Top Chef season 16, episode 1 review: Kentucky is lighting up the competition


Top Chef has long reigned as the premier cooking reality show competition. Top Chef: Kentucky marks the 16th season, and promises to bring a more down-home feel than some previous years. Padma Lakshmi will again lead Top Chef while touring the Bluegrass State.

Padma Lakshmi, Top Chef‘s always graceful host, returns to lead the show along with panel judges Tom Colicchio, Graham Elliot, and Nilou Motamed.

This season has three returning contestants from the past two seasons. Carrie Baird and Brother Luck return from Season 15 while the Jim Smith from Montgomery, Alabama represents Season 14 and one of three boasting southern chops.

Carrie Baird finished fourth in Season 15 and Brother Luck finished 10th that season. The judges have all mentioned how great the first impressions have been this season. A tougher level of competition means Luck may run out sooner rather than later. Jim Smith finished 10th in season 14.

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The two other competing chefs hailing from the south are Sara Bradley (Paducah, Kentucky) and Kelsey Bernard Clark (Dothan, Alabama). Pablo Limon is from Miami Beach, which is decidedly not the South as known to the residents of the Kentucky bluegrass hills.

The first episode opened at Churchill Downs, with the chefs quickly thrown to the fire. Working in teams of three they were given two minutes to prep. The Kentucky Derby has the reputation of ‘The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports.’

The winning team of the quickfire challenge was Justin Sunderland (St. Paul, Minnesota), Pablo Lamon (Miami Beach), and Sara Bradley (Kentucky) with a Beet Pickled Poached Egg, Beef Fat and Roasted Carrots, Roasted Corn, Mint & Carrot Top dish.

The elimination challenge required the aspiring Top Chef‘s to host a Kentucky Derby-themed party for 200 guests. The groups remained the same, but now they were competing only against each other instead of working together.

The chefs were judged on a win-place-show scale, with a ‘show’ meaning the chef had to show up from elimination. In the end, Natalie Maronski (Philadelphia) won big with her Halibut Ceviche with Pickled Bell Peppers, Confit Potatoes & Laksa Curry. Eliminated was Caitlin Steininger (Cinncinatti) after producing a Tomato Cobbler with Salt & Pepper Biscuits & Homemade Ricotta.

All of that is fine, but the Derby is also about gambling and drinking. Bumping into Padma, in a good way with no spilled mint juleps, just makes the day even better.

It’s impossible to taste the food and if some attempts in my kitchen are any example, some of the dishes are impossible to make. Maybe with more time, patience, and specialized tools, perhaps.

Fans of Top Chef can start taking sides and placing bets, however. Those two admittedly forgetful chefs, Kelsey and Eddie, always susceptible to misplacing a necessary tool or ingredient? Not going to be 9/2 front-runners on the tote board. Both are at 100/1 odds to make the final.

Those holding Steininger tickets, hold on to them. Kentucky has plenty of bourbons, and this could get rowdy. Replacement jockeys are needed all the time, and the horse gets scratched for many reasons.

Pablo, Justin, and Sara earned top half billing just based on teamwork and the obvious enjoyment of their dishes by the judges. Pablo and David also impressed in both cooking sessions.

Brandon Viani came off assertive, but not in the way that will endear him to the other competitors. If he is too set in his ways, and trying to dictate to others, a dish will fail him at the wrong time. If he refuses to learn from a mistake after being given a pass from the judges, he will be sent packing.

Natalie was reserved, quiet, and also the winner of the challenge in the end. She seems to be a rejuvenated vet coming back fresh from a mind-clearing retreat, based on her introduction. Eric is hustle and academic execution, which is enough to carry any contestant to 7th or 8th.

Justin showed confidence in a perfectly Kentucky fashion, making him a dark horse for Top Chef champ, but only fourth in the initial handicapping. 42-1 seems appropriate given his current state of being “probably about 60 percent bourbon, 20 percent pot, and 40 percent fried food, and a whole lot of sexy.”

Adrienne needs help if her pasta work is an indication of future work. Running restaurants is far different from being the only chef in the kitchen. Help is not coming, and teams are fragile on Top Chef.

Natalie, Nini, and David are the front-runners for my money. Nini being from New Orleans and having a background that reaches beyond fancy southern food will help her through any challenge. Natalie has the well-traveled military family background and a fresh look on cooking.

David just seemed to have more information than he knew what to do with at the time. As he settles into the show, he should find ways to get those ideas on to the plate. David seems to be not so sure a good bit of the time but in spite of his back and forth nature, his soup dish is one of Colicchio’s favorites.

Pablo leads the second tier of favorites. Pablo presented dishes that popped, and that will be needed to add twist throughout the season.

Brandon seems too sure of himself and did not fare as well. Brandon gives some confidence, but it might be the wrong kind.

The early rankings for Top Chef would be:

Natalie Maronski – won the first episode, on the right track.

Nini Nguyen – New Orleans and the Bronx? Gentle will keep her nerves under pressure.

David Viana – Chef as a second career, fresh outlook, raised on Top Chef.

Pablo Lamon – great presentation, works with Top Chef winner, Miami flavors galore.

Eric Adjepong – West African influences in soul food and worked with Top Chef winners.

Sara Bradley- knows the farm, knows the fancy.

Justin Sutherland- 60% Bourbon, 20% Pot, 20% Fried Food. 100% Sexy. Just ask him.

Carrie – Might have a chance, if she can build on her past season’s top half finish.

Brain Young – Boston based, but not enough airtime to judge. The tepid response from judges.

Eric – If the judges already don’t like your ricotta…

Brother Luck – Returning from last season’s 10th place, and this season is tough.

Jim Smith – Another also ran from a previous season trying to prove better.

Kelsey Barnard Clark- dressed up Southern flair, with a dash of forgetfulness.

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Michelle Minori- Lot of pasta in her past, how will she fare with Appalachian aperitifs?

Kevin Scharph- well traveled, farm to table friendly, but in over his head perhaps?

Brandon Rosen – does not play well with others.

Adrienne – seemed to lack seasoning but had the temps right. Barely made the timers.

Have a favorite already? Say why in the comments. Need to find a favorite? Watch Top Chef on Bravo Thursday’s at 8.