The Top Chef Season 16 winner earned her title both with her nuanced cooking and by endearing herself to fans with an emotional connection to her food.
The Top Chef Season 16 winner was announced in a hard fought finale episode. While the last episode of the season started with three chefs in contention, the four course final meal was a battle between two fan favorites. Which chef earned the coveted title from these esteemed judges?
As the episode opened, three chefs saw a montage of their highlights from Top Chef Season 16. Sara, Kelsey and Eric saw that their journey was part expertise and glory in the kitchen and part emotional connection to the dishes that they created. This careful balance was the reason why these chefs were still standing.
Looking at all the chefs in the Top Chef competition, all of them had the technical skill set to win. The difference between winning and losing is more than technique. All season long, the winning dishes had a story, a deep rooted connection to the chef and caused the judges to experience a moment with each bite. That skill goes beyond the cooking techniques honed on the line.
TOP CHEF — “Finale” Episode 1615 — Pictured: (l-r) Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, Eric Adjepong — (Photo by: Carmo Correia/Bravo)
All three chefs planned their four course finale menu. With the help of two former contestant as sous chefs, everyone went shopping and started cooking. To narrow the three chefs to just two, each chef presented the first course of their meal. The judges then decided which chef had cooked his last dish.
For the first course, the three dishes were very, very different. Sara went with layered flavors. Her spin on a shrimp boil with peanuts but using Asian flavors was curious. It had the heart of Kentucky but showed her growth through the competition.
Eric stayed true to his vision. The jerk beef tartare was robust in flavor. Spices were intended to hit the judges’ palates right off the bat. While he did include a lotus root chip, the nod to Macau was minimal.
Eric’s first course, TOP CHEF — Episode 1615 — (Photo by: Carmo Correia/Bravo)
Kelsey channeled a memory from her childhood. A cornbread dish with buttermilk was part interactive, part sense memory. Her story blended her family with her Top Chef experience. While the flavors were delicate, it appeared as a lovely anticipation of her future courses.
The chef eliminated was Eric. Unfortunately, his beef tartare was overwhelmed by the spices. While strong spice can be invigorating, it shouldn’t mask the main protein. In this dish, the balance of flavors was off (and his lotus root chip was burnt).
It was encouraging to know that the Top Chef Season 16 winner was going to be a woman chef. More importantly, throughout this season, Sara and Kelsey proved that women can be friends, support each and still want to win. They tasted each other’s dishes, they were emotionally supportive and they never threw each other under the bus. That storyline was as important as the food.
In today’s culinary world, women in the kitchen is hot topic. While not necessarily intentional, this Top Chef season was about women chefs. They showed that emotion isn’t a point of weakness. Emotion makes good food great.
For the final meal, Sara and Kelsey presented their four course dinner separately. After talking to the judges, they were able to tweak their first course dishes. Even though both meals were outstanding, the smallest technical errors would make the difference between winning and losing.
TOP CHEF — Episode 1615 — Kelsey’s first course — (Photo by: Carmo Correia/Bravo)
Kelsey opened with her four course meal. She tweaked the first course by adding crawfish to her cornbread and buttermilk. The dish benefited from a protein. While still subtle, it was a little more substantial.
The second course was clearly her best course. The oyster with a vichyssoise was a showstopper. The technique in that small bite was superb. This dish deserves every bit of praise and hopefully will be available on a menu somewhere.
TOP CHEF — Episode 1615 — Kelsey’s second course (Photo by: Carmo Correia/Bravo)
Her third course was slightly a miss. The fried soft shell crab wasn’t a smart follow up to the oyster. It wasn’t heavy enough to be a main course. The dipping sauce aspect didn’t seem like it worked into the course progression.
Lastly, everyone knew that Kelsey would make a dessert. She choose a deconstructive peach cobbler. While the lotus blossom ice cream was controversial, this dessert was a lovely example of her Top Chef journey.
The dessert blended a classic, Southern staple with Macau ingredients. It showed that food is universal across cultures. Names might be different. Flavors might vary. Still, the emotional connection to the food on the plate is universal.
Sara’s four course meal offered a bolder, daring progression. She tweaked her first course dish. By adding some herbs, the dish had a little brighter note as well as added to the depth of flavor. Her first course was a big hit.
TOP CHEF — Episode 1615 — Sara’s first course- (Photo by: Carmo Correia/Bravo)
For her second course, she knew that there was going to be a problem. Her pork belly had more salt than she had expected. While her concept was spot on, the local ingredients let her down a little. No amount of orange juice could cut the extra salinity from the pork belly. The corn was lost in the mix. While not horrendous, the dish needed to be re-thought.
Her third dish was a beautiful plate of duck. The sear on the duck skin was sublime. It was a cute play to include vegetables that she hated as a kid. This type of story instantly connected the judges (and the fans) to that concept. How often have people hated a food once only to fall in love with it? This dish was visually impressive as well as delicious.
TOP CHEF — Episode 1615 — Sara’s fourth course (Photo by: Carmo Correia/Bravo)
The final course was Sara’s home run. The beef with mushroom and crispy rice was a symphony in flavor and texture. It was clearly the judges’ favorite plate of food. Hopefully, Sara adds a version of this dish to her restaurant’s menu.
Overall, the two finale meals were equally impressive. The two Southern chefs showed that Southern food isn’t just fried chicken, grits and greens. Southern food tells a story.
From a childhood food memory to honoring family, Southern food shines when it makes a connection to the diner. It brings back a sense memory. Maybe your grandmother didn’t make cornbread, but there might have been a favorite Sunday gravy. That universal connection to food binds all food fans together.
TOP CHEF — Episode 1615 — Top Chef Season 16 winner (Photo by: Carmo Correia/Bravo)
The Top Chef Season 16 winner was Kelsey (Kelsey Barnard Clark). Additionally, Kelsey won Season 16 fan favorite, too.
Either chef deserved the title this year. Kelsey won because her meal made that universal emotional connection. Each judge saw a plate of food and knew it was from Kelsey. From start to finish, her vision on a plate was clear.
Congratulations to Kelsey and all the chefs who competed on Top Chef Season 16. Anyone else looking forward to taking a Top Chef road trip to sample all these chefs’ amazing dishes?
What was your favorite part of Top Chef Season 16? Which dish do you wish that you were able to eat?