Top Chef Power Rankings, Episode 9: Tears Are The Best Seasoning


This week on Top Chef: Kentucky, the contestants all piled into their sponsor-provided BMW SUVs for a trip across the river to Nashville, Tennessee, for a country music-themed challenge. It was a challenge designed to celebrate one of Kentucky’s greatest natural resources: that it is near to other states.

In the quickfire challenge, the contestants traveled to the Grand Ol Opry (which roughly translates to “the large opera,” in modern standard English), where they would choose courses (breakfast, lunch, dinner) and prepare dishes based on a big country star‘s concert rider. The “twist” was that we wouldn’t find out who this big star was until after the commercial break! Would it be Reba McEntire, the contestants wondered? “I want to meet Garth Brooks,” exclaimed Michelle.

Turns out the big star was… (*drum roll*) Hunter Hayes! He would help symbolize the fantastic exports of Kentucky, as a native of… uh… Louisiana. Oh, well. At least he’s a huge star right? …Right? I mean I’d never heard of this guy before, but he is definitely a smooth-faced man-boy with anime hair, I can tell you that. At what point did country stars become indistinguishable from Disney Channel stars? I’m not listening to country unless the singer looks like they’ve at least been to rehab. Some fluffy-haired milk boy in a plaid shirt singing about trucks? No thanks.

Then in the elimination challenge, the chefs had to make dishes inspired by a “music memory.” This gave everyone the chance to remind us of songs the show couldn’t afford the rights to.

I kind of wish everyone had to choose royalty-free sound-alike versions of their favorite song and then sing the legally vetted paraphrased versions of the lyrics. You used to ping me on my mo-bile… You used to you used to… Just go all the way and make it a Jackie Jormp-Jomp challenge.

This challenge was judged by Caleb Followill from Kings Of Leon — who was actually a bit of a dick, which was nice. Sidenote: I always thought Caleb Followill sounds like what a basset hound would sound like if you could teach it to sing.

And then there was this guy:


Holy. Shit. Pattern baldness ponytail, seventies porn ‘stache, and a cowboy shirt unbuttoned to the navel? Damn, that’s like the greezy dad rock trifecta. Now this guy I’d pay to hear sing some country. This is the face of a man who’s lived on a boat. And probably scored with one of your mom’s friends there. (Factual note: this is Nashville restauranteur and James Beard Award Winner Tandy Wilson. Keep on truckin’, Tandy).

Judge Graham Elliot was also there, wearing his trademark infuriating white frames and a shiny, sheet metal-patterned bomber jacket, looking like that construction worker who thought he was Michael Jackson from the Simpsons episode.


Li-sa it’s your birth-day… It’s your birth-day Li-sa…

Gosh, what a personality. Whatever Bravo is paying him to stand around looking like an eyesore I’ll double it! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, the more I promise to stop roasting Graham the more I can’t resist it. Otherwise, this week’s crew of judges — Jonathan Waxman, Sean Brock, and Tandy Wilson — were entertaining and enjoyable. Perhaps not enough to make up for this season’s lack of Gail Simmons, but I wasn’t expecting miracles.


1. (+2) Michelle Minori — AKA: Screen Time. AKA: Who? AKA: Trivia. AKA: Pixar.


Aw, Michelle. I just want to give her a hug. After ripping on Michelle for being boring basically this entire season, she roars to the front of my power rankings this week with a dish that blew the judges away and a story that had everyone in tears. Do you know how dumb I felt crying onto my laptop while watching a cooking show? Damn you, Michelle. Michelle’s new nickname is Pixar because she tells heartfelt stories that make me cry.

The challenge was a dish based on a food memory, and Michelle immediately picked The Beatles, which seemed entirely on brand because who’s a safer, more boring musical choice than The Beatles? It’s the “Jesus and Einstein” of musical selections. And then she told her story, about how she used to always sing it with her dad, who committed suicide when she was 15.

Oh hey did anyone else just swallow their entire tongue?

The best part is, when she presented the dish to the judges, she wasn’t going to volunteer the information. Padma had to dig it out of her when she started tearing up while she was presenting. Then she told the suicide story and everyone cried their dicks off. I don’t even remember what she cooked but Tom said it was the best thing he’d had all season. Tears make the best seasoning.

Michelle may not get drunk and fall down in inner tubes like Sara, or hilariously insult the help like Kelsey, or smoke the dankest weed like Justin, but she’s a class act.

2. (-1) Eddie Konrad — AKA: Smiles. AKA: The Accountant. AKA: Seppuku. AKA: Sweaty Eddie. AKA: Calamity. AKA: Nice Guy Eddie.


Dammit, just when I thought Eddie had this thing all but locked up he falls flat on his face. Eddie landed in the bottom three in the quickfire, and I assumed it was the fault of the music child and his bizarre tastes. “I thought everything just sort of sat in the same flavor profile,” he said of Eddie’s dish, whatever the hell that means.

Then in the elimination challenge, Eddie chose a song by Cake — “Love You Madly.” Great job, Eddie! That’s right, the Cake appreciator has logged on.

It was a snapper dish based on something he’d cooked for his wife. On two separate occasions, he told the story thusly: “My wife doesn’t like fish, so I made her fish.”

This is why I love Eddie. Helping someone appreciate something they thought they didn’t like is a totally valid love language, but of course Eddie explains it like a malfunctioning robot and then looks confused when people laugh at it. Sadly, the judges eviscerated Eddie’s dish, saying it was “missing texture,” “missing acid,” and “felt like I was eating cereal” (Eddie poached his fish and put puffed rice on the top). It sounded like they gave him credit for his past dishes or else he might’ve gone home.

Two bottom finishes in a row?? What has happened to you, Eddie! When they announced the winners he was so used to winning that he momentarily forgot to step to the side. It was a very Confused Zoolander Tries To Steal Award moment. How did this happen? I have to think Eddie inhaled some bad juju while he was in the car with sickly Adrienne.


3. (-1) Eric Adjepong — AKA: Ghana. AKA: Sports.


Does Eric belong at number three? I honestly have no idea with this season. Everyone is up and then they’re down. Eric landed in the top three in the quickfire for making… oatmeal. I swear to God. I told you that kid was a little weirdo. Then Eric made some steak and eggs based on “Big Poppa.” Specifically where Biggie raps “A t-bone steak, cheese eggs and Welch’s grape.”

That seemed like a pretty solid idea, even if Eric’s “food memory” was just the literal food from the song. He didn’t land in either the top nor the bottom for that, so… who the hell knows.

4. (+3) Sara Bradley — AKA: Party Mom. AKA: One-Upper. AKA: Abe Fro-ma’am. AKA: Jiggle Juice.


Party Mom has been on the verge of going home for the last few episodes but managed top-three finishes in both challenges this week. Thank God the fun one is sticking around for a little longer. Sara was in the top three in the quickfire for her… curried cauliflower? Another strange choice by the music infant, but fine. Then Sara validated him by finishing in the top three again in the elimination challenge.

That was for a dish dedicated to her father and the song he always used to sing, “Jambalaya,” by Hank Williams. Sara probably would’ve had the cutest tearjerker dad moment if Michelle hadn’t swooped in at the last moment and jerked the tears right out from under her. Sorry, Sara.

Oddly, no one pointed out the fact that Sara chose a song called “Jambalaya” and then made gumbo.

5. (even) Justin Sutherland — AKA: New Spike. AKA: Cheech. AKA: Slick. AKA The Weez. AKA: Bacon.


Justin admitting that he “used to run a music promotion company” has to be the least surprising revelation in the history of this show. Justin looks like a former club promoter from 50 paces.

Justin landed in the middle in the quickfire and then made the top three in the elimination challenge with his steak and braised cabbage based on “Purple Rain.” That looked good as hell, but he was disqualified because he only made nine plates for the 10 people. Then he told the judges that he “dropped” a plate, when really he just forgot to make one. No consequences for that?? The Weez weasels away again!

Next time just rub some CBD oil on your temples, bro, I hear it helps with short-term memory.

6. (+2) Adrienne Wright — AKA: NPR. AKA: Dangles. AKA: Hollow Bones. AKA: Sniffles.


Adrienne opened the show having to stop the car so she could puke, and then went straight into cooking food. Ooh, you made me a cold! Delicious! Waiter? I’ll have the snot plate with extra germs, please. (Yes, cooks almost always work sick because very few of them get sick days or paid time off, so this challenge was very realistic).

Battling her cold, Adrienne apologetically served up a giant disc of raw-looking filet mignon over corn that she had clearly mailed in. The Disney child loved it though because he is indeed peculiar. Gee whiz, mom and dad, thanks for the food, it was totes yummers, do I have to dance again now?

After that Adrienne made a dish based on Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. “Home,” because it reminded her of home. I guess it was okay because she basically fell out of the episode after that. Who knows where Adrienne stands now. It seems like it’s going to come down to whether anyone else has contracted her hollow bone virus. The bird flu, if you will. She did pretty well this episode but I can’t forget that New England “fish taco” disaster from last episode. I’m still furious about it.

7. (-3) Kelsey Barnard Clark — AKA: Wine Mom. AKA: Elle Woods. AKA: Roll Tide. AKA: Can I Speak To Your Manager?


Kelsey opened this episode fangirling all over Hunter Hayes. “I’ve been listening to him since I was in high school!” she gushed.

Hold up, isn’t Kelsey 29? Was this kid a singing fetus or what? Isn’t country supposed to be about divorcing your wife or crashing your horse or whatever? What was this kid singing about, falling off the swing set? I don’t want to hear your country song unless it looks like you might knife me over a still.

Anyway, Kelsey ending up serving Lil Fauntleroy some shakshuka, which she should’ve known was a terrible idea just on the face of it. Hmm, what do pretend cowboys in leather wristlets love? Ooh, I know… Israeli food!

To my eyes, it looked like a good dish, but Hunter Cody Colson III turned up his nose at it because, and I’m quoting here, “I’m really cautious about acidic things.”

Aw, did da tomato sauce upset your widdo tummy?? Jesus Christ, this kid would get beat up at a quidditch match.

Kelsey doubled down on bottom three finishes in the elimination challenge with a “pot pie.” Which was actually just a ring of pot pie ingredients surrounding a bowl of gravy. The judges said it was too salty, with Graham pointing out the margarita-like ring of salt around the edge of the plate. Sara would’ve loved it!

Oddly, no one pointed out the more obvious defect, which is that deconstructing a pot pie entirely defeats the purpose of a pot pie. I love chicken pot pie. If I ordered a pot pie and you gave me a plate of dry chicken breast with a some gravy on the side I would scream.

Also, aren’t you a baker? Dammit, Kelsey, get your head in the game! This show needs you!

Incredibly, Kelsey didn’t get sent home. Which brings us to…

8. (-2) ((Eliminated)) David Viana — AKA: Maybe. AKA: Superfan. AKA: Mouse.


That’s right, we lost our sweet lil jaunty cap-wearing Jersey Boy this week. Dammit, now who’s going to drool all over the guest judges? David started off badly, stealing all the eggs and going on and on about his omelette technique (I actually like the few times on this show when the chefs get into the specific details of their cooking techniques), only to land in the bottom three.

Turns out the t-shirt model didn’t appreciate David’s goat cheese vinaigrette. I admit, a vinaigrette on top of an omelette sounds pretty weird, but there’s no way I’m just going to blindly trust a guy wearing a leather necklace on matters of taste.

David was basically beat before he started this week, psyched out as soon as he discovered the Whole Foods didn’t have any octopus. And then the clams he bought as a substitute were too big. He spent the entire prep time throwing pots around and being miserable and was too busy throwing a fit to notice his sauce over reducing. And so he went from favorite to eliminated in the space of a few episodes, story of this season.

It was sad to see him go, but then again that’s what he gets for choosing an Incubus song. If you made me listen to that “the sky looks like a backlit canopy” song more than four times in a row I’d sell out my entire family.


Top: Eric, Sara, Adrienne*.
Bottom: David, Eddie, Kelsey.

Top: Justin, Michelle*, Sara.
Bottom: Eddie, Kelsey, David*.

(*denotes winner/eliminee)

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can find his archive of reviews here