The rollicking culinary extravaganza know as Top Chef Kentucky will draw to a close tonight in a final, winner-takes-all cook-off set in Macau.
While the three finalists each have their own distinct styles, they all share an inclination toward cooking food that reflects their heritages and past experiences. Throughout the season, Eric Adjepong, the chef/co-proprietor of the D.C. pop-up Pinch & Plate, impressed the judges by folding West African flavors into all of his dishes. Meanwhile, Sara Bradley of Freight House in Paducah, Kentucky, earned high marks for serving food inspired by her Southern upbringing and Jewish family traditions. And Kelsey Barnard Clark, the chef/owner of KBC in Dothan, Alabama, won some of the big challenges by applying fine dining techniques to classic Gulf states recipes. Tom Colicchio likes to remind all the contestants that “cooking from the heart” is the key to success on Top Chef, and it’s clear that Eric, Kelsey, and Sara have done just.
Earlier this week, Eater hopped on the phone with the three finalists — Adjepong was the first on the call, followed by Bradley and Barnard Clark — to discuss life under the TV microscope, the most challenging moments of filming Top Chef Kentucky, and their plans for the future.
Eric, one hallmark of your time on Top Chef is that each of your dishes had a West African influence. Was it challenging to stick to that vision throughout the season?
EA: I think it could have been, but I tried not to make it such. The challenge for me was with sourcing and procuring the ingredients that I needed to really make those dishes as authentic as possible. Once I got over that hurdle, it was really just a strong conviction of like, “Hey, you need to put your best foot forward when you’re making these dishes, and really try to celebrate the cuisine from the region.”
What was it like watching yourself on TV?
EA: A little surreal. There are some cringe-worthy moments, but overall I’m happy with the way everything was portrayed. It’s nuts, though, to think how they do such a great job to cut up a day that could last almost 17 or 18 hours into like 45 minutes.
The hosts are always surprising you when you come back from a challenge, or when you’re asleep. Was it a challenge to keep your head in the game at all hours? What runs through your mind in moments like that?
EA: Man, Justin [Sutherland, who was eliminated two episodes before the finals] and I joke about this often. If I was told to butcher an entire pig with just a paring knife, I would be prepared to do that. But you’re never prepared for Tom to wake you up at like 7 o’clock in the morning, because you’re so tired. You really are in the dark, man, you have no idea what they’re going to throw at you. At least for me, I approached every challenge like, “I get to do this. I have the opportunity to do this.” And that really helped me change my mindset.
During some challenges, it was clear that the judges were not familiar with the dishes and flavors you were serving. Did you see that as a risk? Or something that could potentially slow you down?
EA: There is a risk, but I think when you execute it well and the flavors are always there, you’re setting yourself up for success. Your palate knows what good food tastes like. For me, it was making sure that the food that I cooked was well-seasoned, and making sure the things that they really could pick up on, like the proteins, were well cooked, and the sauce work was done.
What was your favorite dish?
EA: I think it goes back to the fufu dish from the Muhammad Ali challenge, and being able to showcase something that for me and my family is like second nature, but for a different audience is something that’s absolutely foreign. It was really exciting for me to do that, and to win as well.
Hello Kelsey and Sara, thank you for joining us. We’re talking about favorite dishes this season. What are your picks?
KBC: My dish from the first Macau episode, which was the pot liquor, peas, and greens. A lot of people — actually three of the judges — had never heard of pot liquor, and that’s something I grew up on. The pot liquor with greens to me is like the best thing in the whole world, and I was excited to be able to pull that one out.
SB: I think it was probably the last challenge in Kentucky for me, making soup beans. It’s such a common, basic, everyday item that I grew up eating, and it was really a lot of fun to elevate it. It speaks to the type of food that I cook in my restaurant, and how I look at Southern food as a whole. That was a great one.
You all cook food that reflects your heritage. Was that a strategy? Or is that just how you like to cook?
KBC: I would say both. For me it was a strategy I had coming in. You don’t see people win saying, “Oh, I’m going to cook this thing today” with no passion behind it. I think with anything in life, you have to be passionate to make it the best. Yes, it was a strategy, but honestly, that is the food that I cook every day. I’m in the deep South and I own a Southern restaurant. So if I didn’t cook that, what would I do?
SB: There was a small period of time, especially in the beginning, where I was still cooking my food, but I was trying to make sure I was being competitive and trying to do things different than I normally would. There was actually a time where Padma and Tom came into the room and said, “Don’t be scared, cook your own food.” I really took that to heart, and once I started doing that, I really started to excel. There’s no reason I should’ve tried to do it differently, but your nerves get the best of you sometimes.
What were the hardest challenges? I have a guess, but I might be wrong.
EA: I am actually curious about what you think it was.
KBC: Yeah, you go first.
My guess is Macau. Specially, the challenge where you had to go to the market and there was a language barrier, and the durian cook-off. I don’t know if they stack the challenges to make them progressively harder as you go along, but these last few rounds seemed really tough.
EA: It felt that way. I think collectively, the meat challenge was really difficult, because we were kind of against ourselves. Time is always against us in every challenge, but time was definitely not on our side that time. And I just wish we had a little bit more time to show as much respect to the animal as possible. But other than that, yeah, Macau — you called it. Macau was really difficult because of the language barrier. And once we got our bearings straight in the first few challenges, I think we did alright.
SB: The meat challenge was horrible — I’ll say it. Beef is something that I work with all the time, every day. I make fresh sausage in house, twice a week, and I’m like, “Oh, I can do this on national TV.” But the time was so limited and we felt so bad to have these people who were so well respected in the field — plus you had the farmer who had raised the cow — and we didn’t succeed. We didn’t do it justice.
KBC: As for me, I have picks for what was physically the worst challenge and then mentally the worst challenge. Physically, the worst was the meat challenge, because, like I said on camera, I just don’t think you can do certain cuts of meat justice in two hours — short ribs, which was mine, being one of them. And I was honestly pissed off the whole time, because I was like, “This is not going to be the best dish I can put out right now.” That sucked knowing that, and I think every single person felt that way.
Mentally, I would say the last challenge in Kentucky [was the hardest], the mentor challenge, because I was so ready to go home. I actually remember the morning of the challenge just saying, “Thank God this is the last one, because I need to see my child and get a breather.” It’s a lot on your brain to be in this living situation, completely stressed out for eight weeks straight.
Kelsey and Sara, you make references throughout the show to working together in New York many years ago. What was your shared experience there?
KBC: Yes, so she was savory and I was pastry at Dovetail. We worked side by side, and we actually had the same day off, so we hung out quite a bit. We were definitely friends for 10 years, almost.
SB: We used to babysit each other’s dogs. I had just moved from Alabama to New York, and she was already here in the city, but we were both exactly like what you see on TV: loud and sassy, and we just got along really well. And when I went to open my business, I called Kelsey to ask about hers. We kept in touch over the years, and it was really surprising to see her on the show.
Ten years ago, did you ever have dreams of being on Top Chef? Was that anything that you thought would ever be in your future?
KBC: No, I mean, we were like line cooks.
EA: If someone would had told me 10 years ago that I would have been on this season of Top Chef, I probably would have called them crazy.
What’s next for you? Are you taking some time off? Planning any new projects?
EA: Work doesn’t stop. I’m not taking any time off anytime soon. I’m doing a few pop-ups in D.C. at Cork. After that, I definitely have my eyes on a brick-and-mortar within the next year-and-a-half to two years.
SB: I’m actually going to take a little time off because I’m going to have a baby. People always say, “How much time are you going to take off?” And I say, “I don’t know... until it’s right?” We’ve started doing a featured chefs series and we’re also starting an educational program through Freight House. We’re going to parlay some of the money we make from the grown-ups into teaching kids how to cook healthy, and that will roll out in the spring.
KBC: I’m going to keep on keepin’ on. I’m remodeling my restaurant, and I want to slow down. But more than anything, I’m planning to stay open to anything and everything that comes my way after Top Chef is done. I’m just hoping to keep this ball rolling, and say “yes” more than I say “no.” That’s good, because really, my biggest thing is staying seriously open to everything. I’d love to be on more TV shows, I’d love to do more things. I don’t know exactly what the future looks like, but I have a feeling it’ll be bright.
The season finale of Top Chef: Kentucky airs tonight on Bravo at 9:30 p.m. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.