As you’ve surely heard by now, this season of Top Chef takes place in Kentucky, and as the resident reality TV expert here at KSR, I’ve taken on the task of recapping each episode to see how our beloved Bluegrass is portrayed. Last night was the season premiere, and, predictably, the state’s most famous event, the Kentucky Derby, was the theme. To the recap!
After a typical Kentucky B-roll (horses running, lakes, Louisville), we see the chefs walk out of the tunnel at Churchill Downs. In a wonderful bit of foreshadowing, Caitlin from Cincinnati says she hopes she doesn’t trip in horse poop. Oh, Caitlin. Horse poop is the least of your worries in this episode. Once by the track, they’re greeted by Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi, the latter in a strapless denim dress, because she’s in Kentucky but she’s also a renowned TV host, actress, model, author, executive producer, and ex-wife of Salman Rushdie, y’all.
After Churchill Downs Bugler Steve Buttleman does his thing, Tom and Padma welcome the chefs to Louisville and we learn there’s a Kentucky girl in the competition. Sara Bradley of Paducah is immediately my favorite chef because she admits that the only time she’s been to Churchill, she was in the infield and drunk. Same, girl. Same.
Right away, Tom and Padma introduce the episode’s Quickfire Challenge, which is to make a meal in 22 minutes. The catch? They can only use their knives for the first two minutes, aka “The Fastest Two Minutes in Cooking” (Get it? Derby). The 15 contestants are split into five groups of three and they’re off!
Considering the constraints, each team pulls off a pretty impressive dish. The Green Team (Pablo, Justin, Sara) ends up winning, which is doubly impressive because they originally planned to grill a steak, but forgot they couldn’t use knives to cut it, so improvised with a poached egg. The prize? VIP tickets to next year’s Derby, which means Sara finally gets to upgrade from the infield and a “a big ass hat.” You go, Sara.
Staying with the Churchill Downs theme, the main challenge this week is to create a dish for a VIP Derby Party with 200 guests. The chefs will be pitted against the other members of their teams from the Quickfire Challenge, with the top dish earning a “win,” the second best a “place,” and the worst a “show.” (Get it? Horse racing.) The winners of each group will be in the running for top dish, while one of the losers will go home. The guest judge for the challenge is David Danielson, the Executive Chef of Churchill Downs.
After shopping at Whole Foods, the chefs get to their workspace for the first time, where Justin from Minnesota makes a beeline for the bourbon wall and takes over Sara’s spot as my favorite chef on the show.
“My body is 60% bourbon, 20% pot, 40% fried food and a whole lot of sexy,” he says.
I don’t have the heart to tell him that math doesn’t add up.
The next 30 minutes or so is just chefs cooking, but there is some drama when Adrienne messes up her tortellini and has to make fettuccini. David forgot flour, so he’s going to have to make potato soup instead of gnocchi. Meanwhile, Kelsey is super confident because she’s from Alabama which is basically Kentucky so she knows Southern food. Caitlin from Cincinnati is also confident in her dish because it’s a take on tomato pie, also a Southern staple.
The next day, the Top Chef Kentucky Derby party is on! Tom, Padma, fellow judge Graham Elliot, and guest judge David Danielson make the rounds, schmoozing with guests, including Mike Manganello, the winning jockey of the 1970 Kentucky Derby. No offense to Mr. Manganello, but is that the best VIP guest Top Chef could come up with? Was Joey Fatone busy or something? I digress. Mr. Manganello looked very happy to be included, especially since it was very obvious Padma wasn’t wearing a bra under her backless white jumpsuit.
The judging begins on a stage up front, while the guests awkwardly watch on. The “results” of each race are posted on a makeshift tote board, which the Churchill Bugler stands watch over (he’s really getting a lot of work this episode). The judges like Kelsey’s deviled eggs but hate Caitlin’s soggy tomato cobbler. Kevin’s beet salad with ricotta is boring. Natalie from Philadelphia wows the judges with her halibut ceviche. Adrienne’s fettuccine underwhelms. Tom says David’s gnocchi-turned-potato-soup is one of the best soups he’s ever had. Kentucky girl Sara put a Bluegrass twist on pork with Ale-8-One and bourbon, but the other dishes in her group were more inventive. Pablo’s tilapia with a green apple vinaigrette and sweet potato bourbon puree was a huge hit.
With the party over, the group moves to the official Judges’ Table, which is set up in front of some bourbon barrels. The Derby hats are off and it’s time for business. The judges tell the chefs they liked Natalie, Pablo, and David’s dishes the best, and Kevin, Caitlin, and Adrienne’s the least. (Kentucky girl Sara is safe for another week!) Natalie gets the W for her ceviche, which is kind of awesome because her ex is a big Top Chef fan and she came on the show as a big FU to him. Good for her.
After a clumsy horse racing/cooking analogy by Tom, the panel determines Caitlin’s soggy tomato cobbler is the worst dish of the three. Sorry, Caitlin. At least you didn’t trip in horse poop. I think.
My Old Kentucky Home Takes
— Easiest Top Chef: Kentucky drinking game ever: drink bourbon every time they say “bourbon.” You’ll get drunk!
— I have no idea where it is, but the house the chefs are staying in is a stunner:
And, as someone exclaims, it has a bidet, which means it’s FANCY.
— Brandon from California is going to be trouble. In the first episode alone, he tried to psych out Adrienne over her pasta problems AND walked on Brian’s bouffant turf. Whenever someone introduces themselves by saying, “I don’t want to be portrayed as the cocky guy,” they are totally the cocky guy. I had to cackle when guest judge David Danielson described his steak and polenta as the “picture of precision but there was nothing unbelievable about it.” Zing!
Next week: More bourbon! The chefs travel to the Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, where they’re challenged to make Kentucky dishes like spoonbread and burgoo. Don’t let us down, Sara!