“Top Chef” fans, welcome to Kentucky. The 16th season opened Thursday with a challenge familiar to many a Bluegrass host or hostess: Throw a Kentucky Derby party.
The “Top Chef” version, which was actually a post-Derby party filmed in May just after the Run for the Roses, featured all 15 cheftestants pulling out the stops with the best dish for 200 people. And of course for judges Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, Graham Elliot and guest judge David Danielson, executive chef for Churchill Downs racetrack.
Side note: See how many locals you can recognize in the crowd; I spotted Tim Laird, “Chefs of the Bluegrass” host and Brown-Forman chief entertaining officer, as well as Atomic Ramen owner Dan Wu.
The episode opened appropriately at the track. Entering from the paddock under the Twin Spires: chefs Eric Adjepong, Washington, D.C.; Sara Bradley, Paducah; Kelsey Barnard Clark, Dothan, Ala.; Edmund “Eddie” Konrad, Philadelphia; Pablo Lamon, Miami Beach, Fla.; Natalie Maronski, Philadelphia; Michelle Minori, San Francisco; Nini Nguyen, Brooklyn, N.Y.; Brandon Rosen, San Mateo, Calif.; Kevin Scharpf, Dubuque, Iowa; Caitlin Steininger, Cincinnati; Justin Sutherland, St. Paul, Minn.; David Viana, Asbury Park, N.J.; Adrienne Wright, Boston; and Brian Young, Boston.
The chefs split into teams and have two minutes (get it?) to cut up everything they would need to prepare a dish on the fly in 20 minutes. Then the knives are gone.
Several didn’t quite make it. One team chose steak but ran out of time to cut it. Another ran into the same issue with pork tenderloin, which they shredded instead.
The steak’s beef fat ended up as seasoning but in a typical “Top Chef” twist that was the dish that won, giving Paducah’s Sara Bradley and her Quickfire teammates an early lead. Bradley, the only Kentuckian on the show, and the other two chefs on her Quickfire team, won two VIP tickets to next year’s Derby.
Bradley was the only contestant who’s been to the Derby before. But next year won’t be an infield visit like last time, she said. “I want a hat, a big-a-- hat!”
“Top Chef” host Padma turned the tables on the teams, making them compete against each other for the Derby party elimination challenge for win, place or show. And the personalities of the chefs began to come out in the heat of battle.
Hometown favorite Sara stumbled on her dish by playing her pork belly too safe. Perfectly cooked but uninspiring, the judges ruled. But she kept her cool and was saved from elimination.
Early contender for biggest jerk: Brandon, who came off as a bossy know-it-all but got a setdown when he came in second to likable Nini, of whom he’d been particularly dismissive.
Other chefs emerging as ones to watch:
▪ Pablo from Miami, whose dish was in the top 3 and clearly has a thing for bourbon and for spice.
▪ David, who looked like he blew it when he forgot the flour for his gnocchi the pulled off big save with his “umami-bomb soup.” (The longest pause in TV has to be the one between Tom taking a bite of your dish and when he finally says what he thinks.)
▪ And Natalie, who won the first elimination challenge with with her ceviche.
First to go home: Caitlin, from Cincinnati, was the first to hear Padma’s trademark, “please pack your knives and go.” Although she had a great idea — biscuit-topped tomato cobbler — the execution fell short, leaving her biscuits soggy and her cherry tomatoes undercooked. She’ll get a chance to come back on “Last-Chance Kitchen.”
Next week: “Top Chef” heads to Maker’s Mark and tackles Kentucky favorites; Sara announces she has a vegetarian burgoo; Pablo throws some flames; and Nini throws some shade.
The show airs on Bravo, Thursday at 9 p.m. Eastern, 8 p.m. Central time.