During the overstuffed Top Chef Kentucky finale, the three remaining contestants cooked the food we’ve come to expect from them all season: Contestants Kelsey Barnard Clark and Sara Bradley created meals that reflected their Southern upbringings, while Eric Adjepong continued to channel his West African heritage by preparing food that represented the history of the transatlantic slave trade. The finale featured a mid-episode elimination that shocked some viewers to the point where Tom Colicchio took to Twitter to defend the judges’ choice. And by the end of it all, one contestant received $125,000 and the title of Top Chef. Here’s how it all went down:
At the beginning of the finale, Eric, Kelsey, and Sara are all ready for battle. “I’m in fight mode, there’s no other way to put it,” Kelsey says. “I can see it in Eric and Sara’s faces that they are in fight mode. I want to compete against the best person and win.” The three finalists enter a giant theater at the MGM Macau and watch highlight reels of their individual quests throughout the season. Once the montages are over, Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio walk out onto the massive, smoke-filled stage. “For your final challenge, we want you to cook a four-course meal of your lives,” Padma tells the trio. “Before we get started, you may need a little help,” Tom remarks. All of the eliminated contestants from the last 14 episodes walk into the theater, and Tom tells the finalists, “Each of you will get to choose two sous chefs to help with the execution and preparation of your meal.”
Kelsey picks Brandon and Nini, while Sara opts for Eddie and David. Eric, meanwhile, selects Justin and Michelle. The chefs will have 30 minutes to menu plan and three hours to shop for the four-course “meal of their lives,” plus six hours to prep the next day. In a twist that raises the stakes considerably, all three chefs will present their first courses to Tom and Padma, as well as judges Graham Elliot and Nilou Motamed, after the first 30 minutes of their prep, and one chef will be eliminated on the spot.
“My hope for the finale is that I can take the same Southern flavors, but refined, put it on a plate, and make it look like a work of art,” Kelsey says of her finale menu. Eric is taking a much more ambitious approach to his finale feast. “My four-course menu is going to tell the story of the transatlantic slave trade — how those flavors kind of migrated to the deep South, through slavery,” the chef says. “Through my travels around the world, studying food, it’s one of the stories I feel like I’m most equipped to tell.” And during her menu planning, Sara decides not to prepare a dessert and instead cook four savory courses.
After shopping with their sous chefs at the Red Market, the finalists decide to hit the town for their last night together in Macau. They sample some egg tarts and other local delicacies while joking around with each other. “Sara and Kelsey are really tight,” Eric tells the camera. “I truly do not care — I’m trying to win. Tomorrow’s a huge day. It’s been a very, very long road, It’s very difficult. But it’s time. I want to win.”
The next day, the chefs regroup in the kitchen to prepare their first courses for the judges. As a nod to her Alabama upbringing, Kelsey is making a dish of buttermilk soup with cornbread and fruit, intended to capture the spirit of “summer in the South.” Sara is also working on a nostalgic Southern-inspired starter, albeit one with an Asian-inspired twist: chile prawns with boiled peanuts. And Eric is cooking a dish that represents a confluence of culinary influences: jerk steak tartare with lotus chips.
When their 30 minutes are up, the chefs present their first courses. After serving his tartare, Eric tells the judges a bit about the inspiration behind this dish. “My story is an unfortunate story, but it’s a story that needs to be told: it’s the transatlantic slave trade,” the chef explains. “And I really wanted to capture all the flavors that happened, starting from Portugal and Europe, down to West Africa and South Africa, over to the Caribbean and the South.”
After the chefs retreat back to the kitchen, the judges debate the merits of these three first courses. They all seem to love the prawns with peanuts and the buttermilk soup. Graham take issue with the fact that he couldn’t taste the beef in Eric’s tartare, and Tom thinks he had “four or five too many ingredients.” When the three finalists return, Colicchio tell them, “All season long, all three of you really cooked your hearts out, going back to this emotional connection that you have to your food.” But unfortunately, there is one dish that wasn’t as strong as the other two, and that is Eric’s tartare. “The lotus root chips were burnt, and we didn’t taste the beef,” Colicchio explains. Eric thanks all the judges, hugs his fellow chefs, and heads back to the kitchen to break the news to his team.
“This whole experience is a blessing,” Eric tells the camera. “I’m proud all the way through. I have nothing to hang my head over. I think I’ve done something extremely unique on Top Chef. It’s taken 16 seasons to showcase cuisine from Africa. It’s unfortunate that I couldn’t finish my final meal. But I’m extremely proud of what I did and how I did it. I’ve won Top Chef in other ways.”
Kelsey and Sara head back to the kitchen to wrap up the rest of their prep with their sous chefs. “We’re sad to see Eric go, but Kelsey and I are in the finale,” Sara tells the camera, “Kelsey and I had an alliance in the sense that we were going to push each other to do well, and support each other. This was a friendship alliance.” After prep is done, the two finalists shotgun some beers in their hotel rooms and head down to dinner at Mitsuharu Tsumaru’s restaurant Aji.
The next day, Sara and Kelsey return to the kitchen of Graham Elliott’s restaurant, Coast, to finish prep on the “meal of their lives.” Kelsey is troubleshooting her crispy soft-shell crab dish, while Sara is refining a bacon and peach course. Joining the usual roster of judges this round are Tsumaru, Food & Wine staffer Melanie Hansche, and chefs Alexander Smalls, May Chow, Dan Hong, and Alvin Leung.
Kelsey is the first chef to serve her meal to the judges. The buttermilk dish, now with the addition of crawfish, is a big hit, and the judges are very impressed by her second course of oysters with vichyssoise. The crispy soft shell crab dish with field peas and pistou lands with a thud, but everyone loves Kelsey’s peach cobbler.
Once it’s time to serve her meal, Sara tells the judges, “I could have come here and just cooked the exact same thing that I always cook in the exact same way, but I really wanted to try to do something different.” Tom finds that Sara’s prawn dish is actually better the second day, but her plate of bacon with razor clams and peaches is deemed to be too salty by most of the judges. Sara’s duck with black-eyed peas and pickled beets gets high marks, and everyone at the table loves the rib-eye with dirty rice and shitake broth that concludes the meal.
At the end of the second meal, Padma tells Sara and Kelsey, “Chefs, regardless of what happens here, both of you gave us extraordinary meals today, so congratulations.” While both menus were strong overall, the judges discuss how Kelsey’s crab and Sara’s bacon dishes missed the mark. Kelsey’s cornbread starter and Sara’s steak with dirty rice are among their favorite dishes of the night.
Once the judges have made their decision, Kelsey and Sara walk out to face the verdict in a room that’s full of family members as well contestants who got eliminated earlier this season. Padma begins the final judgement by telling Sara and Kelsey, “There will be millions of little girls all over the world that see how you guys have done, how you’ve struggled, and how you’ve made it all the way from back home to here in Macau — and I’m so happy that I got to be here to taste it and watch it.”
Tom also has some remarks before the big announcement. “We benefited all season long from just a fantastic season of great food, and this is just the beginning,” Colicchio says. “Someone’s going to win Top Chef tonight, but both of you are going to go on to having successful businesses and receiving much more awards, because you’re both really fantastic chefs, but more important than that you’re fantastic people.”
With the pleasantries out of the way, Padma then reveals that Kelsey is the winner of Top Chef Kentucky. “I think I’m completely in shock,” the chef from Dothan, Alabama tells the camera. “It is so surreal, and literally all I wanted is to make my family proud.” Although she landed in second place, Sara is supportive of her friend. “I think you’d be a crazy person to say you aren’t disappointed,” she remarks. “But if I’m not going to win, there’s no one else that I wanted to win other than Kelsey.”
“All that I’ve gone through, and all the hardships have officially become worth it,” Kelsey tells the camera after the big win. “[My son] Monroe watching me be on Top Chef will learn that you’re going to literally fall on your face, but you can get up and keep going and learn from yesterday. There’s no better lesson. I don’t think anyone would ever say I’m an underdog ever again.”