Minnesota’s own Justin Sutherland, chef at St. Paul’s Handsome Hog and Stillwater’s Pearl and the Thief, was feeling the heat on the second episode of “Top Chef” last night. Things may have worked out in the end, but don’t even get him started on the roasted corn.
To catch you up: Sutherland is competing on the Bravo cooking competition, in which cheftestants from around the country face off in Kentucky to snag a grand prize of $125,000 and a dose of national fame.
In last week’s premiere, our unofficial state ambassador sailed through two challenges and won praise from judges Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio. He also stood out as the wittiest of the bunch, with an endless slew of one-liners.
This week, Sutherland still gets a few zingers in, even with much less overall airtime. And then, a kitchen mishap nearly does him in.
But first: what is the best-dressed chef wearing? There’s usually one segment where the chefs get to don street clothes; this time it’s on a shopping trip to Whole Foods. Sutherland proves he’s still a combination foodie/fashionista with a light blue button-down shirt plastered with cartoon avocados.
The Quickfire Challenge is an ode to longtime judge Gail Simmons, who is very, very pregnant and taking the season off. She asks the chefs to each make her a dish to satisfy cravings that include red meat, spicy food, Middle Eastern and Asian cuisine and pasta.
The show uses this segment as a way to get to know some of the contestants, having them share about their kids and their significant others while they cook. Noticeably absent from the chitchat: Sutherland.
In fact, we don’t even hear about what he is making for Simmons until he presents it: it’s beef tonkotsu with spicy Asian slaw. The judges give zero feedback. Was it good? Was it bad? We’ll never know! (Until the inevitable “Top Chef” tasting menu shows up at Handsome Hog, right?)
Sutherland won this challenge last week. Not this time.
Next, a field trip. The chefs enjoy a big dinner of Kentucky food at the Maker’s Mark distillery. Sutherland is beyond excited.
“Bourbon and food, bourbon and food,” he chants when he learns what is on the agenda.
They get a tour of the distillery, then sit down to a big spread of burgoo, spoonbread, fried catfish and other yummy-looking dishes. Sutherland is practically hyperventilating as the distillery’s chef-in-residence, Newman Miller, presents it.
“Dude, this is like my food,” he says, “and like seeing where it came from this dude, seeing the passion, I am lit up right now.”
After dinner, they are introduced to the Elimination Challenge. Working in teams, each chef has to create a dish with their own spin on Kentucky food. As the team huddles to discuss the menu, Sutherland just stands behind the group and sips his bourbon.
“You guys, I have never been more excited to cook this food in my entire life,” Sutherland says. It’s not just the bourbon talking. He’s like a kid in a candy store here.
But the next day, that enthusiasm drains fast. Each team gets $1,500 to spend on groceries, and one of Sutherland’s teammates blows a third of that on lamb, leaving everyone else to skimp on ingredients. Sutherland plans to make roasted corn hoecakes with bourbon bacon jam. But then his roasted corn falls to the floor. And he hadn’t been able to buy any extra! Cue dramatic music.
“I really wanted to just bomb them with corn flavor,” he says. So much regret, so much sadness, so many unfulfilled promises.
His teammates ask how he’s doing, and it’s just all corn all the time, with a few bleeps thrown in. “Not gonna make it on corn!” he says sternly. “That’s all the corn and it’s on the floor.”
But wait! Two cups of his roasted corn survived, and apparently that’s all you need to make four dozen hoecakes, because by the end of the challenge, he’s come out with a platter of perfect corn patties, topped with that bacon jam.
“This kitchen’s not my friend today, but we made it happen,” he says.
A table of judges dig in and the hoecakes get good remarks on flavor. At the final judgment, Lakshmi calls them delicious and Miller says they were the most flavorful dish from Sutherland’s team. But his team was the losing team, so once again, Sutherland’s a standout in the middle of the pack.
Safe for now, he can finally breathe a sigh of relief.
For goodness sake, somebody get that man a bourbon.
Fun Justinism of the week: The cheftestants find out they have a garden out back behind their mansion and they are instructed to make a veggie patch.
Someone asks Sutherland if he’s ever planted before.
“I have,” he says, then adds, “I don’t know how legal it was.”