A traditionalist Top Chef Master battles a culinary newcomer for the soul of the American South.

By John Vilanova
Updated October 02, 2014 at 03:05 AM EDT
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The American South has a culinary history all its own. Temperate climates have bred a bounty of distinctive local ingredients from collard greens to crawfish, and the blending—or Creolization, if you will—of cultures has cultivated a cuisine that is uniquely “American” in its multiplicity. Dishes are generational, cuisine is comfortable, and food is a way to look back home in the South, where the past always informs the present. But this week on Top Chef duels, generations do battle as the historic traditions of the Southern old guard draw knives against the new.

On one end is modernist Kevin Gillespie—one of Top Chef‘s most considered culinary voices. Kevin was a standout competitor in the stellar Las Vegas cast, finishing third to the brothers Voltaggio but impressing the judges each week with his distinctive point-of-view, which drew complex flavors out of the simplest ingredients and ideas. Though still soft-spoken, he’s a restaurateur now, and his new Atlanta kitchen Gunshow is a realization of the vision that we first saw on Top Chef five years ago; it draws upon the historic past of the south to create a new future.

On the other is Top Chef Master Art Smith, southern classicist. I have to admit right off that I often struggle with Art—at first glance, he’s just another celebrity chef, whose persona, résumé, and brand image (Did you know he was once Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef?!) outstrip his skills in the kitchen. For all his personal pomp-and-circumstance, though, he has earned respect among the Top Chef community for cooking his food in his own distinct way. It’s not high-concept. It’s not fancy. But it’s comforting, soulful, and delicious. And it’s fried. That usually helps.

So for the first and only duel pitting a former Masters competitor against a regular-season competitor, the battleground was always going to be the place each of these chefs called home. But let’s be honest: down-home cooking means different things for each of them. It’s an interesting juxtaposition—the unpretentious newcomer with the high-concept palate versus the bona fide celebrity whose food remains referentially rustic even as his bank account swells beyond his humble beginnings.

Though Kevin is as controlled and no-nonsense as ever, he’s gone whole-hog into his quickfire challenge, forcing Art to sharpen his knives and butcher nine different pork cuts from half a pig. It’s a clever dig at Art, who admits he’s never butchered before—he pays people now to do it for him while he hobnobs with heads-of-state.

NEXT: A butchery battle

Part of me thinks that Curtis was far more lenient in judging Art’s 15-minute hack job than he should’ve been, but Art manages to find the proper cut and prepare a gravy-smothered, quick-fried pork chop. It’s funny—despite my reservations about Art and his profile, his food is always beloved by the judges, in part because despite the pretenses, the story he tells through his food feels genuine. It’s fascinating to hear Gail talk about all the things her training tells her the food needs—acid, crunch, etc.—but that generations of cooks have eschewed. Art does, too, of course, and he’s right to do so.

Kevin, on the other hand, is as economical with his knife as he is with his words, perfectly portioning his pig in five minutes. You have to sift through Art’s performance to see his soul; Kevin wears his on his tattooed sleeve—he’s a gentle, warm man whose respect for his food coaxes the best flavors out of it. In this case, it’s a Vietnam-by-way-of-Georgia shaking pork dish with a marinade of fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar that Gail calls bright and modern, but it’s somehow still soulful and Southern.

Kevin gets docked points for intentionally undercooking his pork (virtually the same thing happened on the season 6 finale, you’ll remember), and it’s a surprisingly close vote when guest judge Hugh Acheson awards Art for his classic presentation. Gail rewards Kevin’s balance and creativity, despite the too-pink pork, whereas Curtis seems genuinely torn. He begrudgingly breaks the tie, awarding Kevin the win and $10,000 for refinement. It was a close call, but part of me thinks there was no way Art could’ve won after what he did to his pig.

Every time I get sick of Art’s posturing, though, he does something like dial up a “critter fry” quickfire that reminds us of his authentic past. His critter of choice is rabbit, which he fries and serves with a hoecake, buttermilk dressing, and fresh tomatoes and cucumbers. It’s another real classic; it doesn’t look pretty, but it never did and it wasn’t supposed to.

Though their perspectives on the cuisine differ, Art and Kevin can at least agree that frying is a fail-safe solution. (“I’ll fry a table leg if you want me to. It’d probably be alright,” Kevin jokes.) Without a chance to prepare for the challenge, Kevin falls back to the classics himself, with a quail taking poultry’s place in a chicken-and-waffles riff with cornbread pancakes and a spicy syrup. He’s concerned about the doneness of his birds, and as the plates sit and wait for the judges forks, his quail overcooks.

It turns out Art’s rabbit pieces were also a bit overdone, leading to another close call between the lesser of two tasty (but seemingly imperfect) plates. Curtis picks Art, Hugh picks the classic again and chooses Kevin, and Gail’s deciding vote goes to Art, who promises the $10,000 to Arden Shore Child & Family Services. For all the criticisms I have of Art, he certainly seems like a generous and giving man.

NEXT: Just what the doctor ordered

Since the producers probably figured both chefs would cook Southern-style food no matter what the contours of the duel was, the three-course meal revolves around the guest judges—five cast members from Grey’s Anatomy. I’ll admit that I’m not a fan (I assume there’s a McSomething in their midst?), but Sarah Drew, Jerrika Hinton, Camilla Luddington, Kevin McKidd (McSomethingElse on the show?), and James Pickens Jr. are a welcomingly friendly group after last week’s judges’ table fiasco. It’s funny how self-aware they are, admitting that the dinner’s themes—stress relief, cures for homesickness, and mending broken hearts—are right in line with their show’s MO.

For stress relief, Kevin goes very “scientific,” citing the healing powers of unilaterally cooked salmon, asparagus, and orange with melted leeks. I’m not sure I buy the vitamin-infusion properties of his dish and it’s a little busier than we’re used to from him, but the judges are happy. If anything, Art’s chicken dumpling soup seems more comforting, especially since we’re hitting cold-and-flu season. Of course he serves biscuits and of course they’re amazing. That’s what Art Smith does.

Though Art always places fairly well when he appears on Top Chef Masters, you had to figure that Kevin would be a formidable opponent. For Art to win, he needs to allow the sincerity and comfort of his food to come through, playing to his strengths as storyteller and historian. Nothing really speaks to that more than his entrée—pan-fried chicken with spoonbread—and Wolfgang Puck (who’s merely a dinner guest this week) is moved to tears because it reminds him of home. Maybe his mother and Art’s exchanged recipes across the Atlantic.

Kevin does Art one better here, though, constructing a dish that combines his Southern roots with the future he’s helping the food to realize. Only Kevin could make a dish called potlicker soup—the broth left behind from cooking collard greens served with whole roasted pork loin, pureed cornbread, and a pork-and-bread-stuffed collard green dumpling—look so composed and refined. By this point, it’d become kind of clear that Kevin was probably going to be moving on.

But if we’d had to place bets on who would be the chef to break into tears at judges’ table, Kevin certainly would’ve had long odds. I hate to be critical, but his grandmother’s Thanksgiving-day banana pudding with fried banana, pound cake, boiled vanilla custard and a meringue feels more emotional in conception than it does ultimately in presentation. Something tells me Kevin’s grandmother wasn’t making meringues, particularly ones that are “all wrong” in the judges’ eyes.

With that, Art’s Smith family 12-layer chocolate fudge cake with rhubarb jam and strawberries probably wins the dessert round. After the disastrous wedding cake he baked on Masters years ago, I’m happy this one stayed standing long enough for him to cut and serve.

After all that, Kevin is a deserving winner and a fitting ambassador for the new South. Art can go back to cooking for ambassadors and other heads of state, but in a lot of ways, Kevin owes something to Art and those who have come before him. He is the future, but the past and present are equally alive and well.

Episode Recaps

Top Chef Duels

Celebrity chefs Curtis Stone and Gail Simmons decide the best chef as two past contestants go head-to-head in each episode.
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