The end is near, and just four chefs are left to battle it out for the title of Top Chef: Carrie Baird, Adrienne Cheatham, Joe Flamm and “Mustache” Joe Sasto. Anyone of them could win.
“I never thought in a million years I’d make it this far. I hoped, but I didn’t think. There’s a difference there,” declares an emphatic Baird, the Denver chef who was in the bottom two last week, along with her good friend Chris Scott, who was cut loose.
As the chefs stretch out in the back seats of their glam BMV SUVs, Baird wonders if the Quickfire Challenge is going to involve cooking for Oprah, as in THE Oprah. Baird bases her farfetched assumption on the fact that the billionaire TV mogul has a lavish hut somewhere in Telluride, which is where the chefs have been sequestered since departing Denver.
Who cares about Oprah? All we want to know is whether Baird is going to have another opportunity to strut her toast skills, and if Sasto is going to fling himself off the apex of a 12,000-foot-mountain if she does.
Neither of these things occurs. Instead, the SUVs kick up dust while snaking up a dirt road that leads to a high-altitude family ranch perched in what host Padma Lakshmi justifiably calls the “breathtaking Rocky Mountains of Telluride.”
Of course, Lakshmi isn't standing all by her lonesome out there in the boonies of the backcountry. “I’m sure you know these guys,” she announces, tipping her noggin toward the two familiar faces perched next to her. They’re none other than the Voltaggio brothers: Bryan, who was a contestant on Top Chef Masters and Michael, the title owner of Top Chef season six.
“This challenge is really going to take some balls,” quips Michael.
And herein Lakshmi uncovers a platter of Rocky Mountain oysters, otherwise known as bull testicles. Of course, “good things always come in pairs,” chimes Lakshmi, so instead of creating one ball-infused dish, the chefs are saddled with creating two. And the dishes have be “mouthwatering,” stresses Lakshmi. Oh, and she really “hopes that no one’s allergic to nuts.”
Cooking Rocky Mountain oysters isn’t easy. Even Baird, who reveals that she practiced her balls technique before Top Chef, admits that the orbs don’t have a lot of redeeming qualities: “They’re kind of chewy, kind of soft and kind of wet. Their texture is what’s off-putting, and there’s no fat,” she explains.
Baird decides to manipulate the texture of one testicle by pushing it through a grinder in order to make a pâté. Ballsy move. And here’s where we think toast might come into the equation. Nope. “I wouldn’t, like, spread it on toast or anything, quips the queen of toast. Baird tempura-fries the other testicle.
Sasto has never worked with Rocky Mountain oysters, so he breads them in cornflakes, while Flamm fries them and Cheatham drops the ball entirely…into a soup.
The cowbell rings. It’s suppertime!
After biting off more than they can chew, the Voltaggio siblings deliver their commentary: “I think the chefs did a pretty good job,” proclaims Bryan, who honestly doesn’t sound particularly enthused. According to Lakshmi, Flamm “hammered the protein,” so he’s in the bottom two, as is Baird, whose pâté, which she admittedly freewheeled, is deemed too livery. Lakshmi names the winner: It’s Sasto who, surmises Lakshmi, “treated the protein with the utmost respect, elevated it and gave us a beautiful plate.”
Sasto will get an advantage in the Elimination Challenge.
“Being here in beautiful Telluride, we thought you’d find inspiration up here in the mountains for your next challenge, so buckle up, because it’s going to be quite the ride,” warns Lakshmi.
The chefs hop into their BMW X5s and navigate lots of lovely forested roads before they’re dumped at the Observatory at Alta Lakes. “Why don’t you go into the cabin and explore?” encourages Lakshmi whose inflections make it sound like there’s nothing good lurking behind the door. Flamm is worried that there might be grizzly bears.
Instead, it’s their family members: ma, pa and grandma! After an emotional reunion, the chefs learn that their supportive kin have made them a home-cooked dinner incorporating dishes from their childhoods.
Baird’s mom, who lives in Arkansas, treated the fam to a weekly ritual of beef stroganoff. Flamm learned to cook from his grandmother, who was partial to rigatoni and meatballs. Sasto’s weepy father made a classic holiday meal of lasagna and pigs’ feet gravy to honor the memory of Sasto’s mother, who passed away from lung cancer. And Adrienne’s mom, it turns out, is a big proponent of gumbo.
But of course, there’s more to dinner than meets the eye. “As you guys may have guessed, your loved ones didn’t come here to slave away in the kitchen,” murmurs Lakshmi. This, she conveys, is the start of the Elimination Challenge.
“To make it to the final challenges in Aspen, we want you to take inspiration from the dish that your family member made today and create your own version of it. Show us where you’ve come from but also where you are now in our own evolution,” advises Lakshmi, methodically breaking down the challenge just in case the chefs didn’t see this one coming.
The chefs only get 90 minutes to wow their relatives and the judging panel, except Sasto, who gets two hours since he won the Quickfire Challenge.
Baird and her mom unwind with wine on the deck. “The hardest part of this challenge is the story,” muses Baird. “This dish is very personal. My dad and I made this dish a lot, and a big part of why I’m here is to make life better for my dad, who’s in assisted living,” shares Baird, adding that she’s going to have some “major PTSD” when her journey on Top Chef comes to a close.
Meanwhile, Sasto is struggling with commemorating his mother’s legacy. “This is going to be a really hard one to cook because it just represents so much, and to recreate it as my own just seems like something that shouldn’t be done,” laments a tearful Sasto.
For her part, Cheatham wonders how on earth she’s going to refashion gumbo in 90 minutes. Flamm just wants to keep it simple and impress his grandmother.
Back at their mountain cabin, the chefs exchange lots of hugs and Sasto vows to make his mom proud. This one’s a tearjerker.
Eliza Gaven, a former Top Chef contestant and the chef-owner of Telluride’s 221 South Oak, welcomes the contestants to her restaurant, where they’ll be cooking and serving dinner. She boldly assures them that they’re “going to kill it.”
Baird, who’s making a raviolo, is agitated. Her pasta is giving her major issues, so she unleashes of series of “why” wails. “Why? Why? Why? Whyyyyyy?” Oh, ugh!
“I haven’t seen Carrie this flustered all season,” observes Flamm as Baird continues to tussle with her pasta sheets, which are too dry.
“I don’t want to go home on a dish this personal,” resolves Sasto. At least one judge—Graham Elliott—suggests that Sasto has nothing to worry about. His braised chicken and pigs’ feet rotolo rolled with mushrooms and Swiss chard “completely captured the spirit of the challenge,” opines Elliott, a sentiment echoed by the Voltaggio brother named Bryan who professes that it “had every component of lasagna.”
Baird’s modern interpretation of her mom’s beef stroganoff—a raviolio topped with egg yolk and stuffed with buffalo sausage and mushroom duxelle pooled in an herbed crème fraîche with caramelized onions—also generates praise from Elliott. I love it,” he gushes, adding that “stroganoff is near and dear” to his heart. Barbara, Baird’s mom, is equally overjoyed.
Cheatham’s deconstructed gumbo nearly knocks head judge Tom Colicchio off his chair. “It’s so well seasoned, and really well executed,” he blubbers.
Flamm, who presents a pork-and-venison meatball swathed in pomodoro sauce, impresses the judges, too, including his grandma Mary, who deems it a “keeper.”
After dinner, Baird announces that she needs a drink, so the chefs scamper off to the kitchen and celebrate by funneling wine into their mouths. Baird even has a name for the contraption: a wine bong!
Then things turn serious. “In a word, the dishes were fantastic,” enthuses Colicchio from his chair at the judges’ table. Lakshmi contends that she just indulged in the “greatest food of the season.” But there can only be one winner, and it’s Cheatham, sing the Voltaggios in harmony.
“I just want to be clear that there are no bottoms here today. You all gave us delicious dishes,” assures Lakshmi just before her sweet sentiment shifts to a swift exit for Baird, who’s asked to pack her knives and return to Denver.
Baird, the hometown heroine who won more challenges than any other contestant this season, drops her head and then regains her composure, stoically marching up to the judges to shake their hands and thank them for the opportunity.
“I’m bummed. I really am,” she admits. “The hardest part is proving yourself, but I’m so much stronger than I thought. I’m not going out sad,” she says with her characteristic glow and smile.
Next on Top Chef Colorado: The final three head to Aspen, where they’ll cook for the culinary cognoscenti, including New York chef and restaurateur Danny Meyer. There’s fishing involved, too…and frustration.
By Lori Midson
For its 15th season, Top Chef, the smash Bravo TV show that features 15 chefs from across the country competing in high-pressure culinary challenges, unfolds in venues across Colorado, including several locations in Denver.
Where to Find Rocky Mountain Oysters
Everyone from Colorado must have known that Rocky Mountain oysters—a G-rated way of saying bulls’ testicles—would make an appearance on Top Chef Colorado. And much to the chagrin of the remaining chefs, they did…under the dome of a silver platter. How elegant. Love them or loathe them, Rocky Mountain oysters have long been tied to the state’s lexicon of iconic foodstuffs, but not all balls are created equal. Check out these five restaurants in and round Denver for the best bollocks.
The Fort: Sliced, breaded, fried and punctuated with diced red peppers, the Rocky Mountain oysters at the Fort, an iconic restaurant in Morrison that honors the Wild West, are bite-size clusters that can be popped into your mouth naked, or dipped into the sweet chile-caper sauce.
Wynkoop Brewing Company: When the Wynkoop Brewing Company initially released its Rocky Mountain Oyster stout, it was an April Fools’ Day prank, but when patrons began begging for the beer — which happens to be infused with 25 pounds of roasted bull testicles per eight-barrel batch — it became a cult favorite. Nutty (no pun intended), black in color and roasty, it’s a full-bodied brew that appeals to the ballsy craft-beer crowd.
Coors Field: They don’t summon the same degree of loyalty as a Helton burger, a foot-long Rocky dog or an exotic brat from Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs, but out-of-state baseball fans that want to take a bite out of Colorado’s culinary playbook should make a lunge for the Rocky Mountain po’boy, a sandwich torpedoed with breaded bull testicles, guacamole, garlic slaw, pico de gallo, green chile ranch dressing and cotija cheese.
Butcher’s Bistro: There’s a lot to love about this meat-centric restaurant and retail butcher shop in the Ballpark District, including the breaded-and-fried bison balls, an excellent intro to offal that’s sidekicked with delicious habanero-tequila pickles and cucumber mustard.
Buckhorn Exchange: Built in the nineteenth century, The Buckhorn Exchange, Denver's original steak house and saloon, is a National Historic Landmark that serves Wild West cuisine, including its fabled Rocky Mountain oysters, a generous heap of fried nuggets matched with cocktail and peppercorn-horseradish dipping sauces.