Kentucky likes to think that the Commonwealth is known the world over for Thoroughbreds and bourbon. And it is.
But the real name recognition goes to two other global exports: KFC and Muhammad Ali.
The world came to Muhammad Ali’s Louisville funeral in Freedom Hall in 2016 (it was covered by the BBC, he was eulogized by Billy Crystal, and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan left because he wasn’t allowed to speak).
And everyday the world eats at the 23,000 KFCs in 119 countries.
So sooner or later, “Top Chef” Kentucky would have to get around to these iconic names. And they did, finally, in an episode that packed a huge punch.
It opened with Paducah Sara saying she and Adrienne have put all the drama of the Rupp episode behind them. Sara apologizes to Adrienne for “jumping her $#*t” over the crowd chanting “box waffle.” Which is good because the Quickfire is a fried chicken challenge, which Adrienne says she’s aiming to win.
But it’s got a big twist with chef Art (“I’ve cooked for Oprah AND the Obamas”) Smith coming out with a whole table of Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets. And Smith appears to be channeling the Colonel himself with a Harland Sanders goatee and mustache.
He and Padma blindfold the chefs who have five minutes to taste as many herbs and spices as they can. Any they correctly identify, they can use in their chicken dish. And that’s all.
For bourbon-loving Sara (it’s all about the nose, y’all) this is a walk in the park. She gets a dozen right.
The other Southern girl, Kelsey, gets 11. Eric gets seven, and the rest get six each. But Justin doesn’t get salt (How do you not know salt??) so he has to make up for that.
They all come up with amazing chicken, but Eric, Kelsey and Adrienne lose valuable time with fryers that are too hot. (What is it with the equipment failures. Does this happen every season?)
The results are raw chicken inside, overly done chicken outside. And they all end up in the bottom three.
The winner of the challenge is Sara, who gets her first solo win. There’s no immunity on the table this time, just $5,000 from KFC.
Now Padma pivots to the Elimination challenge, which will be a six-course progressive dinner for 100, including guest judge Laila Ali, at the Muhammad Ali museum in downtown Louisville. The chefs read up on the fights and decide which ones they want to tackle.
Sara tries to get out of the Freedom Hall fight assignment, saying she’s done every Kentucky dish, wants to show something different (bad idea, Sara) but when it comes to a draw, she ends up with it anyway. That means she’s going first.
She realizes this actually is a great fit. She’s inspired to serve King Salmon with “thunder & lightning” quick-pickled tomatoes and cucumbers. (I have to say: I’m a Southerner, my grandmother had a huge garden and I never heard this phrase before. But I’m totally familiar with refrigerator pickles. These cukes aren’t exactly garden cukes, but I’m being picky.)
Laila says she liked the way Sara used the story to pull it together and judge and former editor of Food & Wine magazine Nilou Motammed tells Sara the dish “exceeded my expectations.” Huh, not sure how to take that.
Justin brings out the second course, based on the second fight with Sonny Liston, which was over with a nearly immediate knock out punch. He presents a saffron and seafood soup, with scallops, clams and mussels, because the fight was in Maine.
Padma says the soup is luscious but eats light, and guests at the meal say the saffron is “like a phantom punch.” But Tom says Justin erred in making a seafood dish because the fight was nowhere near the coast.
Eddie’s got the Fight of the Century, Ali vs. Frazier. So he wants to do duck, because most of that comes from the Hudson River Valley and the fight was in New York. Alas, Whole Foods has only frozen duck. So he goes for brown-butter roasted chicken, collard green puree with red wine poultry jus and toasted hazelnuts.
Eddie tells the judges he was inspired by a great duo, “chicken and collard greens.” The chicken part worked out fine, the judges say, but it’s just meh on the plate.
“There’s no sizzle, and your dad was all about sizzle,” Nilou says to Laila.
Eric’s up next with the Rumble in the Jungle, which was in what is now the Republic of Congo. As a native of Ghana, it’s a chance to cook the African food that is his home-cooking, and he leaps at it, plating fufu plantain and cassava dumplings with Congolese red sauce.
Tom says he loves that Eric took something humble and said he wanted to do it anyway, which speaks to Ali’s convictions, too.
Adrienne brings out her dish, representing the Thrilla in Manila. The day before, Tom and Nilou had given her serious qualms when they told her that her planned dish was too Vietnamese and not Philippine enough.
So she’s decided to play up the heat instead with her braised short rib with mano and herb salad. Laila loves the salad but Tom balks when she tells them she used a “sriracha-type hot sauce” on her ribs. Bottled sauce??!!
“I question the use of bottled hot sauce when you have fresh peppers to work with,” he said.
Kelsey brings up the finish with “Unanimous Bread pudding,” for the Battle in New Orleans. She also was inspired by Ali’s work with children’s charities throughout his career so she adds caramelized popcorn on top for a note of childish whimsy.
While Laila says her dad loved bread pudding, the pop corn is not a winner with Nilou.
At judges’ table, Tom acknowledges that once you get down to six, “someone goes home for a good dish.”
The ones they liked best: Sara’s and Eric’s. The win goes to Eric, his third. He seems overwhelmed: “For fufu,” he says, wiping away tears. (I told you he was my sleeper candidate.)
“I really loved your fufu. It was soulful, lusty, dimensional,” Nilou says.
“I imagine that for a lot of your life you’re told you can’t do food like this,” Tom says. Ignore that: “Keep pounding away at it.”
Now the hard part: Padma tells them that when she says they have to “nitpick” she means they have to look hard for flaws. And they do: Justin’s seafood was underdone and the soup was lukewarm; Adrienne’s bottled hot sauce; Kelsey’s corn bread pudding.
But it’s Eddie’s one-note deconstructed chicken (who purees collard greens??) that just didn’t have “the wow factor.”
He is sent to pack his knives; he’ll go up against Michelle for a chance to come back next week.
Speaking of next week, it should be a real nail-biter, with the show coming back to Lexington for a trip to Keeneland. The preview snippet shows not horses but ingredients in the sales ring, where the auctioneers are making the chefs bid for what they will fix for ... whom?
There is an allusion to a mentor and a glimpse of ... Gail Simmons? And something about their gardens?
Then one last doomsday quote from Tom: “You know, every time someone does something two ways, I wish they’d do it one way.”
Who will go home and who will go on to the finale? Stay tuned; “Top Chef” Kentucky airs on Bravo at 8 p.m. Thursday.