Now that the contestants on “Top Chef” Kentucky are down to eight, you know that everybody left is good enough to win it. But that means that one bad meal is enough to send any of them home.
In episode nine, the chefs are coming off their Lake Cumberland houseboat parties, with Kelsey still glowing about her big win.
“Top eight feels great, but you can not let your guard down ever when you’re in this competition,” she says.
Can you feel the foreshadowing?
On the road trip to Nashville, it’s clear Adrienne is still feeling puny, as my grandma would say.
She’s in survival mode. (Should she really be serving food in her condition?)
The chefs arrive at the Grand Ole Opry for their Quickfire Challenge, fixing either breakfast, lunch or dinner for a mystery “rising country music star.”
After a quick tussle over who gets the eggs, the chefs whip together some dishes. The mystery judge: Hunter Hayes, and Kelsey is fan-girlin’ hard.
The breakfast dishes are first. David, who took most of the eggs, does an omelet with goat cheese vinaigrette and a zucchini, jicama and prosciutto salad. Eric, who gets blocked out of the eggs, goes with a hot oatmeal with maple syrup and brown sugar and fruits. Kelsey makes shakshuka, an Israeli egg dish with tomatoes and toast.
Then comes lunch. Sara delivers curried cauliflower salad, Eddie does a shaved vegetable salad with chicken and prosciutto, and Michelle serves a grilled cheese “salad.”
Dinner is last. Justin serves skirt steak salad with veg, while Adrienne (who is sure her dish is far too plain) plates up seared filet mignon with Cajun spiced corn, roasted pepper puree and fennel salad.
Hunter’s least-liked dishes: David’s omelet, Eddie’s salad with chicken, and Kelsey’s egg, which gets dings for the tomatoes. Turns out he’s “really cautious about acidic things.” (Shouldn’t that have been in the rider??)
His faves: Eric’s oatmeal, Sara’s cauliflower and Adrienne’s filet. Adrienne wins, which should be a big lesson in simplicity for everybody but probably won’t be.
Adrienne’s win gives her a big advantage in the elimination challenge: an extra hour to work on her dish.
Host Padma Laskhmi tells them they have to fix a dish inspired by a music memory in their lives. Bravo has promised to post a playlist of the chefs’ songs on its website, so look for that.
Most of the chefs turned to songs that had special significance in their lives, resulting in some very emotional moments. As Sara puts it, food always tastes better when you have a personal connection to it.
David decides to go with a Portuguese-style dish, inspired by music from his time working in Portugal. He wants octopus, but Whole Foods only has frozen, so he goes with clams, with an eye to serving pork and clams. But he is stressing like crazy.
Eddie’s is doing a red snapper with puffed rice, an homage to the first dish he made for his wife.
Adrienne leans into her memories of a lonely internship in Maine, when she sought solace in “Home” by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, working on fruits de mer and summer vegetables.
Kelsey goes with chicken pot pie, inspired by Etta James’ “Sunday Kind of Love” and her husband, who says it’s his favorite dish.
For Sara, the inspiration is Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya,” which her father would sing, so she’s going with a gumbo play.
Rapper Biggie Smalls’ “Big Poppa” sends Eric to ribeye steak, eggs with Parmesan cheese sauce and concord grape jus. Prince’s “Purple Rain” is the inspiration for Justin’s purple gnocchi on red cabbage with a port wine sauce.
Michelle goes with red snapper with grilled corn, which reminds her of being outside in the garden with her father, while her mom blasted Beatles’ tunes from the house. It turns out that her father killed himself when she was a teenager, and that clearly brings up a lot of tough stuff for her.
But it’s what’s on the plate that matters, not the best story.
The judges include head judge Tom Colicchio, Graham Elliot, Nashville chefs Sean Brock and Tandy Wilson, chef/restaurateur Jonathan Waxman, music manager Ken Levitan, plus Caleb Followill, lead singer of Kings of Leon and his wife, model Lily Aldridge.
Things get off to a really fun start with Eric walking them through his take on steak, cheese eggs and grape. But Tom says the meat is overcooked.
Justin, unfortunately leaves a plate behind — meaning not everyone at the table is served the dish — so he isn’t eligible for the win with his “Purple Rain” New York strip on red cabbage with beet dumpling and purple onion. Which is too bad because everybody seems to like it. Tom really likes his sauce.
Eddie’s red snapper isn’t a hit. But Michelle’s is. It’s on grilled corn and fava ragout with citrus vinaigrette and fennel onion puree.
“The smell of corn really reminds me of my father. For me that’s really important,” she tells the judges as they sample her dish. She’s getting a little teary when Padma asks if he is still with her, and Michelle tells them he took his life when she was 15. Padma hands her a napkin but Michelle isn’t the only one wiping away tears.
“I think you’ve done a great tribute to your father and the memories you had in the garden,” Padma says. (And suddenly it’s really dusty here, too. )
But it’s Tom who’s really blown away. “I think Michelle did a fantastic job here. There’s a little acid, a little sweetness, there’s texture.” After Sean Brock (the great Sean Brock!) says he would like to hire her, Tom says it: “This is probably the best dish we’ve had all season.”
Chef Tandy Wilson says what we’re all thinking: “I’ve watched a lot of seasons of ‘Top Chef’ and I’ve always wanted to be there when you say, ‘this is the best dish of the season.’ ... Today’s my day!”
Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, it’s gone downhill for David, whose sauce has over-reduced, and he’s left trying to water that down with melted butter. It’s too salty and there’s no going back.
Kelsey brings in her deconstructed chicken pot pie, with a side of gravy, and while some of them like it, it’s way too salty for others. Especially Graham, who wipes salt off the rim of his plate “like a margarita.”
Bringing in her “filet gumbo” inspired dish, Sara is worried because “brown on brown” ain’t pretty. But Graham is wowed, saying her grouper with sassafras bone sauce, braised greens and pumpkin seed pesto “is some of the best food we’ve seen from Sara so far. The sauce itself is the star, you get the essence of what jambalaya is.”
Adrienne’s fruits de mer, with summer vegetables and corn nage, are good, she thinks, “will it win? I don’t know. Will it keep me from going home? I think yes.”
And she’s right.
At judges’ table, the favorite dishes are those from Justin, Sara and Michelle. Justin can’t win, but Padma says they loved his dish anyway. Tom says of Sara’s: “It looked so simple but was it so complex at the same time. Every bite got deeper.” Waxman says her dish “spoke of confidence.”
But it’s Michelle’s “love letter to her father” that takes the win. Tom tells them to keep cooking like that, that the best food is personal.
On the bottom end, it’s Kelsey, Eddie and David, which is amazing given that all of them have been winners in the past.
Tom says Eddie’s dish was one note, one texture and the puffed rice was “confusing” to Waxman.
David says he lost track of his stuff. Tom says the clams were rubbery and the sauce salty. Kelsey is dinged for salty food, too. “Lesson learned is pretty simple,” Kelsey says: “Don’t put something on your plate if you haven’t tasted it.”
But it’s David who is sent to pack his knives. He’ll get a chance to take down Brandon on “Last Chance Kitchen,” and he’s the Quickfire king, so don’t count him out yet.
Next week: It’s back to Kentucky and the chefs come to Rupp Arena! Thousands of fans turned out for this episode with Coach Cal and Chef Ed Lee of Louisville as guest judges, so I expect there will be a lot of people stopping and starting to look for themselves in the crowd.
In the kitchen, some Adrienne throws an elbow at Sara as they go one-on-one with chicken and waffles. And it gets rough.
“I have a question, Sara, there was some trash talking from the White team that you made a boxed waffle?” we see Tom saying in the teaser. Will someone cry “fowl?”
Tune in Thursday at 8 p.m. on Bravo for the next “Top Chef” Kentucky to find out.