Nothing goes with basketball like great food. And the “Top Chef” Kentucky episode at Rupp Arena is the perfect crossover: You get great chefs, including one from Paducah, plus Coach Cal as a judge, with a cameo by UK great Kenny “Sky” Walker, and even the crowd, cheering the teams on.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, it’s “Top Chef” so you know something will.
For this episode the Quickfire guest judge is chef Ed Lee, a “Top Chef” alum and James Beard nominated chef who owns restaurants in Louisville, including 610 Magnolia. And the challenge is very Kentucky: They have to puzzle out a way to break into the Fort Knox of bouillon cubes that will be the only seasoning they can use for their dishes.
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The seven chefs have fun making a wide range of dishes with vegetable, beef and chicken bouillon. Some have a good grasp of how salty it can be. After Ed and Padma sample their efforts, the least favorites are Michelle’s fritto misto, which isn’t seasoned enough, and Justin’s chorizo and clams, which is much too salty.
The favorites are Kentucky Sara’s roasted monkfish, Eric’s grilled eggplant and Eddie’s all-gold poached bay scallops.
Eddie wins giving him “an incredible advantage,” Padma says. Eddie can’t quite believe her when he hears that he won’t even have to cook for this elimination challenge. That’s right, he’s safe. Eddie’s so relaxed he just eats for the rest of the episode.
Meanwhile, the other six have to sort themselves into teams for a three on three challenge, at iconic Rupp Arena, with Coach Cal as one of the judges.
Sara, Justin and Eric are so excited they can barely stand it to be heading to this hallowed hall of basketball.
The teams end up with Sara, Kelsey and Michelle on the Blue team and Justin, Eric and Adrienne on White. Although they aren’t given explicit themes, both teams aim for elevated fan food.
“The biggest thing with arena food is it has to be extremely flavorful,” says Justin. “You want things that are salty ... and sweet. And it’s not that often you get to make a burger or chicken wings on ‘Top Chef.’ This is setting up to be my favorite challenge to date.”
They draw up game plans and dash to Whole Foods in Lexington, where it becomes apparent that both Sara and Adrienne are going to make chicken and waffles.
The camera captures a crucial moment: Sara decides to use Whole Foods’ organic waffle and pancake mix as a base for her waffles, rather than make them from scratch, something Adrienne clearly plans to do.
Sara is supremely confident of her chicken: “I can fry chicken like nobody else. I call it tobacco chicken. It’s a play on, like, tobacco onions. You soak the chicken in hot sauce and buttermilk, and then you dredge them and deep fry them.”
Adrienne says she suspects that Sara’s making chicken and waffles too, when she sees her taking the bags of mix off the shelf: “I just know a box mix is never going to be as good as a homemade waffle,” Adrienna says.
Meanwhile, Kelsey is preparing dumplings, which she says are her “best kept secret.” And Michelle is going with ribs, which she says are her specialty.
Eric is getting drummers for his tamarind-glaze “chicken wings” and Justin is creating a pimento cheese “juicy Lucy,” a cheese-stuffed burger that he makes back home in Minnesota. But Justin decided to go open-faced when he can’t find the right slider buns.
“Not going to do bread for the sake of bread,” Justin says.
At Rupp, things get real when they see their former competitors there to help prepare the food. Caitlin and Brian help out the White team while Kevin and David prep for the Blue.
Then Tom comes in with Ed Lee to ask what they are making and starts stirring things up.
“So, you made your own waffle batter and the whole bit? No box mix here,” Tom asks Adrienne, with a sly look.
“Would I come on ‘Top Chef’ to use box mix? I don’t think so.” Adrienne replies.
But Tom is still goading. “You’d be surprised,” he says.
So Adrienne lets fly with this: “I don’t want to throw anybody under the bus. I may have seen some on the other competitors ... I don’t know what their game plan is for it.”
“I think you just backed that bus right up over them,” Tom chortles.
Adrienne asks Sara if they are going to have a “chicken and waffle-off?” Sara says she’s game to go head-to-head, which could set the stage for a dramatic challenge.
But Michelle’s ribs need more time, and Sara’s fryer isn’t working. So they will have to fry on the courtside, leaving Kelsey as the only one on Blue team ready to go.
Meanwhile, Adrienne has to go first, because her White teammates aren’t ready either.
As the chefs come out to the court, it’s overwhelming ... the smoke, the cheering, the lights, Coach Cal ... it’s an amazing scene.
“I wish this happened every time I walked into work,” Justin says. (Don’t we all?)
The crowd is really into it, cheering for Sara, “the hometown favorite,” Padma says.
I think for a lot of people, this is the part of the show they will enjoy most: Scanning for themselves in the crowd.
The first matchup is Kelsey, with her Kentucky Proud dumpling, and Adrienne, with her chicken and waffle. (I got to taste the dumpling and it was terrific.)
Padma asks Coach Cal what he thinks: “What if I really like them both?”
Tom says they are both terrific dishes. The voting is split but Kelsey’s dumpling takes the win, four to two.
Next up are Eric, with his tamarind glazed drumette with herbed confetti, and Sara, with her “BBN chicken and waffles.”
“What does BBN stand for?” Padma asks. “Big Blue Nation,” says Sara. That gets a big cheer.
Now Tom puts it to her: “I have a question, Sara. There was some trash talkin’ from the White team that you made a boxed waffle?”
She’s honest: “We got the box stuff.”
And Justin and Eric start the crowd with a cheer, “Homemade! Homemade!”
Although the episode doesn’t show it, Adrienne was taunted by the Rupp crowd, too. The crowd behind Sara chanted, “Better chicken! Better chicken!” in response to the “Box waffle!” side.
Sara, clearly taken aback and hurt, tries to defend her waffles, saying they are still homemade.
Still, “getting heckled on the floor of Rupp is horrible for me. These are not box waffles, but I’m thinking those waffles are probably going to send me home,” Sara says.
Tom says the chicken is fantastic, as is the cole slaw but waffle is soft. Ed loves the chicken, too.
But in the end it’s a sweep for the White team. (Some fans may remember Eric throwing leftover wings into the crowd, where they seemed to be a big hit.)
Now, Michelle says, it’s all riding on her ribs. But they can’t beat out Justin’s “Juicy Lucy,” which the judges love even more for not having a bun. The White team takes the challenge.
In the locker room, things get harsh between Adrienne and Sara and it’s hard to see them coming back from this as tight friends.
At Judges’ Table, the winner is Eric, who “showed us technique then elevated it to a level that was mind-boggling.”
When it comes to the losing team, it’s emotional for Sara to talk about how overwhelming it was to be in Rupp and defend her dish. Because Kelsey won her challenge, it’s down to Sara and Michelle. The judges say her ribs were wet, although the sauce was good.
In the end, Tom says, it’s about the fundamentals. And it turns out that the basic that blew it was ... ribs.
Michelle is sent to pack her knives, a big shock after last week’s win. She vows to fight on “Last Chance Kitchen” for a comeback.
Next week, the chefs finally take on the classic “Kentucky Fried Chicken” ... and it’s going to be a rematch between Adrienne and Sara over who has the best fried chicken.
Then the chefs have a big challenge: “You will celebrate the life and career of Muhammad Ali with your food.” Whoa.
Who can deliver that knock out punch? Stay tuned; “Top Chef” airs 8 p.m. Thursday on Bravo.