Chef Sara Bradley on competing in Top Chef: ‘I would do it again in a heartbeat’
Three chefs walked into the MGM theater in Macau on Thursday’s finale but by the end of the show, only one was left standing.
The finale opened with Kentucky’s Sara Bradley, Kelsey Barnard Clark and Eric Adjepong viewing clips of their culinary journeys throughout the season. Each one had emotional highs and lows, although the clips graciously left out Sara’s infamous box-waffle incident at Rupp Arena.
As the chefs wiped away tears, host Padma Lakshmi and head judge Tom Colicchio stepped onstage in a cloud of smoke to explain how this would go down. At the end of last week’s show, he’d told them that only two would end up serving their final meal to the judges.
Now they learned they had to plan to make a four-course “meal of their lives” ... but Padma, Tom, Graham Elliot and Nilou Motamed would taste the first course. Whoever had the worst one would be immediately cut. (Sounds like wasted food to me ...)
The chefs got help for the finale (or the “fernale,” as Kelsey kept calling it): They got to pick two of their eliminated chefs to work with them as sous chef. Kelsey picked Brandon and Nini. Eric went for Justin and Michelle. And Sara chose Eddie and David.
The planning started, then they shopped for local and imported ingredients; they also could special order items through the hotel and it turns out that they were allowed to bring some stuff from home.
Eric plans to serve a four-course meal that explored the transatlantic slave trade, mingling the flavors of his West African roots with the Caribbean and other influences.
His opener: Jerk beef tartare. He wants to hit the judges over the head with flavor.
Both Kelsey and Sara will play up their Southern style but in slightly different ways.
Kelsey says she’s going for “summer in the South,” mixed with influences of Macau.
Her opener: Buttermilk and cornbread, a kind of Southern “snack” that she will elevate with subtle fruity flavors.
Sara is going for “a little Asian, a little Portuguese, but very Southern.”
Her opener: Chili prawns with boiled peanuts, reminiscent of family trips to South Carolina.
In execution, things get tricky. Kelsey’s hauled her grandmother’s cast iron cornbread stick pan to Macau and is using her family recipe but Nini struggles to get it right. The first batch goes in the trash before they figured it out.
Sara’s worried about those boiled peanuts but it comes out ok.
At Justin’s urging, Eric just keeps adding more and more spice; meanwhile Michelle fries his lotus chips.
At judges’ table, they all earn praise.
“All season long, all three of you really cooked your hearts out, going back to this emotional connection you have to your food,” Tom says. “Sara, talking about a low-country boil, then connecting chili shrimp as well, and then taking the peanuts. ... But it all works, it feels organic.
“Kelsey, starting with something very simple from your grandmother’s house, buttermilk and biscuits (cornbread, Tom!) and then creating something that comes from the heart ...
“Eric, all season long, teaching us about West African food. We’re just so thrilled you got to share what’s in your heart with us,” he says.
In the end, Eric’s teammates do him in. An emotional Padma tells him to pack his knives. Tom says they just couldn’t taste the beef (thanks, Justin) and the lotus chips (ahem, Michelle) were burned.
So it’s the besties (friendship bracelets!) Southern belle showdown: Kelsey vs. Sara, Roll Tide and Go Big Blue, and may the best chef win.
As Tom tells them, they keep talking about Southern cooking but clearly they are transcending that. And what they are doing feels right, he says.
They celebrate with an intimidating ultra posh meal in the hotel’s restaurant, Aji, where the chef will be one of the judges.
The next day, Kelsey is up first, cooking for a stellar panel of guest judges including Dan Hong, Aji chef Mitsuharu Tsumura, Alvin Leung, Alexander Smalls and May Chow. And an editor from Food & Wine magazine.
Everyone sparkles; Graham’s sequined jacket is almost overpowered by Alvin Leung’s rhinestone boots.
Both Kelsey and Sara had a bit of advice from Tom and Graham during the kitchen walk-through and they’ve adjusted their recipes slightly. (Duh, if Tom tells you to add herbal notes, you add herbs, Sara says.)
Kelsey’s opening dish of buttermilk and cornbread has been enhanced with crawfish, for just a little bit of extra. One of my favorite moments: Kelsey explaining you have to crumble the cornbread and then pour the buttermilk over it.
Alexander Smalls says she got that cornbread right, which is high praise. Everybody loves this dish, even more than yesterday.
Next up: Kelsey’s warm vichyssoise, served elegantly in oyster shells, with a tee-tiny cheese straw cracker on top of a raw oyster for Southern oomph.
This is the dish that gets the magic “one of the best dishes I’ve eaten this year” comment from chef Mitsuharu Tsumura.
Kelsey then brings out her soft shelled crabs, which have been a bit worrisome. The judges aren’t digging this dish. They think her crabs are frozen, not fresh, and it just isn’t a cohesive dish for some.
Finally, it’s deconstructed peach cobbler for dessert. We know Kelsey rules dessert, and this is a masterpiece, with dabs of fancy honeysuckle ice cream and szechuan peppercorn whipped cream. (The fact that Kelsey turned Nini loose on that ice cream after the Restaurant Wars debacle either shows she’s a forgiving soul. Or forgetful.)
“It’s a love letter to peaches and cream,” Padma says.
For some judges, it’s a bit too much but others declare it has “moments of pure brilliance.”
After an emotional farewell from Kelsey, it’s Sara’s turn.
And she’s made a very bold choice: No dessert. Instead, she’s going to cook “vegetables and meat really well.”
It’s a risky but possibly smart strategy. Kelsey’s desserts are killer. By going a different direction, Sara avoids a direct comparison that she might not be able to win.
She launches with the chili prawn and boiled peanuts, this time with lots fresh herbs on top. And that’s a big win.
But she’s worried about her second course, bacon and corn. (You knew there would be fresh corn, right?) Will it be too salty if she sears it?
She hopes to cut it with the acidity of the pickled peaches. But she just can’t shut up about it to the judges! Some say it’s too salty but Tom and Dan Hong aren’t fussed.
For her third dish, it’s duck with black-eyed peas and pickled beets. The duck is “sexy” and the pickled beet a wow but for once, Sara’s blown it on the beans.
For the big finish, it’s “dirty rice,” with a dry-aged ribeye. She’s brought the Carolina gold rice from home just for this. And, boy, do they love that beef! And that rice! Nobody’s missing dessert.
“Mic drop!” Graham declares. “Boosh!” says Nilou. Is it enough?
At judges’ table, there are raves: Of Kelsey’s cornbread and buttermilk, Tom says: “This is the dish I’ll remember you for.” Sara’s final dish “was damn near perfect,” Tom says.
And rants. Of Sara’s bacon: “It didn’t feel like you,” he says. She agrees.
And Kelsey’s dessert was either too sweet or too honeysuckley, depending on who you ask.
Still, they should both feel like the winners they are, Padma says, because “There will be millions of little girls all over the world who will see how you have done, how you’ve struggled and how you’ve made it all the way from back home to here in Macau. I’m so happy I got to be here to taste it and to watch it.”
Behind the scenes, Sara and Kelsey stew it over: They think that Sara has first course, Kelsey has second, neither has third and it’s split over fourth course.
Seems like they are right. Both chefs had some great food, and both missed the boat on one dish.
Who will it be?
“Top Chef” brings them back in again to the judges, this time with all the chefs as well as Sara and Kelsey’s husbands and mothers on hand.
It’s the big moment. Tom tells them that one will win but both will go on to amazing careers.
Then Padma gives the verdict: A speechless Kelsey’s named Top Chef, and she gets the Miss America first-runner-up kiss from Sara.
“I came into this competition labeled as ‘the local girl,’ but I think I’m leaving as so much more,” Sara says. “Second place is not that bad.”
If she had to lose, she’s happy it was to her pal, Kelsey, she says.
The show closes with Kelsey’s joyful reunion with her toddler son, Monroe. She’s proud he can see her fall down and get up “and learn from yesterday,” she says. “There is no greater lesson.”