Hello! It’s me, your other Top Chef recapper. PoMo food editor Katherine Chew Hamilton and I will be tag-teaming coverage this season, passing the baton off week to week. If you missed her recap of the season 18 premiere, you can check it out here. If you haven’t seen this week’s episode, don’t read this, obviously.
Some disclaimers before we preheat the oven: I have never seen Top Chef before, except for maybe once with someone I had a crush on circa 2012. I love food, but I am not a food writer, and if you want thoughtful breakdowns of the cheffy choices our contestants make and the flavor balances they achieve, I am sorry to say you’re much more likely to find those in my esteemed colleague’s recaps. I’m coming at this purely as a Portlander, a culture writer, and a TV Enjoyer who has probably not watched a full reality competition show front-to-back since season 8 of American Idol. (Yes, the Adam Lambert season; yes, I was a closeted seventh grader. Moving on.) All that said, it’s time for me to heat up an incredibly small portion of soggy miso pasta I made two days ago (brag) and get to watching!
This week’s episode opens with Padma Lakshmi on a hill somewhere talking about San Pellegrino. You don’t know that she’s on a hill until she’s almost done talking about San Pellegrino, and when that hill shows up, it’s a big reveal! She’s rocking a cream turtleneck and recapping last week’s episode (coming for my gig), and she brings up a Food & Wine festival somewhere in Colorado that has tiny forks. The winner of this season will get to cook there I guess. Neat!
Then we check in on our chefs, who are having a contrived conversation about their insecurities in a room filled with a bunch of Padma Lakshmi's favorite drink, San Pellegrino. They share their deepest fears with shocking ease, and not to out myself as a theater kid in paragraph four of this recap, but the energy is very similar to the deranged “we’ll be best friends forever” invincibility backstage at the closing night of a community center production of Our Town.
Before long, everyone is rounded up and led into “the Top Chef Diner” for a quickfire challenge, where they’ll cook breakfast for a panel of all-stars, including special guest Carrie Baird, who was a finalist on season 15. The challenge is a tribute to short-order cooks (whom I will be referring to henceforth as “short kings”). Padma tells us “Portland is a breakfast town” and turns to Gregory Gourdet for backup—he confirms, citing Fried Egg, I’m in Love, Canard, and Mother’s Bistro—and it’s like, sure, but also you can get breakfast anywhere? Doesn't seem fair to other cities that we get to corner the market on one of the three meals.
Anyway, the format of the challenge is insanely high stress: each judge shouts out their breakfast order, and the first two chefs to ring a bell have to make it in 30 minutes. Seven dishes in all, and the contestant with the most beloved breakfast wins immunity in the elimination round.
After the timer kicks off, we get to spend some time with our contestants, and I get to learn some things, like: I have an enormous crush on Shota Nakajima from Seattle (am allowed to say this? that earring!), Maria Mazon is the best actor on the show (her line reading of “I’m not going to make dim sum for Michelle. What would it be? Tiny quesadillas? No thank you,” is the first of three home runs this week), Jamie Tran is my queen (competitions give me anxiety, too, girl), and Byron Gomez discovered his passion for cooking as a teenager flipping patties at Burger King.
Once things really get rolling, it’s madness: An unprepared Avishar Barua commits himself to dim sum, despite calling it “one of the most difficult things to make,” which seems fake to me, but maybe I'm wrong? Steaks start sizzling. Eggs start flying. Special guest Carrie Baird orders “fancy toast,” which is simply not an order. In a reference to Sara Hauman, the Portlander who won last week, Shota says he “loves Sara but her anxiety overpowers him,” which does not bode well for our future together.
Eventually, each pair of chefs present their dishes, and the judges pick seven winners: they love Gabe Erales’s steak and eggs, Shota’s shrimp dumplings, Jamie’s shrimp gochujang polenta, Gabriel’s pineapple and spam fried rice, Sasha Grumman’s sweet potato hash (without the requested egg, whose absence provides some suspense), Brittany Anderson’s mushroom toast, and Chris Viaud’s hash with hollandaise. In the end, Queen Jamie takes it, and she’s so overwhelmed that she can’t properly respond to Padma’s question about how the victory feels. Instead, she opts to make little laser noises with her mouth, Padma visibly winces, and Jamie compares herself to Rocky Balboa in voiceover. It rules.
Wasting no time, we move right to the elimination round, which is centered around ... coffee and beer! Admittedly more Portland than the meal breakfast. Each contestant draws a knife (I think this show's obsession with knives is very metal) to indicate which brew their dish will focus on, and then they get to shop for their ingredients on iPads, which is chic to me, because I still think iPads are new technology. They drive to Whole Foods (the one in the Pearl?? eagle-eyed PoMo readers, please help me figure out which Whole Foods this is) to pick up their orders, and then I realize we're in our first semidystopian moment of the episode: they were shopping on iPads because they're all quarantined together, and they don't want to go to a grocery store and risk contracting the pandemic virus that is still at large. Woof! (When I am the show runner of Top Chef post-pandemic, they will keep using the cutting-edge tech known as iPad, and we will shepherd Bravo into a brave new future.)
Once everyone is shopped out, they return to the San Pellegrino room at downtown's Hotel Monaco to generate some emotional investment from us viewers. Sasha, we learn in a touching moment, is recently sober, and Brittany is her BFF. Sara kisses a fish at the Hotel Monaco every night for good luck. Shota is "the crazy one," which reignites my crush with a vengeance. It's all very polite, and the threat of elimination hangs over the whole affair, like a low-stakes Agatha Christie novel where everybody gets to live but only one person gets to cook at a Food & Wine festival in Colorado with tiny forks.
After a commercial break I did not watch (flaunting my journo privilege!), the chefs roll up to the Red Star Tavern and meet head judge Tom Colicchio, who's wearing a Knives Out sweater. (Maria gets her second amazing line reading of the ep here, when she shouts, "Shit! Tomás!") He delivers a plot twist: though they’d shopped for individual dishes, members of team beer and team coffee will be pairing up to produce a beer-coffee hybrid dish for the elimination challenge. Each chef must "put something of themselves on the plate," however, because the person responsible for the worst component of the worst dish will head home.
Portlander Gabriel Pascuzzi and Texan Dawn Burrell are the "last kids picked for kickball," and end up a de facto pair. At one point, Gabriel yells "no pepper!" while Dawn is putting pepper on her ribs, which will unfortunately be an invasive thought for me for the next week or so. Dawn rightly calls him out for trying to “chefsplain” ribs to her, and she peppers them anyway. Sara (who, again, won both of last week's challenges) teams up with Gabe Erales to make a pork tenderloin with coffee hazelnut salsa macha. BFFs Brittany and Sasha pair up, and my reality TV instincts kind of make me want their union to go up in flames.
After a lot of scribbling and frying and fretting about pasta thickness, Padma and co walk in slow motion down SW Fifth Avenue toward the Red Star, and it's time to try some brewskis! In Hunger Games–adjacent moment no. 2, masked and face-shielded servers bring out each chef’s creation one by one, and the judges discuss them privately. Their top three: Avishar and Shota's lobster sunomono, Gabe and Sara’s pork and salsa, and Gabriel and Dawn’s fraught (and peppered!) beer-braised pork ribs. The bottom two: Brittany and Sasha’s beer-marinated pork loin with coffee romesco, and Byron and Chris’s coffee and berberry-spiced duck breast with mushroom tortellini.
Avishar and Shota take the gold, and Shota’s nontoxic masculinity (“I always believed in you,” he tells Avishar) gives me mild palpitations. Sorry to the city of Portland for crushing on the Seattle guy. When it’s bottom two time, Padma becomes absolutely stone cold: when she asks Brittany and Sasha, “How do you two think today went?”, I had to pause for air. In the end, Sasha gets the boot, and I get excited about “pack your knives and go” as a sendoff. It’s no “sashay away,” but it’s pretty sick.
Next week, pan-African cuisine is on the menu, and beloved North Portland spot Akadi is in the spotlight. Check in then for a recap from the lovely Katherine.