The latest episode of Top Chef Kentucky includes an over-the-top arena-themed challenge, a surprising elimination, and one of the biggest strategic blunders of the season so far. Here’s how it all goes down:
At the start of the episode, the cheftestepants are congratulating Michelle for winning the last challenge. She prepared a plate of red snapper with vegetables for the judges as an homage to her father, who committed suicide when she was a teenager. “This whole challenge was a way for me to process my thoughts about who I am as a chef and give me a little bit of closure,” Michelle says. “And I’m finding that I’m a lot stronger than I even thought I was at first.”
When the competitors arrive at the Top Chef culinary bunker, they are greeted by host Padma Lakshmi and local chef/restaurateur Ed Lee. It’s time for a Fort Knox-themed round of cooking. “For your Quickfire challenge, you’ll have to work together to figure out how to break into our own version of a heavily-guarded bouillon reserve,” Padma says. “Bouillon cubes, that is.” A bunch of gold bouillon cubes are locked inside a little lucite cabinet in the kitchen, and the chefs have to answer a series of food-themed riddles to find the numbers to crack open the lock on the box. Once they’ve obtained the bouillon, they will have 30 minutes to make dishes with the dehydrated stock cubes and ingredients related to the riddles.
A sample clue: “This ingredient shares its name with the federal law enforcement agency responsible for protecting the U.S. Treasury’s gold bouillon at Fort Knox.” Obviously, that refers to ”mint,” and the mint in the fridge is attached to a number that the chefs can enter into the padlock. Most of the rest of the clues are equally easy to solve, although the gang stumbles a bit figuring out the one for “bread.”
Once the bouillon cubes are unlocked, the chefs begin whipping up their Quickfire dishes. As it turns out, Eric wrote a thesis about how West African and Southeast Asian families use bouillon, so he’s a real expert on the subject. Sara also has a strong affinity for the little dehydrated stock cubes. “Growing up, when we were sick, we didn’t go to the hospital, we didn’t stay home from school — my mother gave us bouillon cubes and hot water and told us to get over it,” she explains.
After tasting all seven of the bouillon dishes, Padma and Ed determine that Michelle’s smelt fritto misto (AKA “fries with eyes”) and Justin’s way-too-salty chorizo with clams are the two duds of this round. But the judges love Sara’s monkfish dish, Eddie’s “gold caponata” with bouillon-poached scallops, and Eric’s Chinese eggplant with skirt steak. The winner of this challenge is Eddie, who made a dish that was “delicate and refined, and yet had so much flavor,” according to Padma. He wins what must be one of the greatest of all Top Chef prizes: immunity as well as a pass to sit out the next challenge completely.
“I’m pretty happy, probably the happiest I’ve been this entire season,” Eddie remarks. “I’m pumped to not be stressed to the point where I’m going to drive myself crazy. You’re going to see a whole new side of Eddie. Pretty much the same face and everything, but actually, deep down inside, I’m pretty stoked.”
For the elimination challenge, the chefs will prepare comfort food for the crowd at Rupp Arena, where the University of Kentucky Wildcats play basketball. They break off into two teams and start doing some menu planning. Eric, Justin, and Adrienne draft a menu with fancy wings, chicken & waffles, and a riff on a Jucy Lucy burger. “It’s not that often that you get to make a burger and chicken wings on Top Chef, so this is setting up to be my favorite challenge to date,” Justin says. Meanwhile, on the other side of the kitchen, Michelle, Kelsey, and Sara plan a game day menu with dumplings, ribs, and chicken & waffles. “Dumplings are one of my best kept secrets,” Kelsey explains.
During a trip to Whole Foods, Adrienne and Sara become aware of the fact that they are both making chicken & waffles. And after seeing Sara pull a bag of generic waffle mix from the shelf, Adrienne remarks, “A boxed mix is never going to be as good as a homemade waffle.” As the rest of the chefs scramble to get all the ingredients for their stadium challenge, Eddie kicks back and enjoys a sushi lunch in the Whole Food cafe — because he literally doesn’t have to do anything.
Before prepping for the big arena feast, Kelsey FaceTimes with her husband and newborn son. “I’m sacrificing [watching] him walking for the first time and saying ‘mama’ for the first time — I hate it,” she says. “But this pain has become my biggest motivation. If I win Top Chef, I’ll be able to give him a better life. And I’m not going to stop until I can do that.”
During meal prep at the Rupp Arena, Tom Colicchio and Graham Elliott visit all of the chefs to see what they’re working on. When Tom asks Adrienne if her waffle mix is coming from a box, she shoots him some side-eye and says, “Would I come on Top Chef to use boxed mix? I don’t think so.” Adrienne also gets in a little playful, off-the-cuff trash-talking about her competitor on the other side of the kitchen. Meanwhile, Michelle is running into problems with her ribs. Although she often makes this dish for her family when they watch Golden State Warriors games, she’s having a tough time getting the meat crispy on the edges using the ovens in the arena’s kitchen.
The dishes for this competition are presented on the court in front of a cheering crowd. For the first match-up, Kelsey serves her “Kentucky proud” dumplings against Adrienne’s chicken and waffles. Although the judges — including University of Kentucky coach John Calipari and Food & Wine editor Hunter Lewis — like both of these dishes, Kelsey’s dumplings have the winning edge. In the second round, the judges enjoy Eric’s tamarind-glazed wings more than Sara’s “big blue nation” chicken & waffles. And in the third round, Justin’s ornate Jucy Lucy burger beats Michelle’s too-soft ribs.
While some of the chefs enjoyed this spirited round of competition, Sara is mad about the fact that Eric and Justin’s team got the crowd to start chanting about how she used waffle mix. “I’m not happy,” she tells her fellow chefs backstage. “I got heckled because someone threw me under the bus.” Adrienne replies, “I’m sorry mama, I didn’t mean to.” But Sara is not accepting her apology. When Justin comes to Adrienne’s defense, Sara replies, “It was a ‘playful joke’ that ended up getting me heckled by 4,200 people.” Michelle, always the team player, convinces everyone to join a group hug. “We don’t bully each other,” she says. “We lift each other up and we’re all extremely talented and we’re above that.”
The judges liked all of the winning team’s dishes, but determine that Eric’s wing creation was the best of the bunch. Ed Lee tells the chef that he “showed us technique and then elevated it to a level where it was mind-boggling.” All three members of that team win $5,000. Meanwhile, there were only two lackluster dishes from the losing team: Sara’s chicken & waffles, and Michelle’s tasty-but-mushy ribs.
“You know, you come to Rupp Arena or you watch a basketball game and it’s very easy to be marveled by the athleticism — you know, that fast break punctuated by the slam dunk that just gets everybody off their seats,” Tom says to the losing team. “But what wins games are fundamentals. And the chef that’s going home tonight just messed up with something that they fundamentally should have done really well.” And that chef is Michelle.
“The major feeling is disappointment,” she says on her way out the door. “I could have done better, and I can do better. I am a good chef — I’m a great chef — because I don’t just know how to cook good food; I’m creative and smart and strong and confident.” Like all eliminated contestants, Michelle will get a shot at returning back into the competition through Last Chance Kitchen. “I don’t want to jinx myself, but I’m gonna fight for it,” she says.