‘Top Chef’ Kentucky finale: Did the right chef win in Macau showdown?

Chef Sara Bradley on competing in Top Chef: ‘I would do it again in a heartbeat’

Sara Bradley, contestant of Top Chef from Paducah, spoke with show judges Ouita Michel and Graham Elliot about her experiences in competing on the show.
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Sara Bradley, contestant of Top Chef from Paducah, spoke with show judges Ouita Michel and Graham Elliot about her experiences in competing on the show.

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.

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For the “Top Chef” Kentucky finale, with host Padma Lakshmi and head judge Tom Colicchio explain how one of the three chefs will be cut. Bravo Carmo Correia/Bravo

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 ...)

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“Top Chef” final three contestant Kelsey Barnard Clark strategizes with chefs Brandon Rosen and Nini Nguyen ahead of the final competition. Bravo Carmo Correia/Bravo

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.

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Looks like “Top Chef’s Eric Adjepong is doing some menu planning with his chef pals Justin Sutherland and Michelle Minori. Bravo Carmo Correia/Bravo

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.”

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Kentucky’s Sara Bradley shops for who knows what with her eliminated teammates, including David Viana and Eddie Konrad, as she preps for the final competition. Bravo Carmo Correia/Bravo

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.

Chef Eric Adjepong planned a four-course meal representing the transatlantic slave trade. But his first course, a jerk beef tartare with fried lotus root chips, was the judges least favorite, so he was cut at the final moment.

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.

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Kelsey presented her four-courses first to the judges in Macau on Thursday night’s finale of “Top Chef” Kentucky. Bravo Carmo Correia/Bravo

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.

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The finale’s guest judges include a who’s-who of Asian cuisine including Dan Hong, Mitsuharu Tsumura, Alvin Leung, Alexander Smalls and May Chow, plus host Padma Lakshmi, head judge Tom Colicchio and judges Nilou Motamed and Graham Elliot. Bravo Carmo Correia/Bravo

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.

Kelsey’s first course: Buttermilk and cornbread, with a fruit and crawfish component. The judges were blown away by the subtle flavor and her story. She brought her grandmother’s cast-iron cornbread sticks pan to Macau in her suitcase. Bravo Carmo Correia/Bravo

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.

Kelsey’s second course: Warm vichyssoise in oyster shells, with a tiny cheese biscuit between a raw oyster and a dab of caviar. This was what one judge called one of the best dishes he’d had all year. Bravo Carmo Correia/Bravo

This is the dish that gets the magic “one of the best dishes I’ve eaten this year” comment from chef Mitsuharu Tsumura.

Kelsey’s third course: Soft-shelled crab, with field peas and a pistou dipping sauce. This was the one dish that really gave her trouble and the judges didn’t all care for it. Some thought the crab wasn’t very good or fresh. Bravo Carmo Correia/Bravo

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.)

Kelsey’s final course: Deconstructed peach cobbler, with fancy dabs of cream. The judges weren’t all sure about the honeysuckle ice cream or szechuan peppercorn whipped cream. Bravo Carmo Correia/Bravo

“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.

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Kentucky’s Sara Bradley was the other chef who made to the final cook-off. She presented her four-course meal second to the judges in Macau on last night’s finale. Bravo Carmo Correia/Bravo

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.

Sara’s first course: Chili prawn with boiled peanuts, reminiscent of her family trips to the beach in South Carolina, where they’d get boiled peanuts and make a low-country shrimp boil. Bravo Carmo Correia/Bravo

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?

Sara’s second course: Bacon and fresh corn with pickled peaches, didn’t go over so great. The bacon wasn’t what Sara was expecting and the judges weren’t sure about the saffron she used to suggest the Portuguese influence of Macau. “This didn’t seem like you,” Tom said. Bravo Carmo Correia/Bravo

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.

Sara’s third course: Duck, with pickled beet and black-eye peas. The duck was “sexy,” the judges said, and the beet was a wow. But the peas weren’t so great, for once. Bravo Carmo Correia/Bravo

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.

Sara’s final course: She skipped dessert, opting for a rib-eye with Carolina gold “dirty rice” she’d brought from home, with mushrooms. The judges declared it a “mic drop” dish. Bravo Carmo Correia/Bravo

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.

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“Top Chef” judge Nilou Motamed, host Padma Lakshmi, head judge Tom Colicchio and judge Graham Elliot named the winner of “Top Chef” Kentucky after a 90-minute show featuring some phenomenal food. Bravo Carmo Correia/Bravo

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.

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TOP CHEF -- Episode 1615 -- Pictured: (l-r) -- (Photo by: Carmo Correia/Bravo) Bravo Carmo Correia/Bravo

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.

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After host Padma Lakshmi announced that Kelsey was this season’s Top Chef, Sara gave her a big kiss on the cheek, as their husbands and mothers watched. Bravo Carmo Correia/Bravo

“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.

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“Top Chef” Kentucky judge Nilou Motamed, host Padma Lakshmi, head judge Tom Colicchio and judge Graham Elliot with season 16 winner Kelsey Barnard Clark of Dothan, Ala. Bravo Carmo Correia/Bravo

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.”

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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