What ‘Top Chef’ Kentucky taught Coach Cal
The Kentucky season of “Top Chef,” the hit cooking competition show on Bravo, gave fans a taste of what to expect when they released a “first look” last month, with hints of bourbon, fast horses and the Big Blue Nation.
But when the season premiers at 9 p.m. on Dec. 6 there are a few things you won’t see:
▪ Stereotypes. This show, which was recruited heavily by Kentucky and Lexington tourism officials, is unlikely to show barefoot, toothless hicks. Instead, Kentuckians will get a chance to see themselves through the lens of outsiders in a positive way. The show will explore the unique regional cuisine of a state perhaps best known for fried chicken.
Expect to see host Padma Lakshmi and head judge Tom Colicchio learn about burgoo and Benedictine, along with bourbon. One episode will have the 15 chef contestants, including Paducah’s Sara Bradley, take on Kentucky classics such as burgoo, which they have to reinvent.
“The chefs had to choose which one to use as inspiration,” Colicchio said in May after the judges, including Coach John Calipari and Louisville chef Ed Lee, watched a challenge in Rupp Arena.
“We all know the food here, but it’s interesting to see what people have done with bourbon,” said judge Graham Elliot, who has been to Kentucky often. “Ten years ago, it was ‘the bourbon glaze on the pork loin’ ... now there’s bourbon slushies ... bourbon ice cream, all the things you can think of. ... In Chicago, we don’t have that. It’s cool that Kentucky has their own style.”
Lakshmi said her impression is that Kentucky is about to have a moment. “There are wonderful local specialties ... at least I didn’t know about them before we started doing the show,” she said. “Like burgoo.”
And what she called “that weird dish ... with bananas and mayonnaise and peanuts ... when I heard that, I was like, um, I don’t know ... but honestly it was good,” she said.
Another Kentucky classic, the hot Brown, made with turkey drenched in mornay sauce on toast, and topped with bacon and tomato, figured in a challenge, too. .
“Top Chef” allows viewers to see a state or city as only locals can, Lakshmi said. “I can read about Kentucky, I can look at a recipe for a hot Brown, but I see my job as being the audience’s representative. So that when I bite into that banana croquette or whatever it is, I can have the experience and articulate it ... it’s a chance for Kentucky to shine, to show itself in all of its nuances, rather than with a wide brushstroke of just cliches.”
▪ What goes on behind the scenes. Just offstage at the main set in Louisville, there was a complete chef’s pantry, with every spice (at least 120), every seasoning (specialty chef-type stuff, such as white soy sauce and yuzu), every piece of equipment that any contestant might imagine. Some of the ingredients the chefs get to pick themselves, as witnessed in shopping trips to the Lexington Whole Foods store, but others are selected for them by the team that figures out how to make those imaginative cooking challenges happen. For Kentucky, the pantry has been stocked with sorghum and country ham.
And when the show goes to locations such as Churchill Downs, Maker’s Mark Distillery, Rupp Arena, Keeneland, the Muhammad Ali Center, or Lake Cumberland, the six-person culinary team packs it all up and brings it along. Then cleans it up, hauls it back and starts all over again.
For the Restaurant Wars episode, which took place in Lexington at the Lundy’s Catering warehouse, the culinary team built three separate restaurant kitchens and stocked the ingredients. For the Rupp Arena episode, they had to swap out a faulty waffle maker on the fly ... courtside, while the clock was ticking.
Also, off to one side at the home set, there’s a special tent where they take each dish to photograph it for the beauty shots you see. Specialists use Q-tips to swipe away stray smears of sauce and fingerprints.
▪ What’s real and what isn’t. All the cooking is real. When you see a contestant make a dish, they really make it. And the time constraints are real, so when it looks like they aren’t going to make it, that is a real risk.
And when you see something go wrong, that’s real, too. If a chef drops a plate, or a side of beef or whatever, or skips a step, that’s real.
Also real: The judging. There’s no steering the judges toward predetermined winners based on whether or not they might increase ratings. It’s all on the food. And all on how the chefs sell what came out on the plate, according to judge Elliott.
The only thing that isn’t real: The dramatic pronouncements. For instance, when Lakshmi tells the contestants that they are heading to Lexington for Restaurant Wars and that there will be three restaurant teams this time, the cameras capture the surprise and then the contestants take off. But Lakshmi stays and she and the guest judges repeat different versions of the lines over and over, with tiny variations. Sometimes they need her to say something a specific way; other times, she ad-libs something better. When producers flubbed the amount contestants could spend on ingredients, Lakshmi (the perfect pro) made it seem as if she’d made an executive decision to increase their budget.
▪ What it’s like to be there. For fans of “Top Chef,” nothing is a bigger thrill than attending an episode. In May, I got to watch a Quickfire challenge from the set and the tension was palpable. Especially when mistakes happened.
Fans go to great lengths to get to a show, particularly a hot ticket like Restaurant Wars. At the taping in late May, there were people who flew in from out of state. Plus a slew of state officials from Frankfort, and a wide swatch of Lexington and Louisville foodies, from West Sixth’s Ben and Becca Self to my pediatricians, who are big fans of the show, it turns out.
For the Kentucky season, fans got lucky: For the episode taped in Rupp Arena, “Top Chef” needed thousands of extras to fill the stands. And they got them. People turned out in their blue and white to cheer on something besides basketball ... although Coach Cal did make a cameo appearance as a judge.
What did he think of the hubbub?
“This was fun,” Calipari said afterward. “The biggest thing you learn: there’s more to food than eating it. ... It was a learning experience. Now I’ll never eat food with the same thoughts in my mind, which is, ‘hurry up and finish.’ It will be a little bit different now.”