Chef Kelsey Barnard Clark of Dothan, Ala., became the 16th winner of “Top Chef” on Thursday night in a finale episode that featured a Southern showdown, pitting her against Kentucky chef Sara Bradley. The two women advanced after D.C. chef Eric Adjepong was eliminated partway through the episode, placing third in the competition. And his fans, who were rooting for the Ghanaian-American chef and his West African food, aren’t happy about it.
Tasked with cooking the meal of a lifetime in Macau, Adjepong announced early in the episode that his food would “tell the story of the transatlantic slave trade and how those flavors migrated to the South.” It was a point of view that set him apart from all the other contestants this season. Bradley and Barnard Clark told a story about the South, too, but it was less historical and more personal: Basically, it was inspired by their childhoods, drawing on memories of summers, vacations and grandparents.
Contestants had to present their first courses to the judges for an instant elimination. Barnard Clark made a buttermilk soup to be poured over corn bread, prepared using her grandmother’s corn bread skillet. Bradley made chile prawns with boiled peanuts, a dish that she said reminded her of driving to family vacations. Adjepong made a jerk-spiced tartare with fried lotus fruit chips — but, unfortunately, he burned the chips, leading to his elimination.
Though Bradley and Barnard Clark’s first courses were better executed, there was a difference in the scope of what they and Adjepong were trying to present. It left many viewers wondering what it would have been like to see the rest of Adjepong’s menu, which had the potential to be an elegant culinary lesson in how to reckon with America’s terrible history of slavery.
Barnard Clark won viewers over with her consistent performance, sunny personality and story of being a new mom who left her young child with her husband to compete on the show. She also won fan favorite; Adjepong placed second in that competition, for which viewers voted online. She’ll take home $125,000, as well as opportunities for publicity and appearances furnished by the show and its sponsors. She runs a restaurant and catering business, KBC, in Dothan. Bradley, who was known as the “hometown” contestant because most of the season was set in Kentucky, runs a Paducah, Ky., restaurant called Freight House.
Adjepong was profiled in The Washington Post in November and told his story of being raised by Ghanaian immigrant parents in the Bronx. The inherited trauma of slavery isn’t part of Adjepong’s family history, but because he is a black man in America, he bears it nonetheless.
“If I walk around on the street, someone wouldn’t recognize me as Eric the African,” he told The Post in November. “They would say Eric the black man. So that’s something that I automatically have to attach to.”
That, and a return to Ghana while completing a master’s degree, sparked his interest in the culinary history of slavery.
Given that Adjepong performed so well on “Top Chef,” investors and a restaurant are sure to follow. In November, he told The Post his concept for a first restaurant, so, if Adjepong gets his way, the meal he would have cooked for the finale may find its way to a menu in the District soon:
Guests would be “starting off in one port in Africa and veering off” to other destinations of the diaspora caused by the slave trade. The menu would serve West African food, as well as South American, Latin American and American dishes influenced by West African traditions. There would be dishes such as his scallop yassa, a fine-dining take on a classic Senegalese dish, with black rice, squash and a palm wine-butter sauce, plated to look like a piece of jewelry. It would be elegant but not stuffy, and educational and political without being preachy.
In the meantime, he continues to host pop-up dinners for his company, Pinch and Plate, which he runs with his wife. The series is sold out.
More from Voraciously: