‘Top Chef’ Kentucky: Two chefs melt down on Restaurant Wars finale

Will judges Karen Akunowicz, Padma Lakshmi and Nilou Motamed, along with Nina Compton, Tom Colicchio and Caroline Styne, ever get food at Third Coast? They and other diners faced a looong wait for less than spectacular results.
Will judges Karen Akunowicz, Padma Lakshmi and Nilou Motamed, along with Nina Compton, Tom Colicchio and Caroline Styne, ever get food at Third Coast? They and other diners faced a looong wait for less than spectacular results. Michael Hickey/Bravo

The war is over and it was a bloodbath. “Top Chef” Kentucky concluded the Restaurant Wars two-parter with a double elimination.

The episode, which was filmed in Lexington at a Lundy’s Catering warehouse converted into three impromptu restaurants, opens with the guests (hundreds of locals, foodies from out of town and Frankfort officials who could swing an invite) arriving.

The 12 chefs, who are divided into the North East, Thistle and Third Coast teams, are all scrambling behind the scenes (literally, as the restaurants are just framed up stage sets for the cameras.)

Big winner of Restaurant Wars? Chef Brian Young, who kept the front of the house running relatively smoothly for North East and had the best dish of the competition with his complex chicken ballotine. Bravo Michael Hickey/Bravo

Brian, who is working the front of the house for North East, says he’s feeling the pressure. He’s also produced an incredibly complex appetizer that one of the other chefs on his team will have to plate up while he works the room in a suit.

As host Padma Lakshmi, head judge Tom Colicchio, guest judges Nilou Motamed, former editor in chief of Food & Wine Magazine, and James Beard award winners Caroline Styne, Karen Akunowicz and Nina Compton wait at their table, they notice that nobody seems to have food yet. Which isn’t a good sign.

But when the food finally arrives, it’s impressive. They are blown away by Brian’s chicken ballotine, which is “perfectly cooked, nice and moist,” according to Tom. And those sunchokes! Cheftestant Eddie’s fish crudo is “meh” but his steaks are terrific. Eric’s scallops are too salty, but the meal is redeemed by Adrienne’s desserts of Madeira-poached peaches and Jasper Hill Harbison cheese with fennel and blackberry.

The dining marathon is off to a good start!

Then the judges step next door to Thistle, where Sara, from Paducah, is working the front of the house. And working it she is, ad nauseum, apparently.

After an extensive rundown of the restaurant’s menu, Padma says she “was falling asleep.” Too much info, Sara!

Where Sara is getting things right is behind the scenes, working with servers to get the orders into the kitchen, overseen by the too-quiet Michelle. It’s still a struggle to get dishes to the tables in good speed, but Sara says it’s going smoothly.

Everybody loves Michelle’s pea agnolotti appetizer but Sara’s green tomato gazpacho gets thumbs-down for the ginger. It gets worse when Pablo’s entrees arrive: Padma actually spits out a bit of gristly artichoke from the short rib, which Nilou says is so tough she could drop it off a building and it would bounce. The desserts from Brandon are a mixed bag: the soy milk custard is good but bland, and the corn on the roulade was just weird, the judges say.

On to Third Coast restaurant and the judges’ third dinner. And here is where the going really gets rough, really rough.

Padma asks how long the people waiting for seats have been standing: an hour. One guest surreptitiously eats a smuggled-in banana to stave off hunger.

top chef restaurant wars nini.JPG
Sent home: Chef Nini Nguyen, who twice had the best dish of the elimination challenge. But she and her dessert melted under the glare of Restaurant Wars. Bravo Michael Hickey/Bravo

All around them, the wrong dishes are going to the wrong tables. In the kitchen, Justin says the front of the house is “in free fall” and he blames Nini. She notices that her one dish, a chocolate dessert, is coming out without the requisite ice cream. Kelsey shows her that it just isn’t frozen; Nini asks her to do what she can. Kelsey does, but it just isn’t enough.

To get some food in front of the judges (it’s now after 11 p.m.) Justin sends out his crawfish bisque appetizer while Kelsey and David frantically shuck oysters for the other dish. But the judges notice the discrepancy. Neither is a winner anyway: the bisque is flavorless glop and the oysters are so over seasoned you can’t taste them, they say. David’s duck is praised, but the snapper doesn’t have much snap.

The desserts come and the contrast is stark: Everyone raves about Kelsey’s “beautiful” panna cotta with biscuit and fruit; Nini’s ice cream is a little too, uh, deconstructed.

Tom says that in 16 seasons of “Top Chef,” this is the hardest Restaurant Wars yet. It isn’t clear if he meant for the chefs or for the judges, who finished their dining marathon after midnight and then had to tackle the judges’ table.

Unlikely previous years, there was no runaway favorite, Tom says. “Everybody had the same problems.”

But one team stood out: North East.

Brian’s smooth front-of-house work and his expert ballotine put them over the top, and he wins best dish.

Thistle and Third Coast teams face some tough questions: Did Michelle taste Thistle’s composed entrees? She admits she did not (which the judges note is an easy confession when you have immunity from the earlier challenge.)

Third Coast comes in for harsh scrutiny for Nini’s lack of assertiveness and Justin’s lack of oversight, both major failures.

“Restaurant Wars is hard; it’s supposed to be hard,” Tom says.

But in the end, Nini and Pablo are the ones packing up their knives, one for poor management and the other for poor execution.

They will get a shot at coming back on “Last Chance Kitchen.”

Meanwhile, “Top Chef” heads back to Louisville for a flapper-style Prohibition cocktail party under the Seelbach Hotel’s vaulted arches. The show airs on Bravo at 8 p.m.