The latest, very busy episode of Top Chef Kentucky includes the surprise return of a fan favorite, an ingredient auction, a challenge where the chefs cook for their famous mentors, and an especially tough elimination round. Here’s how it all goes down:
At the start of the episode, Eric is feeling great about his win in the Muhammad Ali tribute challenge and wants to keep the momentum going. All of the remaining five cheftestepants are sad that Eddie, a nice guy with some serious kitchen skills, got sent home for serving a technically proficient, but somewhat uninspired chicken dish. “Eddie went home for a great dish,” Kelsey says. “It’s terrifying. I know that I could easily be next at any turn.”
The morning after the challenge, Tom Colicchio wakes all the chefs up and asks them to get dressed and meet him down in the garden. Although this part of the Top Chef mansion hasn’t appeared on screen very much this season, the contestants were filmed planting seeds in this plot of land many weeks ago, and now the garden is lush and full of herbs and vegetables.
“Good morning chefs, this is your last Quickfire in Kentucky,” Tom explains. He’s joined by Ouita Michel, a chef/restaurateur who runs a stable of popular restaurants in the Bluegrass State. Sara, another Kentucky native, previously cooked with Ouita and considers her to be a role model, of sorts. “Before we get started, there’s one thing we need to take care of,” Tom remarks. “You already saw Brother [Luck] return to the competition, but Last Chance Kitchen never stopped. There is a new Last Chance Kitchen champion, and that chef will rejoin the competition right now.” The chefs are then greeted by the sight of Michelle Minori strolling across the garden.
“Having Michelle back in this competition means that we’ve got our friend back and this awesome person, but we all have to work so much harder, because she’s going to be tough to beat,” Justin remarks. That’s probably the right call: Michelle won several challenges before leaving the game for serving mushy ribs during the Rupp Arena showdown.
“Not only have you grown as chefs, but you literally have grown your own garden too,” Tom tells the crew. For their Quickfire, the chefs have 45 minutes to harvest whatever they can from their plots of land and prepare dishes from those ingredients for Tom and Ouita. The chef with the best dish will win $10,000.
“I have kept up with my garden — pruned it, weeded it,” Sara says. “I know where my vegetables are. Every time I’ve gone down there, I’ve thought about dishes I’m going to cook with this food.” Eric is grasping at weeds but says he “will make anything taste good.” Adrienne and Michelle, meanwhile, mention that their families both cooked vegetables straight from the garden when they were growing up. During the frenzied round of cooking for the Quickfire, Kelsey accidentally burns her hand on a pan, and Michelle has trouble getting all of her vegetables onto the plate in time.
Tom and Ouita like the variety of vegetables on Adrienne’s plate, the acidity of Sara’s roasted radish dish, and the wide range of flavors in Justin’s salad. The judges deem that Eric’s green tomato and coconut soup is the least vegetable-forward dish of the challenge, and Michelle’s veggies take a backseat to the giant (but perfectly-poached) egg in the center of her plate. Justin wins this round and the $10,000 prize. “That will make my vegetarian girlfriend happy,” he says. “Now she’s probably going to expect that I’m going to cook her more vegetables.”
“Only five of you will move on to the finals,” Tom Colicchio explains. “Want to know where you’re going? We’re going to Macau.” All six of the remaining contestants are visibly stoked about the possibility of traveling to Asia, but they’re also sad that one member of the crew is going to be left behind. But before they can start packing their bags, the chefs have to compete in one more elimination challenge, which begins at the Keeneland Sales Pavilion in Lexington.
When the chefs arrive at the auction house, they are greeted by Ouita and Padma Lakshmi. “For your final elimination challenge here in Kentucky, we would like you each to make a dish inspired by your own pedigree,” Padma explains. “We want you to make a thank you dish to your mentor. Something that would impress them and show them what you’ve learned if they were here to taste it.” The chefs will present their dishes to Tom, Padma, Graham Elliot, Gail Simmons, and their culinary mentors during a special dinner at the nearby Brown Hotel.
Because they’re at an auction house, the chefs get to bid on specialty items that they can use in their mentor-inspired dishes. They each have $500 to spend on the meal, total, and the chef with the best dish will win $10,000. “I’ve been to a horse auction and a cow auction — duh, I’m from Alabama — but I’ve never bid,” Kelsey says. As the chefs sit in the auditorium with paddles in hand, various luxury items are brought onto the stage on carts while an auctioneer begins calling out the ingredients and prices. Sara scores $500 worth of Ibérico ham for just $80, while Adrienne nabs a large portion of foie gras for $75. Oddly enough, the only real bidding war is over a plate of asparagus.
After a trip to Whole Foods to fill out the rest of their pantry, the chefs begin prepping for the feast at the Brown Hotel. As a callback to a family meal she cooked while working for Gavin Kaysen at Cafe Boulud, Kelsey prepares a caviar-laced gumbo that’s made with a double roux. Michelle wants to pay tribute to her former boss Kim Alter of Nightbird by serving a slow-roasted salmon with burnt citrus and marrow broth. And Adrienne decides to prepare spiced duck breast as a tribute to her friend and mentor Chris Commbs.
Meanwhile, Justin draws up a plan to serve yellowtail two ways — miso-cured and sashimi-style — as a nod to his mentor J.D. Fratzke. Sara is making an olive oil-poached sea bass with Ibérico ham broth as a salute to her former employer David Posey. And Eric plans to channel his old boss Bryan Voltaggio’s modernist style while cooking a version of waakye, a Ghanian rice and bean dish.
Dinner service goes relatively smoothly, but there is one big flub: After plating his yellowtail duo too early, Justin decides to put all of his dishes under a heat lamp to keep the miso-cured salmon warm till it’s time to serve. After tasting Justin’s course, Tom tells the crowd, “You know every time someone does something two ways, I wish they’d do it one way.” While everyone loves Kelsey’s gumbo, one chef at the table finds a piece of crab shell in his soup bowl. And a few of the judges think that Adrienne’s duck is lacking sufficient spice.
Back at the judges’ table, Tom tells the chefs, “There’s a lot at stake here: Obviously you’re cooking in front of people you respect and care for, you’re cooking to get to the next step to get to Macau, and I know you guys are cooking your hearts out, and that’s great to see.” There were several strong courses, but Padma notes that “there is one clear winner” and that’s Sara. Tom describes her sea bass as “a subtle dish that was an absolute powerhouse.” She wins $10,000 and the pride that comes from serving a strong Kentucky-themed dish during the last Kentucky-based challenge of Top Chef Kentucky.
“After 16 seasons, let me tell you what I get out of this: I get to see the future of our industry,” Tom tells the remaining chefs. “And I gotta say, after watching this group, our industry is gonna be really strong. It’s just really unfortunate that we’ll have to leave one of you behind.” And, as it turns out, that chef is Justin. His yellowtail duo just didn’t work out as he intended, and now it’s time for the St. Paul chef to pack his knives and go.
“I’m a realist, you know — only one person’s eventually going to make it,” Justin says on his way out the door. “It still sucks. This competition definitely was a confidence booster, and kinda validated what I do. It helped me unlock some things inside myself that I forgot were there. It’s been the biggest test as a chef, test as a person, and I’ll leave Top Chef forever grateful.”