After last week’s cheese challenge episode, which cemented a victory for Carrie Baird, chef de cuisine of Denver’s Bar Dough, there’s no denying that the hometown favorite has found her footing.
Baird is all smiles as episode three kicks off: “I feel so good!” she declares. “I won the cheese challenge, and now I hope that I’m earning the respect of my peers and showing confidence and determination—which I have.” If her competitors have any hard feelings, they don’t let on. Instead, they raise a toast to Baird—and to Colorado.
The camera pans to scenes of Denver, including the opulent gold-domed Capitol, before the chefs are greeted by host and judge Padma Lakshmi in the Top Chef kitchen. Lakshmi introduces guest judge Lachlan Patterson, executive chef of Boulder-based Frasca Food and Wine. Patterson, also a James Beard award-winning chef and Top Chef Master, is an “incredibly talented chef and a stand-up, cool guy,” coos Bruce Kalman, the competitor from Los Angeles, who admits that he knows just about everyone who’s judging Top Chef. Oh, to be so popular.
Lakshmi gets back to business and rattles off a list of ingredients: onions, eggs, ham, bell peppers and cheese. She asks the chefs which dish incorporates all of these ingredients. It’s a Denver omelet, of course. But instead of creating the classic Denver omelet for the Quickfire Challenge, the chefs are told that they must deconstruct the Denver omelet.
“I’ve had Denver omelets all over the place, and I really want you to turn this dish on its head. I don't want to see any omelets,” growls a menacing Patterson.
“And you don’t want to end up with egg on your face on this one,” deadpans Lakshmi.
There’s a reason for that; it’s a sudden death Quickfire Challenge. The three chefs with the least favorite dishes will then battle against one another, and the chef with the worst critique won’t be competing in the Elimination Challenge. It’ll be an immediate exit for one unlucky hopeful.
“I practiced a Denver omelet to come to this competition, so this is awesome for me,” announces a confident Baird, who chooses to make a Denver breakfast sandwich. “It’s going to be unctuous, savory and perfectly seasoned,” she promises, undeterred by the fact that her practice sessions didn’t involve a modern twist. “I’ve got the tools—now I just need to perform,” she says.
Throughout the tasting process, the judges look mostly pained and befuddled. But they’re dazzled by Baird’s soft-scrambled egg, crispy prosciutto and bacon-pepper jam sandwich, and they’re wowed, too, by the smoked and soft-boiled duck egg with red pepper gastrique, pepper salad and tempura-fried ham and cheddar nubs from Brother Luck, the Colorado Springs chef who owns Four by Brother Luck.
After the frenzied Quickfire, which reveals that several chefs clearly missed the mark, Patterson proclaims that Baird’s sandwich and Luck’s egg dish are both in the top three. Luck wins the Quickfire Challenge—and not by sheer luck. “That dish showed a tremendous amount of creativity considering the simplicity of the ingredients,” praises Patterson.
Luck reminisces: “Four years ago, I was told that I wasn’t good enough to be on Top Chef, so I’ve spent the last couple of years with that itch, and I couldn’t scratch it until I actually got on Top Chef. Now I finally won a challenge. Keep ‘em coming,” he urges.
The sudden death Quickfire Challenge—a French omelet—doesn’t bode well for Laura Cole, the incredibly sweet chef from Alaska, who couldn’t have performed any worse; her undercooked omelet is a disaster, and she’s asked to pack her knives and go.
After her tearful farewell, Lakshmi trots out the guest judge for the Elimination Challenge: Hosea Rosenberg, title-holder of Top Chef Season 5 and the owner of Blackbelly and Santo in Boulder. The challenge? Create a food truck concept with a cohesive three-dish menu for 150 famished college students. “I’ve had two food trucks in my career, and the second one turned into the empire I have now,” Rosenberg tells the chefs, who don’t look particularly thrilled at the idea of cooking from within the hotter-than-Hades confines of a food truck in the heat of the summer.
Lakshmi divides the four teams into groups of three and sets the ground rules: The teams have 15 minutes to determine their menus and three-and-a-half hours to prep at East Boulder Community Park, the site of the Elimination Challenge. The team that amasses the most tickets from the starving college kids wins immunity.
The Black team, comprised of Baird, Tanya Holland (Oakland, Calif.) and Joe Flamm (Chicago) calls its truck “Down the Chin,” which is meant to speak to late-night crowds with the munchies.
The Green team—Brother Luck, Kalman and Rogelio Garcia (San Francisco)—one up “Down the Chin” and christen their truck “Foodgasm.” Oh, brother…did they really? Yes, they did.
The students arrive and the judges, including Rosenberg, saunter from truck to truck to taste the food. Baird’s bacon aioli-crowned burger with American cheese stuffed inside of the patty is exalted. “It’s a beautifully constructed burger,” enthuses judge Gail Simmons. “The burger is dripping on my lips,” purrs Lakshmi. Head judge Tom Colicchio agrees.
Luck, who we learn earned two scholarships to attend culinary school, serves a chocolate-drizzled fry bread with white chocolate mousse and powdered honey. His initial reviews are lukewarm.
Back in the Top Chef kitchen, the contestants stand before the judges. The team that stockpiled the most Keep on Truckin’ tickets is “Down the Chin.” Baird and her cohorts nearly hit the ceiling in their celebratory jump for joy. The judges then announce their favorite team: Hangover Cure. “Mustache” Joe Sasto, who made the team’s Chinese-inspired chicken wings, wins the Elimination Challenge.
Team Green is in the bottom two, which means that Luck is at risk of being discharged. Rosenberg, who grew up in New Mexico and knows a thing or ten about fry bread, is anything but impressed. “The bread was dense and tasted like it sat out for a while,” he scolds.
Luck doesn’t run out for Luck just yet, and it’s Garcia, Luck’s teammate who prepared an uninspired corn salad with pepitas and queso fresco, who’s sent packing with his knives.
Next week on Top Chef Colorado: The chefs are tasked with creating a meal based on recipes from their own heritage. And, according to Luck, at one point, it “looks like Barbie House threw up all over Last Chance Kitchen.”
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.
Take a Bite Out of Denver’s Food Truck Scene at Civic Center Eats
On this episode of Top Chef Colorado's elimination challenge, the chefs were tasked with cooking a three-dish menu from the confines of a food truck. Street eats, particularly from food trucks, are a staple of Denver’s culinary climate, and there’s no better gathering of meals on wheels than Civic Center EATS, a mid-week food truck bonanza that unfolds on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from May through early October at Civic Center Park, the centerpiece of The Mile High City’s green space.
Billed as the largest collection of food trucks in Denver, the lineup ballyhoos more than 70 rotating vendors, 20 of which pop up each day that Civic Center EATS feeds the masses.
Here’s an abbreviated roster of the participating food trucks and their best bites:
Steuben’s: Nicknamed “Pearl,” the Steuben’s food truck dishes up comfort food classics, including a stellar burger, decadent macaroni and cheese and a lauded lobster roll chock-full of sweet flesh.
What Would Cheesus Do: The pun is quirky—and so are the eclectic grilled cheese sandwiches, which zigzag from the Go Fig Yourself with Brie, Granny Smith apples, fig jam, caramelized onions and a balsamic reduction to the Forsaken Bacon stacked with cheddar, ham and bacon and smeared with housemade apple butter and salted honey.
Ethiopian Food Truck: Hued the color of the Ethiopian flag, this excellent food truck dispenses everything from a vegetarian combo plate to tender chicken and beef tibs, all of which are served with injera.
La Chiva Columbian Cuisine: Traditional Colombian cooking intersects with contemporary twists at this flat-out delicious food truck that prepares flavor-bombed stews and arepas alongside fresh-squeezed tropical juices.
Aiko Pops: The best house-made popsicles in the city are from Christopher Mosera’s frozen treats cart, which starves off the swelter of the sun with endless flavors of fruit-and-vegetable infused gourmet ice pops that range from mint-orange and carrot-apple to cucumber-lime and sweet tomato basil.