Top Chef Finalists Talk Preparing For The Show, Cooking Through Macau And Off-Camera Feasts

Food & Drink

Top Chef Season 16 finalists Sara Bradley, Eric Adjepong, Kelsey Barnard ClarkCarmo Correia/Bravo

Top Chef‘s latest season wraps up on Thursday, March 14, with three Cheftestants battling to become the sixteenth titled Top Chef: Sara Bradley, Kelsey Barnard Clark, and Eric Adjepong. Filmed in Kentucky before finalists were whisked off to the markets of Macau, the culinary competition will cap off with a cook-off in Macau, in which the Kentucky, Alabama and D.C.-based chefs must plate the best meal they’ve ever served, to win the hearts (and palates) of the Judge’s Table. We caught up with the finalists before the big finale:

How did you prepare to compete on Top Chef?

Kelsey Barnard Clark: If anything I was anti preparation. I started to go back and watch some of the seasons and I realized I needed to stop. It stressed me out. I was like nope, I’m just going to be myself and cook what I cook.

Sara Bradley: I am the opposite. I’m a nerd and I love homework. I watched a lot of the seasons and wrote down Quickfire and Challenge notes and tried to see what they were throwing at people. And I created a bunch of different dishes, three or four a week, constantly changing the menu [at my restaurant]. I wouldn’t come up with something early, but do it that day, so that I could come up with it quickly.

Eric Adjepong: I’m between the two of them — I tried not to over prep, but I think prepping is good in some places. I went to Kentucky for two weeks prior to the show, just to do come recon work and tried to learn up as much as I could. I went to Lexington, stayed in Louisville, dined out and went to the grocery store, just trying to absorb the culture. Before that, I’d never had a hot brown, and that ended up being a quickfire, which was cool. Also the barbecue. Kentucky people go hard with their food and their knowledge of it.

In what ways did cooking in Kentucky influence your dishes?

KC: I just tried to find a connection in every challenge with my Southern food and Kentucky Southern food, bridging the gap, just incorporating ingredients that are more Kentucky and cross over with things Alabama would use.

SB: What I focus on is cooking regional cuisine using local ingredients. Maybe sometimes it hurt me, maybe sometimes it helped me, but I tried to stay true to what I do.

EA: It was really easy to pick up inspiration in summertime in Kentucky, the ingredients and produce were so beautiful.

What were you eating off-camera in the Cheftestant house? 

KC: We cooked for each other, but we didn’t get to go out to eat.

EA: We had handlers who would get us produce and proteins that we wanted. When we did cook for each other we’d do a really good job and pull out all the stops. That’s one of those off-camera memories that will hold well forever.

SB: We had a house account at Whole Foods, and once we sent a PA to get King Crab for a boil. He came back with beautiful head-on shrimp and twenty pounds of gorgeous crab. If you go on Top Chef, take advantage of that house account.

EA: Sara is an excellent bartender and kept the flavor of Kentucky alive and well with the drinks that she made.

SB: I made a lot of Bourbon-based cocktails. A little booze helps a party go a long way. And we were really stressed out, so we needed that relaxation moment.

Kelsey, Sara and Eric in MacauCarmo Correia/Bravo

Did traveling to Macau change the way you cooked in the competition?

KC: I enjoyed it. You have to learn to relinquish your control pretty early in Top Chef.  When you’re somewhere where you don’t know the language, you go back to your primal instincts of cooking. You have your nose, you have your tools, you have your taste and you just cook. To me, it made it easier to not get caught up. I was just making flavors, food that tastes good.

EA: It brought me back to elementary stages, primal, like Kelsey said — if you don’t know how to read something, you know how to taste it and you know if it tastes good or not. Going back to basics invigorated those senses again.

SB: There are so many similarities between West African food and Southern food, which is what the three of us prefer to cook. There’s also a lot of French in those cuisines. But in the history of Southern food, you don’t really see Asian influence. But, the surprising thing, is we use all the same ingredients, like green peanuts and cabbage. The culture was a shock to me, but it was really cool to take Asian flavors and mix them with Southern cuisine.

Will Top Chef change your cooking moving forward?

KC: Every experience changes the way you cook. I’ve already taken little pieces from everything I’ve learned on the show.

EA: Every experience you have shapes you for the next meal you make.

SB: If you didn’t draw from your experiences, you’d be a crazy person. We were given the opportunity to do something amazing, and we all really embraced it.

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