Last week on Top Chef, Tanya Holland, the fiery kitchen magician from Oakland, Calif., was handed her walking papers after butchering her knife skills in the Elimination Challenge. It probably didn't help that Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, who owns a restaurant in San Diego, predictably whined to the judges that Holland didn’t pull her weight. Zepeda-Wilkins has a knack for unloading blame in big doses, and the eight remaining chefs—including Denver’s own Carrie Baird—are starting to take notice.
“The hardest part about Claudette is watching her throw other people under the bus whenever she’s on the bottom,” opines Baird who, by the way, is edging closer to snatching up the Top Chef title. She’s halfway there!
Back at the their stately living quarters, the chefs predict their short-term future. If there’s anything predictable about Top Chef, it’s this: When the pack dwindles to eight, it’s battle or bust.
When the chefs arrive at the location of their combat zone—Mile High Station, an event venue just a football field away from Sports Authority Field at Mile High—each is given the same horoscope for the Elimination Challenge: Restaurant Wars! And with that announcement—and the introduction of guest judges Eric and Bruce Bromberg, who co-own the immensely successful empire of Blue Ribbon restaurants—it’s time to draw knives to determine the team captains.
Baird plucks a captain knife. And then she issues a plaintive wail: “It’s a lot of pressure to pick a team. There’s a lot of politics here.” She quickly regains her composure and picks her first cohort: It’s new daddy Bruce Kalman. “He’s so strong, and he could probably manage the back of the house better than anyone else in this room,” concludes Baird, who then scoops up Joe Flamm and Adrienne Cheatham.
Zepeda-Wilkins is the last one standing, and by default, she’s assigned to the red team, which is commanded by team captain Chris Scott. “We just saw Claudette throw Tanya under the bus. She can go on the other team,” snaps Baird.
Host and judge Padma Lakshmi has another announcement: Each team can also choose an eliminated chef—one that’s been banished to Last Chance Kitchen. Scott picks Brother Luck, the Colorado Springs chef who’s won Last Chance kitchen twice. “Brother is an excellent cook. I’ve been digging his style all season,” beams Scott. Baird scores Tyler Anderson. She deems her team “brilliant.” The gray team is ready to roll.
Both teams are then tasked with creating a three-course menu with an option of three choices per course. That’s nine dishes if you’re into arithmetic.
The chefs have two days to design, conceptualize and execute their restaurant from the ground up, and to ensure they don’t err on the side of ugly, they get a lot of help from Craftsy, a Denver-based company whose mission is to “fuel self-expression and joy.”
Baird and her cohorts easily plot their concept and quickly settle on a name for their restaurant: Conifer. How perfectly Colorado is that? “Let’s remember that we’re in Colorado, so let's cook Italian and Mediterranean, but have a Colorado-forward concept,” she suggests. Her troop, decked out in gray aprons, nods in unison. Teamwork!
The other team, clad in red aprons, calls its restaurant Common Place. No comment.
After spending several hours prepping in the kitchen at Mile High Station, the chefs return to their slumbering pad and size up their competition. “Common Place is all over the place in terms of flavor profiles,” predicts Bruce.
Zepeda-Wilkins promptly throws shade at Baird and Cheatham for their dish choices: “The other team is a really strong team…minus Adrienne and Carrie,” she snipes. “Like, I would never do a kale salad at Restaurant Wars.” As if! Baird, by the way, is making a kale salad.
And, as it turns out, a damn good kale salad. Apparently Zepeda-Wilkins didn’t notice that Baird had a few tricks up her sleeve. Like a beet raisin. A what? A beet raisin, which Baird likens to a “rushed version of an adult gummy bear.” Whatever it is, Lakshmi wants more. “Carrie’s salad is seasoned perfectly, and I’m going to totally steal this idea to raisin a beet ball!” she declares. Take that, Zepeda-Wilkins!
Speaking of Zepeda-Wilkins, it’s poor Luck who’s encumbered with caramelizing the white chocolate for her dessert course. “It’s hard to understand where they’re going with Common Place. I get the meaning of it, but I don’t think they thought through these dishes all the way,” remarks Luck, adding that he has no clue what the chocolate is for, but “the chef said make it, so I'm making it.” He’s just happy to be cooking.
After both teams cross the finish line and feed 100 hungry guests, the full-bellied judges retire to deliberate.
Baird’s team gets high marks, save for Cheatham’s Colorado striped bass with pickled purple puree, which head judge Tom Colicchio describes as “just god-awful.” It didn’t help that her plates were left to roast above the oven before she yanked them for service, an “oops” that worried her from the get-go.
Still, her dish doesn’t sink her—or Baird’s team. It’s not even a contest; they crush the Elimination Challenge and are unanimously hailed as the winners. Joe Flamm, who created two of the dishes on the grey team and managed the dining room like an absolute pro, is named the individual champion. “Your dishes were spectacular and your service was as good as I’ve seen in a lot of restaurants,” raves Colicchio.
And there’s a bonus! The gray team also wins $40,000, courtesy of Craftsy. It’s raining money on Top Chef!
As for Zepeda-Wilkins, her reign as the blame game queen has come to an end. “You can say your goodbyes,” soothes Lakshmi after telling Zepeda-Wilkins to pack her knives and go. Zepeda-Wilkins ignores her suggestion and storms off without so much as a wave. Colicchio smirks.
But Zepeda-Wilkins gets the last word: “The judges were wrong. I hope they’re kicking themselves in the ass for this. If Top Chef wants a vanilla top chef, they’re doing a good job,” she grumbles.
Next on Top Chef Colorado: Actually, we don’t know. Instead of a trailer for next week’s episode, we get a montage of the remaining season: Denver chef and restaurateur Frank Bonanno at the judges’ table; a sudden death Quickfire; an increasingly emotional Lakshmi; the Denver Broncos; Telluride; an ominous voice asking the chefs if they have the “balls” to take on a challenge (our bet is on Rocky Mountain oysters); and, finally, the finale, wherein Lakshmi announces this season’s Top Chef winner.
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.
Denver Restaurants With Striking Interior Design, Ambience
This week’s episode of Top Chef unfolded at Mile High Station, an event venue that, in this case, was the site of Restaurant Wars, a challenge that required the chefs to cook multiple dishes and erect two different makeshift restaurants incorporating design elements that showcased the same kind of creativity and innovation that’s indicative of their food. There’s no question that a well-articulated aesthetic can certainly enhance the wow factor, and these five Denver restaurants and bars, in particular, are stellar examples of striking designs that make us want to linger a little longer.
El Five: Restaurateur Justin Cucci (Linger, Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, Vital Root and Root Down) is renowned for designing restaurants that turn heads and drop jaws, and El Five, an alluring penthouse restaurant trimmed with vintage Arabic cinema posters, black velvet booths and a mosaic of mirrors, is no exception. The sensory-charged interior extends to the fifth floor rooftop, an open-air expanse that overlooks the downtown Denver cityscape.
Quality Italian: Residing in Cherry Creek's hip Halcyon hotel, Quality Italian, an offshoot of the New York flagship, is the brainchild of restaurateur Michael Stillman, whose name is a big deal in the Big Apple. His steakhouse is a big deal in Denver, too, as evidenced by the parade of expensive sports cars that pull up to the valet. And here’s plenty of eye candy inside, too. A choreographed staff, well trained in theatrical tableside presentations, navigates the swanky dining room decked out with warm woods, sienna-hued leather booths and kitschy vintage accents.
Annette: Lovely is an understatement, as is just about every other adjective you can think of to describe Caroline Glover’s diminutive show-stopper inside Stanley Marketplace. Bathing in the warm glow of the sun, the window-flanked restaurant, bedecked with bamboo lanterns, paintings of poppies brush-stroked by Glover’s grandfather, an open kitchen fragrant with the smoke from the oak logs stacked against the wall and potted ficus plants, succulents and rubber trees, it’s like stepping into
Poka Lola Social Club: There’s, fittingly, plenty of elegant time-warped accents at this swanky, art-deco-style cocktail bar inside theMaven Hotel that channels the timeless soda fountains of yesteryear. From the potpourri-green leather loveseats and tiled black-and-white floors to the stained glass above the bar and vintage pinball machines, Poka Lola is a looker.
Hearth & Dram: A gorgeously appointed watering hole and restaurant situated at the boot of Hotel Indigo, Hearth & Dram wraps you in its warm embrace. The lofty space, anchored by a masterpiece kitchen, is offset by art sculptures, a sweep of leather and plaid accents that dominate the windowed dining room and a sensational whiskey collection that flanks the back bar.