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‘Top Chef Kentucky’ Recap: A Fusion Feast in Macau

The penultimate episode of Season 16 features a durian challenge and a cross-cultural banquet

Left to right: Abe Conlon, Padma Lakshmi, Kelsey Barnard, Tom Colicchio.
Carmo Correia/Bravo

Continuing their stay in Macau, the contestants on Top Chef Kentucky encounter new challenges and a few major surprises during the second part of the finals.

At the start of the episode, the four remaining cheftestepants — Eric, Michelle, Sara, and Kelsey — seem excited and a little nervous about moving onto the next round of the finals. “Whatever happens next is going to determine who’s going to make it into the finale,” Eric says. “If you don’t feel the pressure, you ain’t really alive.” Although Kelsey had a triumphant victory in the Lunar New Year challenge, she’s also anticipating another intense round of cooking ahead. “These chefs are really, really good,” Kelsey remarks. “I know exactly how hard they work. Knowing that I’m amongst a group like that, that’s a lot of intimidation.” Michelle, meanwhile, is eager to face off against her friends in the next competition, telling the camera, “My plan is to pick them off one by one.”

When the chefs arrive at the A-Ma Temple, a historic space dating back to the Ming Dynasty, they are greeted by host Padma Lakshmi and James Beard Award-winning chef Abe Conlon of Macau-inspired Chicago restaurant Fat Rice. Padma and Abe have brought a trunk full of Durian with them, because this week’s Quickfire challenge — the last of the season — is all about cooking with the pungent local delicacy. The winner will get an extra hour in the elimination round.

“Durian smells like if you took really stinky French cheese and put it in a plastic bag with socks that you had just mowed your lawn in,” Sara observes. Meanwhile, Kelsey quips, “My idea of making a dish with this thing is throwing it away and making a dish.” Clearly, none of the chefs are used to cooking with the famously smelly fruit, but they all manage to whip up fairly complicated dishes using durian in the short amount of time allotted for this challenge.

Left to right: Michelle Minori, Eric Adjepong, Sara Bradley
Carmo Correia/Bravo

Michelle cooks an “espuma of chilled durian” with coconut cream and shrimp ceviche. Eric prepares a tomato and celery salad with pickled sea bass and a durian vinaigrette. Kelsey puts together a “breakfast parfait” with yogurt and durian. And Sara makes crispy sea bass with durian curry. The judges determine that Sara and Michelle’s dishes are the most balanced, while the others suffer from execution problems. Ultimately Padma and Abe decide that Michelle has the best dish of the challenge. “You did what the fruit does —you had a dish that was both savory and sweet,” Padma tells the chef from San Francisco. “It feels amazing,” Michelle says. “If I can do what I just did, then I’m feeling really confident going into the finale.”

Now that the Quickfire has drawn to a close, Padma reveals that this week’s elimination challenge is all about the chefs cooking dishes based on their heritage while also highlighting local Chinese ingredients. “As a young chef, I read about the Macanese people preserving their heritage through a unique blend of Portuguese [and] Chinese, but also with Malay and Indian flavors,” Abe explains to the crew. To help them get a better understand of that style of fusion, the Chicago chef takes the contestants to one of his favorite Macanese restaurants, Cafe Litoral.

Once they arrive in the dining room, the four chefs are surprised to see members their families sitting in the restaurant: Kelsey, Sara, and Michelle’s moms all made the trip to Macau along with Eric’s sister. The chefs and their family members are also joined by Cafe Litoral’s proprietor, Manuela Ferreira. As they sample the various Macanese dishes, the chefs start to get ideas for their elimination challenge creations. “Dish after dish is unique and layered with flavor, and I love how simple and clean the flavors are, which is very similar to the way that I cook,” Kelsey says.

Carmo Correia/Bravo

After lunch, the chefs and their family members go shopping at a local market for their ingredients. The grocery excursion goes relatively smoothly, although Kelsey’s mom loses her cart at one point, much to her daughter’s chagrin. “If my mother doesn’t find this cart in like the next five minutes, I might throw like a 13-year-old temper tantrum,” Kelsey says. “I was really good at those then. I do not need to kill my mother on national television.”

The morning of the challenge, Michelle tells the other chefs that the event marks a special moment for her. “This is the first time that my mom’s really eating my food — like, restaurant-style food,” she explains. Michelle started cooking for her family as a teenager, right after her dad died, and now she can show her mom how much she’s grown as a chef. She’s preparing a ciopinno with beans and vegetables, as a nod to her Mexican-Italian heritage. Sara is working on a version of matzo ball soup. Eric is cooking a West African-inspired egusi stew with fufu dumplings and shrimp balls. And Kelsey is planning a version of a Lowcountry boil with local seafood.

The elimination round meal is served in 360° Cafe, a rotating restaurant at the top of the Macau Tower. As a special surprise, after serving each of their courses, the chefs get to sit down and eat with their family members as well as Tom, Padma, Abe, Manuela, and judge Nilou Motamed. Most of the judges like the flavor of Michelle’s cioppino, but a few of them wish that she had used a sauce in her dish instead of a broth. Sara’s matzo ball soup goes over well with the judges, while Eric’s stew and Kelsey’s seafood boil generate mixed reactions from the crowd.

Left to right: Abe Conlon, Padma Lakshmi, Eric Adjepong.
Carmo Correia/Bravo

When the meal has wrapped up, Tom tells the chefs, “It is hard when you’re shopping in another country, with packages that you don’t understand, and I thought you all did a great job just jumping in.” Abe from Fat Rice also remarks, “You all embraced what China and Macau is all about by getting those local ingredients, and taking some risks.” Padma notes that they all served “beautiful, soulful, creative food” but there was one standout from the meal: Sara’s matzo ball soup. Tom has had a lot of matzo ball soup in his day, and her broth really impressed him.

Moving onto the bottom three plates, the judges mostly liked Kelsey’s seafood boil but thought that Michelle’s cioppino was perhaps too complicated. Meanwhile, Eric’s stew had some elements that didn’t quite gel for all the judges. “You know, chefs, this has really been a fantastic season,” Tom tells the crew. “I think that the four of you have really proved that you guys can cook on a world’s stage. There are no losers right now.” But, unfortunately, the judges have to eliminate one chef, and that chef is Michelle. “The challenge was to get Chinese flavors into your dish, and we just didn’t feel that you went far enough,” Tom explains. This is, of course, Michelle’s second time being asked to pack her knives and go, since she was eliminated after the Rupp Arena challenge and later reentered the competition by winning Last Chance Kitchen.

“To go home so close to the end is disappointing, of course,” Michelle says. “I’ve gained a lot of closure in my personal life, and a lot of self-awareness. There were a lot of times where I didn’t see a future, and it was really dark. And I’m so glad that I had this adventure here on Top Chef, and I’m ready for what the future has in store.”