The 16th season of “Top Chef” premiered Thursday night and it’s set in Kentucky. So naturally, bourbon-loving St. Paul chef Justin Sutherland is the perfect contestant.
Sutherland is one of 15 chefs from around the U.S. who is competing for a $125,000 prize. And he’s doing it with flair.
First of all, the Handsome Hog chef is not afraid to show his Minnesota pride, while being completely transparent about why he’s competing.
“I want to be here to show the world the kind of food that’s coming out of Minnesota,” he says.
Then adds: “And I want that money, baby; I need that money.”
Can we call him best-dressed, when all the chefs are in matching coats and aprons? Yes. (He wears a hat.)
And he’s a one-liner machine, cranking out some of the funniest moments on the show.
“The bathrooms are nuts,” he says about the mansion the contestants all share. “We’re going to be well-bathed and clean-butted the entire time, that much I can say.”
When he enters the “Top Chef” kitchen the first time, he spots a wall of bourbon and beelines to it.
“I’m definitely not in shape enough for ‘Top Chef,’ ” he says. “My body is probably about 60 percent bourbon, 20 percent pop, and 40 percent fried food … a whole lotta sexy.”
(OK, we didn’t say he could do math.)
Sutherland comes out strong as a chef, too, which is, well, the point.
In the “Quickfire Challenge,” a rapid cooking contest that comes at the top of every episode, he joins two other chefs on a team to make a dish with only two minutes of prep. After that, they lose their knives.
Sutherland’s teammate carves up a nice hunk of steak during prep, and then, mid-cooking, they realize they have no knives to slice it.
So Justin has the idea to poach an egg. The team delivers a poached egg with pickled beets, beef-fat-roasted carrots, roasted corn, mint and carrot tops. Judge Tom Colicchio loves it, saying it was “a dish that was really complex, was really well-rounded. It hit all the marks.” His team won the challenge.
The second part of the show is the “Elimination Challenge.” In this episode, the cheftestants have to make a dish for a derby party of 200 guests. The three-person teams from earlier now have to compete against one another. Those whose dishes are deemed a “win” are up to win the episode. Those in “place” are safe. And those in “show” are up for elimination.
Sutherland is definitely in his wheelhouse, as chef at two Southern-leaning restaurants.
“The Kentucky Derby, I mean, that’s my thing,” he says. “Me being a Yankee, not from the South, everyone kind of scoffs when they hear the kind of food I’m doing up in Minnesota, so this is a real opportunity to show, you know, a Minnesota boy can cook some Southern food.”
Then he tastes what he’s making.
“That’s [bleep] delicious,” he says. “Sorry for the F-bombs.” Apologizing like a true Minnesotan.
Sutherland throws a little shade at a fellow contestant making a beet and ricotta salad.
“All of us have paired a cheese and a beet. It’s generally not that inspiring,” he says. (And true to form, neither his Handsome Hog nor his Pearl and the Thief appear to have a beet and cheese salad on the menu. Phew.)
Instead, he comes out with shrimp and grits (the grits are cooked in coconut milk) with pink peppercorn and spiced, candied orange zest.
Colicchio said he was “loving the dish” and commended it for not being too sweet.
But Sutherland’s former teammate, Pablo, won the round with a fish dish. So Sutherland placed — and was safe from elimination.
Till next week, when we find out just how Justin keeps churning out so much good food with that much bourbon in his blood.
Other Minnesota sightings:
Contestant Kelsey Barnard Clark, from Dothan, Ala., gives her bona fides, which includes cooking with none other than Minnesota boy Gavin Kaysen.
“Top Chef: Kentucky” runs at 8 p.m. Thursdays on Bravo.