It’s been a busy past few months for Justin Sutherland, the St. Paul chef and “Iron Chef America” winner who opened a new restaurant last summer, became managing partner of eight additional restaurants in December and was recently named the culinary consultant for Minnesota United at the new Allianz Field. Oh, he also joined the cast of the current season of “Top Chef.”
As of Thursday night, he can cross one item off his to-do list. Sutherland, of the Handsome Hog in Lowertown St. Paul, was eliminated from “Top Chef.”
Throughout his run on the show, in which he competed with 14 other chefs for a $125,000 prize, Sutherland came across as a genial competitor, hyperexcited to be participating in cooking challenges centered on everything from the Grand Ole Opry to Muhammad Ali’s famous fights. In the kitchen, he was a star, with his creative, often Southern dishes landing him near the top most weeks.
His elimination was especially hard because it came during an episode where the remaining six contestants had to cook a dish for their chef mentors.
Sutherland’s mentor was chef J.D. Fratzke of the former Strip Club Meat and Fish, who is in the midst of opening a supper club in Cannon Falls. Another “Top Chef” contestant, Kelsey Barnard Clark, brought in her mentor from her days at Café Boulud in New York City: Minneapolis’s own Gavin Kaysen, of Spoon and Stable and the new Demi.
Those two local star chefs' appearances made for another Minnesota moment in a season full of them thanks to Sutherland.
From Sutherland’s first appearance on “Top Chef,” which was filmed in Kentucky this season, he waved his Minnesota-ness like the state flag.
“I want to be here to show the world the kind of food that’s coming out of Minnesota,” he said in the series premiere.
He honored his home state through food, first by making an all-purple Prince-inspired dish for a music challenge, and then with a high-end Juicy Lucy that won him accolades and taught the wider world about Minnesota’s beloved stuffed cheeseburger. On another episode that took place on a boat, Sutherland waxed on about his love of the Minnesota lake life.
If all a “Top Chef” viewer knows about Minnesota is lakes, Prince and Juicy Lucys, we’d have to say Sutherland taught them well.
Sutherland also rallied fans here at home, hosting raucous watch parties on Thursdays at the Handsome Hog and ongoing collaboration dinners with other “Top Chef” contestants. There’s a sold out New Orleans-style dinner next week, Feb. 28, with Barnard Clark and Sara Bradley (along with Fratzke and local pastry chef Carrie Summer) and one on March 7 with contestant David Viana.
Early on “Top Chef,” Sutherland stood out with his performance in the fast-paced Quickfire Challenges. He won in the very first episode for a perfectly poached egg and later for his “Kentucky Fried Breakfast Brown,” a spin on the hot brown sandwich similar to one he makes at Handsome Hog. On this week’s episode, he won again for a salad from vegetables he grew himself in the “Top Chef” mansion garden.
But a couple of small missteps kept him from winning the more important Elimination Challenges.
The week he paid homage to Prince, he forgot to plate one dish for the judges, disqualifying him from what might have been a winning entree of roasted New York strip, braised red cabbage, beet potato dumplings and braised purple pearl onions — a dish he called “Purple Rain.” In another episode, his overconfidence got in the way of managing his team in the intense Restaurant Wars challenge.
This week, he tried to do too much with a fresh California yellowtail, serving it two ways.
Sutherland was attempting to honor his mentor, Fratzke. “I call J.D. my Yoda,” he said. “He’s the first chef that taught me you can be a tough chef but also an incredible person.”
He made a green tea-smoked sashimi on one side of the plate and a miso-cured piece of the fish on the other.
“This dish speaks to the two sides of J.D. — bold flavors and also the simplest preparation and letting it be what it is,” he told the judges and other guest chefs.
Kaysen said some pieces of the fish were overcooked, while others were undercooked. Others said the dish was greasy and bland.
But Fratzke appreciated Sutherland branching out from his “wheelhouse.”
“Justin — he is something special,” Fratzke said. “He incorporates everything that he does in his life into the way that he approaches the things he cooks and the way that he treats people.”
That wasn’t enough to keep him on the show another week and enter the finals, when the remaining contestants go to Macau. Instead, host Padma Lakshmi told him to pack his knives and go.
“It sucks,” Sutherland said after the elimination. “I’m a realist. You know, only one person’s eventually going to make it. It still sucks.”
But his optimism shined through.
“This competition definitely was a confidence booster and kind of validated what I do. It helped me unlock some things inside myself that I forgot were there. It’s been the biggest test as a chef, test as a person, and I’ll leave ‘Top Chef’ forever grateful.”
A Minnesota Nice way to go.