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‘Top Chef’ Kentucky: Ham and soup beans star in last Bluegrass challenge

‘Tom, Padma and I were like ... ‘ we need a bucket of this’’

‘Top Chef’ contestant Sara Bradley, with judge Graham Elliot and guest judge Ouita Michel, on her win on the final episode filmed in Kentucky.
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‘Top Chef’ contestant Sara Bradley, with judge Graham Elliot and guest judge Ouita Michel, on her win on the final episode filmed in Kentucky.

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.

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The final six compete in the “Kentucky Farewell” episode, from left Sara Bradley, Eric Adjepong, Kelsey Barnard, Justin Sutherland, Adrienne Wright and Michelle Minori. Bravo David Moir/Bravo

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.

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Chef Michelle Minori, who won in Nashville but then was booted off in the Rupp episode, triumphed on “Last Chance Kitchen” to earn a return spot on “Top Chef” Kentucky. Bravo David Moir/Bravo

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.

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Chef Kelsey Barnard Clark burned her right hand but kept on cooking. Bravo David Moir/Bravo

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.

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For the “Kentucky Farewell” episode, Lexington chef Ouita Michel, owner of Holly Hill Inn, Honeywood, Zim’s, Wallace Station, Windy Corner Market, Smithtown Seafood and Midway Bakery, joins head judge Tom Colicchio at the Quickfire challenge. Bravo David Moir/Bravo

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.”

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“Top Chef” is bringing in loads of guests for the “Kentucky Farewell” episode at Keeneland including, from left, chef Kim Alter, head judge Tom Colicchio, judge Graham Elliot, judge Gail Simmons, chef JD Fratzke, host Padma Lakshmi, chef Bryan Voltaggio, chef David Posey, chef Chris Coomb, chef Gavin Kaysen and chef Ouita Michel. Bravo David Moir/Bravo

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.

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In the “Kentucky Farewell” episode shot at Keeneland’s auction house, Paducah chef Sara Bradley is thrilled to get an Iberico ham that normal goes for $500 for $85. It becomes the key to her dish. Bravo David Moir/Bravo

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.

When ‘Top Chef’ Kentucky came to Rupp Arena, Coach John Calipari wasn’t excited about guest judging. Here’s what changed all that.

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.

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Can chef Kelsey Barnard rebound in the final Kentucky episode of “Top Chef” after landing in the bottom three last week with her corny bread pudding? Bravo David Moir/Bravo

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.

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No bottled hot sauce: Head judge Tom Colicchio, with guest judge Ouita Michel, disshed chef Adrienne Wright for her use of bottled hot sauce last week. Which was ironic given the whole waffle mix flap she had with Sara the week before. Bravo David Moir/Bravo

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.”

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Chef Justin Sutherland, with head judge Tom Colicchio and guest judge Lexington chef Ouita Michel, landed in the bottom three last week with his underdone seafood soup. Can he get it back together for the “Kentucky Farewell?” Bravo David Moir/Bravo

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.”

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Chef Eric Adjepong looks like the one to beat at this point on “Top Chef” Kentucky. How will he fare at Keeneland? Bravo David Moir/Bravo

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.

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Will Kentucky chef Sarah Bradley keep playing to her strengths? She won the fried chicken Quickfire last week and almost won the Elimination challenge with her fresh pickle salad and salmon. She’s got a shot to got to Macau. Bravo David Moir/Bravo

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.”

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The “Top Chef” judges have their harse faces on for the judging of the “Kentucky Farewell” episode, from left chef Ouita Michel, judge Graham Elliot, host Padma Lakshmi, head judge Tom Colicchio and judge Gail Simmons. Bravo David Moir/Bravo

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.

Yum??

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.

Teams led by internationally renowned chefs Fred Morin and Taria Camerino prepared dishes to be judged by two cancer patients during the International Society of Neurogastronomy Symposium at The Food Connection Kitchen at "The 90" at UK. The resul

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Janet Patton covers restaurants, bars, food and bourbon for the Herald-Leader. She is an award-winning business reporter who also has covered agriculture, gambling, horses and hemp.
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