Talk about saving the best for last: “Top Chef” wrapped up the Kentucky portion of the show with maybe the most Kentucky episode ever. Sure, you can point to basketball and bourbon as Bluegrass signatures, but natives know the state is also Keeneland and soup beans.
The chefs are peaking at the right time, too, as they head off to Macau for the finale. Why Macau? Who knows. I’m guessing the Macau tourism people ponied up a lot of money. More than the Kentucky tourism people, apparently.
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Because I don’t see a natural tie between the two locations. Japan, I could understand. Toyota’s Camry is made in Georgetown, after all. And Japan has a huge whiskey/bourbon culture too.
But Macau and China? Well, chalk it up to the “Top Chef” twist, I guess.
And this episode, “Kentucky Farewell,” is packed with them.
The episode opens with a holler from Tom, who shows up to wake the chefs up.
“Meet me in the garden,” he says.
There they are introduced to chef Ouita Michel, who will be judging “our last Quickfire in Kentucky.” Ouita and Kentucky Sara know each other from a James Beard dinner they did together in New York.
Everybody also is excited to see “Last Chance Kitchen” winner Michelle stroll back in.
There’s a flashback to the foreshadowing four weeks ago when Justin said: “Hopefully nobody’s going home for planting a $%^# garden.”
Well, guess what ... They have 45 minutes to harvest what they can from their own gardens and make a dish. Ouita suggests they keep it simple, let the veg be the center of the plate. Turns out that Sara, Adrienne and Michelle have terrific gardens, lots of stuff to work with. Kelsey’s in good shape, too, but Justin and Eric are scrounging.
All I can say is if they got ripe tomatoes in four weeks, they are also top gardeners as well as top chefs.
In the end, all the dishes they present are pretty, and have lots of flavor.
Eric, who had the least to work with, gives them green tomato and coconut “gazpacho.” Nice try.
Kelsey, who burns her hand right at the last minute when she grabs a hot pan, delivers fried green tomatoes, which are great. But Tom isn’t thrilled with the ricotta that accompanies it.
Michelle loses track of time (and pots, apparently, since it was one of hers that got Kelsey) and ends up plating only roasted radishes and chard with a poached egg and fresh purslane, which is nice but half her veg got left off.
Adrienne puts together a lovely plate of seared baby squash. Sara brings out roasted radish, cucumber and squash with some goat cheese. And Justin, who said he had little but radishes to work with, gives them a radish and chard salad.
Shockingly, that radish plate wins, beating out Adrienne and Sara’s dishes, earning him $10,000.
Now Tom delivers two more big surprises: One, they are going to Macau for the finale. And two, five of them get to go.
The chefs are excited, and tease each other about who gets left behind.
They arrive at Keeneland for the big Elimination challenge: Padma tells them they have to “make a dish inspired by your own pedigree, a thank you dish inspired by your own mentor, something that would impress them and show them what you’ve learned if they are here to taste it ... because they will all be joining us tomorrow for dinner at the Brown Hotel.”
For Justin, it’s Minnesota chef JD Fratzke. For Adrienne, it’s Boston chef Chris Coombs, whom she worked for at Deuxave. For Kelsey, its chef Gavin Kaysen, who taught her at Cafe Boulud. For Michelle, it’s San Francisco chef Kim Alter. For Sara, it’s Chicago chef David Posey. And for Eric, it’s Maryland chef Bryan Voltaggio.
They have a little fun at Keeneland with an “auction” of significant ingredients. Everybody gets some interesting deals on meats (Sara gets a whole Iberico ham for $85; it normally goes for $500) but then bidding wars break out over some choice veggies, including heirloom asparagus, which Adrienne gets for $95.
One last little surprise: They get the word that Gail Simmons, who has been on maternity leave, will be there for the final meal, then they head to Whole Foods, where the clerks have come to know them so well one of them wishes Eric luck by name.
The dishes they come up with are stellar, which is fitting because they are all at the top of the game now.
After a toast to their last meal in Kentucky, fittingly in the venerable and elegant Brown Hotel, the results start rolling in.
First is Michelle, who brings in slow-roasted salmon with crispy skin, grain porridge with burnt citrus and marrow broth. She says she was inspired by Kim Alter of Nightbird, who is “the ultimate bad ass” but also feminine. Everybody loves the dish, which Kim and Gail say is feminine and rich. Maybe a little too rich for some, with the vinaigrette poured on top, but still delish.
Kelsey comes next, with a “gumbo” inspired by the first family meal she fixed for her colleagues at Cafe Boulud and Gavin Kaysen. The key to it is the use of not one roux but two: One is burnt for real depth of color and flavor, while the other is more of a deep caramel color. This, say the judges, is genius. One small setback: One of the mentors find a bit of crab shell in his dish despite her best efforts to sort it all out.
Next up, Adrienne. Her mentor, Chris Coombs, tell everyone that she’s the best at plating that he’s ever seen, which is ironic because back in the kitchen she’s so behind that she’s just having to fling food at the dishes. Still, her spiced duck breast with seared foie gras, spring vegetables and garden herbs gets out there. Coombs ungraciously tells her he wishes the plate had been wiped (she gamely agrees) and then once she leaves he and Tom agree it is underspiced and tastes “rushed.”
On to Justin, who is having the opposite problem in the kitchen. He’s gotten everything plated far too early, and has to keep rotating things under the heat lights. Oh dear. And it shows on the table when he serves his yellow tail two ways, sashimi style and miso cured, with two-hour kimchi. This is where we hear Tom say the ominous statement: “Whenever someone fixes something two ways, I wished they just do one way.”
Meanwhile, Eric brings out his not-so-pretty decontructed/reconstructed take on the West African grain dish waakye, made with wheat berries, barley and quinoa cooked in sorghum leaves with plantain puree and wagyu beef. It’s something the judges have never seen, and they are intrigued. But Tom says it needed something fresh to balance it.
Lastly, there’s Kentucky Sara, presenting her olive oil-poached sea bass with Iberico ham broth, soy beans, black-eyed peas and baby lima beans. The judges rave: Her mentor, David Posey, says she knocked it out of the park. Tom says it’s subtle, and everything is in balance, which is really high praise for him.
At judges’ table, they learn the results: In tears, Ouita says Sara is the winner, her first for an elimination challenge. She said she was so happy to see soup beans! Tom pronounces it “perfect ... a powerhouse.”
Her fellow chefs dub her “Old Paducah broth ... the new governor of Kentucky.”
She’s relieved: “I know I’ve done my state proud.”
For the others, it’s a little more muddled: Michelle’s salmon was flawless, Eric’s dish was great and inventive but unfinished ... Kelsey’s gumbo had tremendous depth of flavor but there was that tiny piece of shell. But those three are going to Macau, the judges say.
It’s down to Adrienne and Justin, and in the end, Adrienne’s duck was the more creative dish of the two. Justin is sent to pack his knives.
The good news, Tom says: “After 16 seasons, here’s what I have to say: I get to see the future of our industry and the future is really strong.”
Padma can’t wait to see what they will cook in Macau. If the snippets in the tease are anything to go by, it won’t be soup beans.
“Anything and everything you can dream about and then things you didn’t even know existed,” Kelsey says of the markets, while we get snapshots of gelatinous things being sliced, Graham screaming “lungs!” and a woman chopping the head of an eel while the chefs flinch.
Then some foreshadowing:
▪ Padma, nearly gagging, says: “If you were trying to burn my palate, you succeeded,” possibly to Adrienne.
▪ Tom, to shots of a nodding Sara: “This could have been a contemporary dish from a young contemporary Chinese chef.”
▪ Graham, maybe to Michelle: “It was so soulful.”
▪ And Padma: “It felt a little muddy.” Eric: “Respectfully, I disagree.”
Well, you do you, Eric. We can’t wait to see how that goes down. “Top Chef” Kentucky’s finale begins at 8 p.m. Thursday on Bravo.