How did Kentucky, a state known the world over for fast-food fried chicken, land the most sophisticated culinary show on reality television?
By baiting the hook with beautiful horses and bourbon, then reeling it in with beer cheese, a slice or two of Miguel's Pizza, homemade marshmallows, fresh-caught fish, 2-year-old country ham and 25-year-old Pappy Van Winkle, that's how.
The payoff will be exposure (the show averages more than 2 million total viewers) that will put Kentucky on the culinary tourism map. Already officials are preparing a Food and Wine official tour that will launch after the show airs this winter.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
What should the state expect?
"Batten down the hatches!" joked "Top Chef" host Padma Lakshmi.
"It’s a chance to show how specific and special and unique different parts of this country are. I think that’s what 'Top Chef' does for a city … It allows that city to show to a wider world ... what you can only experience if you actually were here," Lakshmi said. "It’s a chance for Kentucky to shine, to show itself in all its nuances rather than with a wide brush stroke of just clichés. To get to the deeper, more rooty local things."
The quest for exposure started in 2016 when Kristen Branscum became the state travel and tourism commissioner. She noticed that Kentucky wasn't getting a lot of culinary love.
And, she was tired of going to conferences and seeing the same foods highlighted.
"It’s all about shrimp and grits … or gumbo and beignets," Branscum said. "Where’s our food?"
With a background in agriculture, Branscum knew Kentucky had the goods, so she started looking for the best way to showcase what the state's farmers and producers were doing. And in August 2016 in Florida, she found it.
"I was at a conference, and one of the producers for 'Top Chef' was on a panel with Art Smith, Oprah’s chef, talking about culinary tourism," Branscum said. She managed to get the producer's last business card.
"I thought, 'I’m going to take a swing at this.' I invited her to the Kentucky Derby," Branscum said. Early on in a May 2017 visit, she told the producer "you know I want 'Top Chef' here. We'll talk when you're ready. For now, I just want you to have a good time, enjoy Kentucky."
"They just really were blown away," Branscum said. "They had a great weekend. On the way back home, she slid over next to me on the bus, and said, 'I think we’ve got something here.'"
That fall, she said, the producers for Magical Elves, which creates "Top Chef," asked if Branscum could put together a week before Thanksgiving highlighting the state to help them narrow their choices.
"We had five days to showcase everything we have. I did a hit list: beer cheese, burgoo, country ham … and some of the iconic Kentucky places you have to see, and a list of chefs and restaurants who are up-and-coming and knew the Kentucky culinary story."
"Top Chef" executive producer Doneen Arquines, who was on that trip, came to Kentucky slightly skeptical. She worried the state wouldn't have enough to make a whole season out of.
"I didn’t really know what to expect," Arquines said. "I had no frame of reference other than the Derby and bourbon. It was all kind of new and different to me."
That changed after the whirlwind tour. Show officials announced this February that they were coming to Kentucky. And it certainly helped that state tourism officials earlier this year approved up to $3.5 million in tax incentives for the show, which is expected to cost about $10.5 million to shoot.
But back to the tour ... "I got to see Kentucky in a way a lot of Kentuckians probably haven’t even experienced Kentucky," Arquines said. "I got to see a lot of the state in a very short time. ... We hit all of the spots, went everywhere, got to experience a lot, from going to Churchill Downs and Keeneland to checking out the Red River Gorge, Lake Cumberland and all these different areas. ... I had no idea there was such a huge lake in Kentucky."
Branscum and Mary Quinn Ramer, president of VisitLex, plotted a route to expose them to as much Kentucky cuisine as possible.
Branscum told no one who the special guests were; she called people up and said, can I bring some people by?
"I just said, 'I wouldn’t ask you if it wasn’t a big deal, and great for Kentucky," she explained.
And Kentuckians rolled out the culinary carpet.
(After the news was announced in February about "Top Chef" filming in the state people realized that they'd been part of the top-secret mission. Many have been thanked with invitations to come to "Top Chef" events.)
The group started in Louisville, where they began with a classic hot Brown and a classic Seelbach cocktail, then Copper and Kings brandy distillery and the hip places of NuLu, whipped through the Frazier History Museum's Prohibition exhibit, Louisville Slugger Museum, Ali Center, Butchertown Grocery, Cellar Door Chocolates and Bourbon Barrel Foods.
They got a behind-the-scenes tour of Castle & Key distillery outside Versailles, saw Keeneland and the November sales to sample burgoo, visited Old Friends Farm to feed carrots to Little Silver Charm, toured Gainesway and met top stallion Tapit, drove by the Henry Clay Estate, came to the Pepper campus for dinner at Middle Fork Kitchen Bar and dessert at Crank & Boom. At Gilkison Farm in Winchester they learned about Kentucky's farmers, met Graze chef Craig DeVilliers and had a beer cheese sampling, then toured the Ale-8-One plant before heading to the Red River Gorge to eat at Miguels Pizza.
Michel was one of the few people who knew the stakes. She told Holly Hill Inn chef Tyler McNabb, "Just trust me, cook the meal of your life. Get out the good country ham."
They made beaten biscuits to go with it, and got out the secret bourbon list, the really good stuff that they don’t put out on the shelf.
And the food, the bourbon and the setting wowed them.
"When you drive up on it, coming from LA, it’s pretty damn magical ," Michel said. "I think people don’t recognize it for the vulnerable beauty that it is. It's this beautiful old house, with twinkling lights … they were just stunned."
And while they were in that magical glow, Michel talked about local agriculture, the bourbon industry and local farmers.
"That’s my thing and it's the way I express Kentucky cuisine. And I wanted to impress upon them that one of Kentucky’s strengths is authenticity," she said. "Authentic expression and biographical story is what they are really about. I watch every episode of that show. I’m a superfan. Them coming to Kentucky is my dream."
The next day, Branscum took the group to the Beaumont Inn, where Dixon Dedman told them about Kentucky Owl bourbon, and to Shaker Village for Shaker lemon pie and a horse-drawn tour. Then the group visited Wilderness Trail Distillery, where she arranged a special treat.
"I wanted to show them sorghum … and Wilderness Trail Distillery is using sorghum in their rum," she said. So she called Townsend Sorghum.
"Danny Townsend gets sorghum and throws it in the back of his truck and comes over to Danville," Branscum said. They tried the rum, toured the distillery and got samples of sorghum.
Finally, she took them to Lake Cumberland for a fireside dinner on a private island. They had fresh-caught fish and s'mores made with homemade marshmallows while they listened to live bluegrass music. They stayed overnight on a houseboat and had goetta for breakfast.
When did Branscum know she had won them over?
"I don’t know if I ever did, but when you’re sitting there in a gorgeous night by a still lake, around a campfire and listening to a bluegrass band, you know you did everything you could to get (the show) there," she said. "The whole trip just made me really happy and proud of my state. Everybody just pulled together and made it happen."
After a second breakfast of chicken and biscuits at 21c in Lexington, the producers visited West Sixth Brewery and FoodChain, then headed to The Summit at Fritz Farm where they sampled the local fare in The Barn before flying out.
"I think they were happily surprised by the diversity that they saw," Ramer said. "And I think they were clearly smitten with the landscape, the rolling hills, the horses … We took them to a couple of different farms and had an opportunity to give them those stunning vistas."
The producers were impressed.
"I didn’t know anything about burgoo, or goetta, or hot Browns. I’d never heard of any of it" Arquines said. "So knowing and finding out that there’s really cool, specific regional cuisine here that’s different from anywhere else that made it cool and special. If feels like its moving into a really cool new and different direction."
Many of the sites they scouted will be on the show.
"The landscape is also interesting to me," Arquines said. "Being in Lexingtonand seeing all the horse farms and rolling hills, being in Louisville and right on the river … and when we go out to the lake, it will be really interesting."
Chef Michel said she thinks the producers were surprised that Kentucky won them over.
"I think they were surprised at themselves, that they chose it. We’re a more rural state and not on their radar … but this is why I think Kristen landed the whale," Michel said. "Kentucky will be on TV. And not be stereotyped. I feel like this is a change in the narrative of what we’re about in the state."
Branscum said it's going to be "huge" for the state. "We get to showcase everything we have," she said.
After the show airs, , Food and Wine, which is a "Top Chef" partner, will do for Kentucky what it has done for Colorado and create an Ultimate Tour so fans can come here and relive the fun.
Branscum said she has tried to get a feel for what the economic impact could be.
"It’s not for lack of asking a lot of destinations that have had 'Top Chef' before," she said. "Pretty much they, all of them, said it is such an impact none of us could buy this exposure and it would be ridiculous to spend money measuring it. The media value is astronomical. No state tourism office could buy that kind of advertising."
The food narrative, with the backdrop of bourbon, that appealed to the show will be a big hook for many viewers, too, Ramer said. She said other locations have seen an immediate connection between the show and devotees who plan travel around it.
"I think it’s going to generate a tremendous amount of buzz," she said. "It’s hard to isolate just 'Top Chef' but if you take what’s happen in the last year – stories in Vogue, Southern Living, and now 'Top Chef' … all of that is adding to the cachet. ... And I think that will translate into bookings."
Chef Karen Akunowicz, who was a former "Top Chef" contestant and is a guest judge for one of this season's challenges, said she was pleasantly surprised by Kentucky's food scene.
"I don’t know that I would have thought of it right away. But it makes sense to me. Fantastic food, fantastic drinks … I think Kentucky is some place where you’re here to eat, you’re here to drink, you’re here to have a great time …so for me it makes a lot of sense to be set here," she said.
And she expects a lot more people will think so after "Top Chef" highlights the state.
"'Top Chef' is really a well-watched show, kind of an institution," she said. "Whether they're at Maker’s Mark or Churchill Downs or wherever it is you’re getting snippets of the city, getting to see all those things, which makes it likely that you’ll say ‘that’s someplace that I’d want to go, that’s someplace I’d want to visit. I want to go on the Bourbon Trail, or I want to eat hot chicken or whatever it is.’
"I think 'Top Chef' could have a huge impact on that."