After 14 episodes, 15 competing chefs, numerous Last Chance Kitchen throw downs and a whirlwind tour of Denver and some of Colorado’s most scenic college and mountain towns, the moment has finally arrived: The culinary wizard of Top Chef Colorado is finally going to be revealed. And if there’s one thing that we know for certain, it’s that the two finalists—both Southside Chicago natives—are in it to win it. But here will only be one champion, even when head judge Tom Colicchio reminds us that there are no losers. Face it: There’s always a loser.
In one corner we have Adrienne Cheatham, who worked for the illustrious Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin, eventually moving her way up to executive sous-chef. She was the corporate chef de cuisine of Streetbird, Marcus Samuelsson’s restaurant, too, as well as the executive chef of Red Rooster in Harlem, N.Y. She’s planning to unleash a southern menu stamped with her trademark ambitious streak. Cheatham is a gambler and all about risky business. “I create elevated southern cuisine, and now that I know that and am confident and secure in that, it’s going to take a lot to get in my way.”
In the other corner: Joe Flamm, the executive chef of Chicago’s Michelin-starred Spiaggia and Café Spiaggia. Flamm, of course, was booted for a minute in episode 11, only to rally in Last Chance Kitchen and return to battle during the first leg of the finals in Telluride. “I’m ready to go, I’m ready to get in there, and I’m ready to crush it!” he thunders.
“Savor and enjoy this moment, because you deserve it,” chirps Lakshmi, only to have Colicchio, the contrarian, push the pause button.
Nope, don’t savor the moment. Instead, “Cook like your life depends on it. Think about your mentors, the lessons that you’ve learned and how you grew up, your family experiences, your restaurant experiences and Top Chef experiences and roll them into all of these dishes. Cook your heart out,” implores Colicchio.
“Hell, yeah!” roars Cheatham, the warrior.
“This is the biggest day of my career,” reflects Flamm, who calls Tony Mantuano, his chef-partner of Spiaggia, for a little last-minute advice. “You’ve got everything it takes to go as far as you can possibly go. And never change a dish once you’ve started it,” urges Mantuano. Flamm, it turns out, didn’t know squat about Italian cuisine when he was first hired. Now? Pasta, pasta, pasta! Abbondanza!
Meanwhile, Cheatham is basking in her own glory. “I have the opportunity to be the first black female Top Chef. And, oh, my god, I feel like I have a lot to live up to,” she exclaims, noting that her dad was a Black Panther who fought for civil rights, while her mom taught her that a solid work ethic moves mountains.
Speaking of summits, a note from Lakshmi that reads, “Meet me and Tom at the top of Aspen Mountain” interrupts her commentary.
As the blue skies of Aspen crest over the resort town’s sun-glazed ski slopes, Cheatham and Flamm get a bird’s-eye view on their gondola glide up to The Aspen Mountain Club at the Little Nell. “Nice view, isn’t it,” greets Padma, ominously, adding that, oh, by the way, this is where one chef will end their journey.
“The final Elimination Challenge should come as no surprise,” eye rolls “Colicchio. “Just cook the best meal of your life. It’s simple.”
Lakshmi is more forthcoming. “Create the ultimate four-course, side-by-side progressive meal for a table of some of the most accomplished chefs of the country: Jonathan Waxman, Curtis Duffy and Nancy Silverton.”
The two chefs draw knives to see who will get first crack at choosing their sous-chef duo. Cheatham pull out the winning knife, so she lassos Chris Scott; Flamm chooses Mustache Joe Sasto. The pasta pair has been reunited.
Cheatham then apprehends Carrie Baird, the Denver chef of Bar Dough who made it all the way to the last leg of the finals. “Carrie may not have a background in southern food, but she’s creative and she’s fun to work with, which is really important, especially in stressful situations,” rationalizes Cheatham.
Flamm goes with Fatima Ali, because, she, too, has some experience in Italian food. See a theme there?
But Flamm isn’t going cook Italian the traditional way—and especially not his nonna’s way. “My version is layering flavors and reinforcing those flavors throughout the dish and taking food that looks simple but eats in a way that’s technique-heavy and has a lot of back behind it,” explains Flamm, who’s firmly has Ali in his corner. She professes mad love for Flamm—even more than Sasto, who Ali swears is actually in love with Flamm. Unicorns and rainbows!
Baird is tasked with cooking grits, but since she’s never cooked grits before, she’s “terrified.” And she thinks that Cheatham is “crazy” for assigning her a job that surpasses her culinary prowess. “Don't overthink it,” advises Cheatham. “It’s just grits!”
Their prep time in the kitchen winds down, and when the dueling chefs return to their mountain quarters, they have guests, specifically Colicchio and judge Graham Elliot sweating in the kitchen.
“New roommates?” wonders Flamm. Nope. A dinner feast! Colicchio presents a bass stuffed with whole-roasted foie gras and mentions that they’re might be some bones. “You can send me home if you’d like,” he jokes. Everyone laughs uproariously.
Then a note of solemn advice from Colicchio: “Make sure everything makes sense. Taste everything and taste everything again,” he cautions. Cheatham and Flamm nod gravely.
The next morning Cheatham needs a little bit of Zen in her life so she dials Ripert, zee chef from Le Bernardin for a consultation. Her sauté-pan tuile isn’t coming out properly, so zee French chef tells her to wheeesk it in. She’s now centered.
And with that, we’re off! The battle begins!
The posse of judges—Gail Simmons, Nilou Motamed, Lakshmi, Elliot, Colicchio, Silverton, Duffy and Waxman—gather at the table, and the chefs begin parading their dishes out for their final hurrah.
Up first is Cheatham’s spoon bread with sea urchin, buttermilk dashi, ham, caviar and a wheat tuile element, which Baird makes. The overriding sentiment is that it's a “sensual” and “provocative” dish.
Flamm makes “tonno vitellato:” raw tuna with veal demi aioli, smoked Wagyu powder and capers.
Cheatham’s second dish is blackened octopus with squid-ink grits and fennel chow-chow. Baird, she says, “nails the grits,” and Colicchio, who concurs, calls it “insane.”
Flamm’s “tortellini en brodo” bobbing in a pig head (nicknamed “Nora”) broth with apples, black truffles and braising liquid is “just perfect,” enthuses Colicchio.
Cheatham’s third dish is Cheerwine-braised short ribs with black-eyes peas smoked with ham hocks and puddled in a Cheerwine-roasted bone marrow bordelaise. “Her black-eyed peas were too dry,” chastise the judges, but Colicchio gives her a hall pass because the beans are punctuated with the definitive essence of ham hock.
Flamm’s roasted beef ribeye with roasted asparagus and smoked bone marrow sauce is “over-rested,” chides Colicchio, but Simmons deems his roasted asparagus “magic.”
Dessert courses end on a high note, with Silverton describing Cheatham’s banana yuzu pudding with seared banana spears and vanilla wafers as “very intellectual.”
The chefs gather in the kitchen and drink copious amounts of alcohol from their delis, otherwise known as your everyday plastic containers.
Every chef who competed in season 15 are there for the crowing, and Colicchio lapses into a stimulating monologue about journeys. “It’s hard to say there’s only one winner, because you’re both winners,” he says, predictably.
“There can only be one Top Chef,” sighs Lakshmi. “Joe, you are Top Chef.”
He’s beside himself and lets out a litany of expletives. “I can't believe it, I don't even know. It feels f--king amazing," he cries. "I'm excited. I'm literally standing on top of a mountain and just won f--king Top Chef!" Flamm, by the way, is the first Top Chef champion from Chicago since 2008.
“I’ve learned so much. I’ve pushed myself so hard. I’m excited to take that back home,” Flamm sputters. “I’m excited to bring that back to Spiaggia, see how far I can push it there, you know, with me and Tony, until I’m ready for the next chapter.”
Along with the title of Top Chef, Flamm wins the $125,000 prize, which he plans to use to purchase a house with his wife.
By Lori Midson
For its 15th season, Top Chef, the smash Bravo TV show that featured 15 chefs from across the country competing in high-pressure culinary challenges, unfolded in venues across Colorado, including several locations in Denver.
Some of Denver's Best Italian Eateries
Two finalists — both from the Southside of Chicago — battle it out for the title of Top Chef. Joe Flamm, exec chef of the Windy City’s Spiaggia and Café Spiaggia, emerges victorious, thanks to his riveting Italian menu. And while Carrie Baird, exec chef of Denver’s Bar Dough, gets the boot in the first leg of the finals, Bar Dough, the restaurant in Lower Highland (LoHi) where she cooks, turns out some of the most gutsy Italian cuisine in the city. Whether you’re craving antipasti, pizza, pasta or risotto, these are the five best Italian restaurants in Denver.
Tavernetta: Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson — the James Beard award-winning duo behind Boulder’s Frasca Food and Wine — have another culinary masterpiece on their hands with Tavernetta, a regional Italian restaurant in the Denver Union Station neighborhood. The menu, complemented by a superb wine list, reaches deep into antipasti, housemade pastas and sensationally prepared fish and meat plates that seesaw between a breaded Berkshire pork chop to branzino with fennel, escarole and olives.
Il Posto: A glamorous Italian restaurant from Milan-born chef-owner Andrea Frizzi, Il Posto, which resides in the River North Art District (RiNo), struts a daily-changing menu of up-to-the-moment pastas, skilled risottos and beautifully finessed fish dishes. Ask locals about the restaurant’s pièce de résistance, and you’ll get a unified answer: the herb-laced beef-tallow candle, the fat of which pools on the plate, resulting in a seductive puddle that adds a glorious luster to the slices of crusty bread that are served alongside.
Cattivella: Star chef Elise Wiggins, formerly of Panzano, presides over the show stopping exhibition kitchen of this lofty Italian restaurant in Stapleton that dispenses wood-fired pizzas, handmade pasta, antipasti and salumi, all against a gorgeous backdrop of modern architecture. Score a seat at the large chef’s counter, an interactive experience that lends itself to bantering with the cooks rolling out your pasta, assembling your salad, butchering your beef and smearing your pizza with San Marzano tomatoes.
Coperta: Brother-and-sister dynamos Paul and Aileen Reilly (Beast + Bottle) oversee this lovely slice of southern Italy in Uptownthat’s equal parts humble and assertive. And the food, like the space, deftly straddles the line between rustic familiarity and refined ambition. The pollo alla diavala — deviled chicken — is superb, the bird’s juicy flesh puddled in chile-punctuated oil. Fresh pastas, crunchy panini, eggplant Parmigiana and orbs of mozzarella cloaked in olive oil, round out the menu, which is bolstered by a deeply regional wine list.
Bar Dough: Top Chef Colorado finalist Carrie Baird commands the kitchen of this justifiably packed Lower Highland (LoHi) hot spot, a pulsating Italian magnet that showcases beautifully charred pizzas, handcrafted pastas, innovative small plates and large dishes that zigzag from whole Alamosa bass to a rosemary- and garlic-rubbed dry-aged ribeye. For a special night out with a date or friends, book the upstairs Segretto dining room, a secret hideaway that gives diners the freedom to customize an off-menu parade of creative dishes from one of the most ambitious kitchens in the city.