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Top Chef Season 15, Episode 9:  'Bronco Brouhaha'



Now that Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, the San Diego drama/goth queen who made a name for herself by tossing her competitors under the bus, has been booted to the asphalt, there’s harmony in the Top Chef mansion again!

“With Claudette gone, I don’t feel like I have to watch my back. If I were filling out a report card, I I think I’d check the box that says ‘doesn’t play well with others,’” zings New York chef Adrienne Cheatham.

Seven chefs remain: Fatima Ali, Joseph Flamm, Joe Sasto, Bruce Kalman, Christopher Scott, Carrie Baird and Cheatham.

As the chefs file into the Quickfire Challenge kitchen, Sasto utters an expletive once he sees guest judge and three-star Michelin chef David Kinch, chef-owner of Manresa, in Las Gatos, Calif. Turns out that Sasto has cooked for Kinch on more than one occasion, which doesn’t make him any less awestruck.

Cue host and Quickfire Challenge messenger Padma Lakshmi: “Chefs are looking for ways to step up their presentation game, and one of the trendiest ways to do that is by adding a few flowers as garnish, so we want you to add edible flowers to your dish and prove that they deserve a place on the plate,” she informs the chefs. Baird, the chef of Denver’s Bar Dough, frowns: “It’s not really a flavor I like. It kind of smells like my grandma,” she giggles.

But she doesn’t giggle for long, because—oh noooooooo!—it’s a sudden death Quickfire Challenge. And that’s not all: Immunity is off the table from this point forward.

Top Chef just got real.

Baird decides to make “fancy toast,” which, she explains are just “larger slices of toast with fun toppings.” In her case, that equates to goat cheese, arugula, lavender-scented olive oil, honey and candied pecans. “I’m aware that fancy toast can be a little simple, but it’s a great vessel to not overpower the flower,” rationalizes Baird.

Sasto is incredulous. “Toast? Why would you make toast for David Kinch?” he asks, clearly dumbfounded by Baird’s homage to simplicity. He’s also pretty certain that his poached squash blossom-filled dumplings are going to bulldoze Baird’s fancy-pants toast.

Kinch and Lakshmi make their rounds, and when they pause to taste Baird’s fancy toast, Lakshmi wants to know what makes it so fancy. Baird rattles off the ingredients and Kinch proffers praise: “It's a nice, fine line between sweet and savory,” he says.

In fact, Kinch likes Baird’s fancy toast so much that she, along with Ali, who cooks lamb, are the two chefs that battle it out for bragging rights and a yet-to-be-determined advantage coming into the Elimination Challenge. Baird gets the win! “My heart has officially stopped,” says a beaming Baird. “I made David Kinch fancy toast and he liked it. Looking back from day one, I wouldn’t even recognize myself. I’m learning that I’m strong and that I deserve to be here.”

“Sometimes what appears to be the simplest can be the best of all,” intones Kinch. Sasto, for all of his bravado and hoity-toity squash blossom dumplings, finds himself in the bottom three, alongside Flamm and Scott.

They’re pondering their fate when head judge Tom Colicchio swings through the door pushing a cart overflowing with cauliflower. “You brought me flowers,” purrs Lakshmi. Colicchio smirks before lapsing into an ode to the cruciferous vegetable. “Cauliflower is usually overlooked, but cauliflower is making a huge comeback,” he enthuses, noting, naturally, that it’s a “very versatile and popular flower.” Lakshmi jumps in to announce the now obvious sudden death skirmish: Create a dish that stars cauliflower.

“Considering what’s on the line right now, I’m a little disappointed in all three of these dishes,” scolds Colicchio, who reprimands the chefs for creating plates that lack flavor and finesse.” Sasto’s smoked cauliflower buffalo wings particularly disturb Colicchio. “I didn't even realize it was cauliflower. The texture was so spongy that it was really off-putting,” he pans.  Ultimately, though, it’s Flamm who’s sent packing. “I feel like I just abandoned my crew. I’m going to do whatever it takes to get back into this competition,” promises Flamm.

And then there were six.

“OK, who’s ready to kick off the next challenge?” quizzes Lakshmi. There’s a unanimous show of hands. And plenty of adoration for Adam Perry Lang, one of America’s kingpins of the barbecue pit and this week’s guest judge. “We’re here today to celebrate America’s unofficial holiday—the Super Bowl!” announces Lang.

Lakshmi ups the score when she declares that the chefs are going to “host the best tailgating party that Mile High as every seen!” The challenge? Three teams of two must serve the best plate of Super Bowl food ever…for 300 hungry Denver Bronco players, fans and politicos, including Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock.

Because Baird won the Quickfire Challenge, she gets first crack at picking her teammate, and she squanders Scott. She also gets to choose the other teams: Bruce Kalman and Ali are paired together, which leaves team Sasto and Cheatham.

Baird and Scott engage in a little team spirit football banter and amuse themselves with a peppy sing-along, while Ali, who’s not a football fan (cricket, we learn, is her sport) turns to Kalman to school her on football 101: “What colors are the Broncos?” she asks, to which Kalman correctly responds, orange and blue. Touchdown!

Back at the house, the chefs wax poetic about Baird, who’s won more challenges than anyone else. “We’re all at the same point, except Carrie, who keeps blowing my mind,” raves Sasto. “She’s the perfect example of why you should never judge a book by its cover. I think everyone underestimated her, and look at her now: She’s crushing the competition.”

“Carrie has put a spell on everyone. She, like, sneezes, and she, like, makes something, and wins. Always,” echoes Ali.

For the challenge, Baird and Scott go with poutine—fries smothered in a pork-studded tomatillo green chile and, uh, nacho cheese. Colicchio seems skeptical. “You needs curds, right?” he says, willing himself to understand the digression. “We decided not to use cheese curds, because we’re going for a little more elegant of a plate, so nacho cheese is a better fit for us,” responds Baird. “Has that ever been a sentence? Nacho cheese is more elegant?” she then wonders out loud. It sounds like a fumble, but, hey, Baird always wins, so there’s that.

Over at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Bronco fans are spilling into the parking lot; there’s a wave of orange and blue. The Denver Broncos cheerleaders make an appearance and Mayor Hancock makes a proclamation: It’s Top Chef Day in Colorado! Several Bronco heavyweights, including T.J. Ward and Brandon McManus, are there to taste and opine.

Hometown heroine Jennifer Jasinski, the chef and co-owner of Rioja, Euclid Hall, Bistro Vendome, Stoic & Genuine and Ultreia, is a guest judge, not to mention a die-hard Broncos fan. “We’ve gone to every home game for the past ten years,” she boasts, adding, too, that Baird used to work for her.

“When I moved to Denver, I got a job at Rioja with Jen, and not only did she teach me so much about food, but also about being an adult and so many other life lessons. It’s kind of emotional, kind of like seeing your mom,” chirps Baird with an air of wistfulness.   

The judges huddle to discuss the dishes, and Baird and Scott seemingly score a touchdown, plus the extra two points, for their poutine. “As a Denver native, this does scream Denver,” volunteers Jasinski. “It’s really flavorful,” agrees Colicchio. Even linebacker Todd Davis waxes rhapsodic: “It’s the bomb,” he cheers.

The six chefs that still remain await their fate in front of the judges’ table. “In spite of your ups and downs, there was a clear winner today,” proclaims Lakshmi who, not surprisingly, name checks Baird and Sasto. “Of all the dishes, you gave us an elevated version of the tailgating experience,” she acknowledges.

Their victory results in a lavish perk: both Baird and Sasto are awarded tickets to the 52nd Super Bowl in Minneapolis. Baird, who’s never been to a Super Bowl, is ecstatic, although it's the halftime show that appears to make her giddy and at a loss for words. I’ve always wanted to go to a Super Bowl and hopefully the halftime show is like….” Her sentence trails off.” Dig it,” continues Scott, who’s left to finish Baird’s sentence.

Praise is faint for the other two teams, and in what is surely the biggest upset so far this season, Ali is told to pack her knives and go, thanks to her “soggy” orange and blue nachos. “We could go to 50 bars in town and get better nachos,” taunts Colicchio. “We’re not going to have our noses in the air for having nachos, but we’re going to come down on you for not making great nachos,” concludes his lecture.

Lakshmi, clearly pained by the decision, buries her face in her hands. For a second, it appears that she’s going to erupt in a wellspring of tears…but she recovers. Ali, for her part, is sad but reflective. “It’s hard to get into the top six and then have to leave. It stings. It stings in a bad way,” she admits. “There was a lot of hesitation to come here and cook Pakistani food. I wasn’t sure if the judges were even going to be excited about eating that kind of food, but they were, and that really reinforced the kid of food that I really want to cook,” she asserts. It was Ali’s first time being relegated to the bottom of the barrel, so it was a huge shock to see her go.

Next on Top Chef: The chefs are ghosted at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, the inspiration for horror author Stephen King’s book, “The Shining.” And the frights seem to rattle Baird, who finds something—we’re not sure what—“fricking terrifying.” And then it’s pretty clear from a scene that looks like it was plucked straight out of a horror novel that she sees a ghost in the hallway. And then she mentions something about completely running out of time. Oh, the terror! Meanwhile, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is a guest judge and happily announces that if all the dishes are going to be this good, he might try to keep the judges there for a couple of days. Boo!

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. 

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