This article was originally published in the Lexington Herald Leader on June 1, 2018.
By: Janet Patton
How did Kentucky, a state known the world over for fast-food fried chicken, land the most sophisticated culinary show on reality television?
By baiting the hook with beautiful horses and bourbon, then reeling it in with beer cheese, a slice or two of Miguel's Pizza, homemade marshmallows, fresh-caught fish, 2-year-old country ham and 25-year-old Pappy Van Winkle, that's how.
The payoff will be exposure (the show averages more than 2 million total viewers) that will put Kentucky on the culinary tourism map. Already officials are preparing a Food and Wine official tour that will launch after the show airs this winter.
What should the state expect?
"Batten down the hatches!" joked "Top Chef" host Padma Lakshmi.
"It’s a chance to show how specific and special and unique different parts of this country are. I think that’s what 'Top Chef' does for a city … It allows that city to show to a wider world ... what you can only experience if you actually were here," Lakshmi said. "It’s a chance for Kentucky to shine, to show itself in all its nuances rather than with a wide brush stroke of just clichés. To get to the deeper, more rooty local things."
The quest for exposure started in 2016 when Kristen Branscum became the state travel and tourism commissioner. She noticed that Kentucky wasn't getting a lot of culinary love.
And, she was tired of going to conferences and seeing the same foods highlighted.
"It’s all about shrimp and grits … or gumbo and beignets," Branscum said. "Where’s our food?"
With a background in agriculture, Branscum knew Kentucky had the goods, so she started looking for the best way to showcase what the state's farmers and producers were doing. And in August 2016 in Florida, she found it.
"I was at a conference, and one of the producers for 'Top Chef' was on a panel with Art Smith, Oprah’s chef, talking about culinary tourism," Branscum said. She managed to get the producer's last business card.
"I thought, 'I’m going to take a swing at this.' I invited her to the Kentucky Derby," Branscum said. Early on in a May 2017 visit, she told the producer "you know I want 'Top Chef' here. We'll talk when you're ready. For now, I just want you to have a good time, enjoy Kentucky."
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