correctly guesses that the answer is “fry chicken,” Padma introduces her friend Art Smith, who wheels out a giant cart full of KFC buckets. “My mama didn’t teach me how to fry chicken — the Colonel did,” Smith tells the contestants. Adrienne immediately picks up on the fact that she and Sara are about to enter yet another fried chicken showdown, this time without waffles. “For your Quickfire challenge, in the spirit of Colonel Sanders’s secret recipe, we want you to create your own blend of herbs and spices,” Padma explains. “But before you can use the spices or herbs, you have to first identify them, blindfolded.” If the chefs can correctly identify a spice, they can use it in their fried chicken dish.

Left to right: Art Smith, Padma Lakshmi, and Adrienne Wright
David Moir/Bravo

The chef take turns trying to name the spices, blindfolded, to varying degrees of success. Sara accurately calls 12 of them, while Kelsey correctly identifies 11 spices. Eric gets seven of them right, while Justin, Eddie, and Adrienne each name six of them correctly. Justin, unfortunately, misidentifies salt, so he won’t be able to use that essential seasoning in his dish.

This Quickfire challenge proves to be harder than most. Kelsey undercooks her chicken, while Eric and Justin mange to overcook their birds. But Art and Padma are particularly impressed by Sara’s juicy chicken with corn and blackberries, Eddie’s double-breaded thighs, and Adrienne’s Moroccan-inspired poultry dish. Ultimately, Sara wins the challenge, along with $5,000 from KFC. “That’s a little redemption,” she says, suggesting that Sara hasn’t completely put her feud with Adrienne behind her. This is her first-ever Top Chef Kentucky win.

“Well, the Colonel wasn’t the only hometown hero in Kentucky,“ Padma tells the crew. “In Louisville, perhaps the greatest of all time was Muhammad Ali.” For the next elimination challenge, the six remaining chefs must “celebrate the life and career of Muhammad Ali” through food. The crew is presented with a cart full of six cards bearing Roman numerals. These pieces of paper represent Ali’s greatest boxing matches, and the chefs much each pick one of them to use as the inspiration for dishes that will be served at a Muhammad Ali Center charity gala. Laila Ali, the boxer/cookbook author daughter of Muhammad Ali, will be one the judges of this competition.

From left to right: Eric Adjepong, Chef Art Smith, Padma Lakshmi
David Moir/Bravo

When the chefs start discussing who will take each boxing match, Sara balks at the notion that she should take the Fight at Freedom Hall because it took place in her home state of Kentucky. Justin, Sara, and Eddie draw straws to see who will get to cook the dishes inspired by the first three matches, and, as fate would have it, Sara gets stuck with the Fight a Freedom Hall once again. “Everyone gets to make what they want to make except for me,” she tells the camera.

As the chefs perform their typical mad dash through Whole Foods, the menu for the event starts to take shape. Eddie, who has the Fight of the Century, originally wanted to cook duck as a nod to the Hudson Valley, but he makes the decision to switch to chicken after finding out that the butcher doesn’t have the meat he wanted. Riffing on the idea that Ali was “fast as lightning,” Sara decides to make salmon garnished with a Kentucky dish called “thunder and lightning” that’s made with quick-pickled vegetables. Because his chicken was way cheaper than the duck he’d originally planned to serve, Eddie passes along his extra Whole Foods money to Sara. This is, perhaps, yet another attempt to make up for the notorious lamb purchase from the second episode of the season that earned Eddie the nickname “Eddie Money.”

During prep for the big event, Tom Colicchio and special guest judge Nilou Motamed visit the chefs and start grilling them about their dishes. Nilou is thrilled to learn that Eric is making Ghanaian fufu as part of his Rumble in the Jungle course, telling the chef, “I love fufu!” The judges are less enthusiastic about Adrienne’s Thrilla in Manila dish of braised short ribs, which, as Tom points out, doesn’t really have any connection to the Philippines — it’s more of a Vietnamese-influenced recipe. “This throws me for a loop,” Adrienne tells the camera. “I’ve already done my shop, and there’s only so many ingredients that I have to work with. I don’t know what to do.”

When the chefs arrive back at the palatial Top Chef Kentucky mansion, they are greeted by a stack of Laila Ali’s cookbooks, and ingredients to prepare her dad’s favorite burger. They end the night eating what they all agree are pretty damn good cheeseburgers.

The next morning, Eddie walks in on his pal Eric having a quiet cry. These aren’t tears of sadness, however. “I wake up this morning, and I’m really emotional,” Eric explains. “Not only am I cooking something that’s super traditional to Africa, but I’m doing it in honor of Muhammad Ali, one of my heroes. It’s moving.”

Left to right: Laila Ali, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, Nilou Motamed, Justin Sutherland.
David Moir/Bravo

Dinner service at the Muhammad Ali Center goes off pretty much without a hitch. All of the chefs help each other present their courses, and each team member gets a chance to tell the judges about their creations. Instead of switching up her dish, Adrienne decided to lean into the “heat” aspect of the Thrilla in Manila by amping up the spice. For his course inspired by Liston Two, a fight that took place in Maine, Justin serves a saffron and seafood soup designed to “pack a big punch.” And to finish the meal, Kelsey serves her Battle of New Orleans-inspired dish of bread pudding with corn three ways.

“I am pretty amazed with all of you,” Laila Ali tells the crew. “I’ve competed before in the kitchen, so I know it’s a challenge — especially trying to live up to Muhammad Ali. I know I’ve been in his shadow all my life.” The rest of the judges agree that the dishes, on the whole, were very good, but Sara’s “thunder and lightning” salmon and Eric’s fufu dumplings with Congolese red sauce were the best of the bunch. Eric’s dish gets singled out as the winner of this challenge. “It’s a very meaningful win, not only for me, but for my family,” the chef says. “Despite what may happen to me the rest of this competition, it’s something that I won’t forget for the rest of my life — forever.”

Although there were no real clunkers in this round, Tom didn’t love the fact that Adrienne used a bottle sauce as part of her dish. The judges also think that Eddie’s chicken lacked a certain “wow” factor, and Justin’s seafood stew didn’t have much of a connection to the fight itself, which took place far from the coast.

“In boxing parlance, this is known as a championship round,” Tom tells the chefs. “This is where Top Chef champions are made. Can you keep digging, can you keep going further? And for one of you tonight, you didn’t go far enough.” The judges have decided that it’s time for Eddie to pack his knives and go. Tom advises that Eddie “just dig deeper” during his time in Last Chance Kitchen, and maybe he’ll win a shot at reentering the competition.

“Obviously I wanted to finish, but I’m happy I made it as far as I did,” Eddie says on his way out the door. “Being on Top Chef for me, it was more about confidence and just trying to get out of my own shell and learn more about myself, I guess. I’m definitely a better person and a better chef leaving here.”

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