From left to right, facing the camera: Maria Mazon, Gabriel Pascuzzi, Chris Viaud, and Avishar Barua

After a brief swerve last week, when we tagged in the eminently capable Julia Silverman for some A-grade recapping, we’re back to our regularly scheduled output from A Guy Who Has Seen Five to Six Total Episodes of Top Chef in His Whole Life. Lucky us!

We begin episode four with a customary rundown of last week’s ep—which Julia and Top Chef editors seem to agree was about Padma’s bangs first and “food” second—and then Padma is back on her damn hill, informing us that 12 chefs remain in the competition. After some artful, violin-backed shots of the St. Johns Bridge, we spend a moment with our contestants at the Hotel Monaco. Kiki Louya nervously sips some coffee and worries she’s “not cooking her.” Gabe Erales gets a Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar/Sam Rockwell in Moon moment where he FaceTimes his family and his daughter demands to know whether he’s won the whole competition yet. Shota Nakajima shows up, and I, choosing the path of light, will refrain from openly thirsting for him in a public forum.

After our check-in, everyone heads to the kitchen to meet a scary-smiling Padma (in amazing boots) for this week’s Quickfire Challenge, which is … pantry-themed. But what’s this? An array of pantry doors fly open to reveal hundreds of cans of gorgeous Campbell’s soup, and everyone applauds and goes “ahhhhh!” as Andy Warhol smiles from heaven.

The challenge is to cook something that evokes a food memory, but to elevate it with the “kitchen hack” known as Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup®. The winner gets immunity and a slice of that sweet sweet soup money: $10,000(!!!) from “our friends at Campbell’s.” As always, the time limit is 30 minutes. We’re absolutely about to get some Chopped-style shoehorned personal narratives (“This PB&J reminds me of the first time I stood up to my middle school bully” stuff), and I am pumped.

Portlander Gabriel Pascuzzi’s memory is the fact that he is from Oregon, I guess, because he grabs some mushrooms and shares that in Oregon we are “always eating chanterelles.” Fellow Portlander Sara Hauman opts for a “grandma chic” mushroom stroganoff. Maria Mazon makes a gay salad, “the first dish she ever cooked for her wife,” and leaps to the top of my coveted favorites list. Everyone is obsessed with their mom, which I love, and Nelson German and Gabe Erales lock themselves in a friendly war over their competing cod dishes (I am privately canonizing this week’s ep as “cod war–era”).

When it's time to eat, the judges go for Sara's stroganoff, Gabe's cod, sofrito, and cabbage, and perennial bottom-three-er Chris Scott's grilled cheese, an ode to his wife. They reject Nelson's seared cod with tomato-ginger sauce (guess this cod war does have a victor), Shota’s soupy chawanmushi with crab salad, and Kiki’s undercooked Swiss chard gratin. Chris ends up taking it, and learns a valuable lesson in not overthinking: “I just won making a grilled cheese,” he says in mild disbelief.

Wasting no time, Padma quickly introduces our still-sweaty contestants to the parameters of this week’s Elimination Challenge: Everyone will head to Oregon’s Fruit Loop in the Hood River Valley (avowed Fruit Loop stan Julia must be pissed she’s not writing this), home to an embarrassment of orchards rife with peaches, pears, apples, and plums. 

As always, there are twists. The chefs will do all their “shopping” at Mountain View Orchards near Parkdale, and then they'll be given three hours to cook their dishes on-site. What’s more? The dishes … have to be savory. This doesn’t seem like a big deal to me, but the revelation freezes everybody in their goddamn tracks—we're talking terror, discordant strings, and Stanley Kubrick zooms—so I guess it's very scary. Resident Zooey Deschanel Jamie Tran expresses nervousness about the lack of pre-shopping, but decides she will “go with God. Or Buddha. Or Allah, IDK.”

And then we’re driving! The chefs head east in small groups, providing a little time for chitchat in a tight, no-nonsense episode. Kiki is bruised from her bottom-three Quickfire placement, still scared she won't know how to cook like herself. (Either she’s out this week or we’re getting very conspicuously red-herringed.) Last week’s victor Dawn Burrell, entranced by the views, presses her face against the window and goes “look at these weird rocks.” A disembodied voice says, “Now I understand why people want to live in Oregon," which is also something I say every time I drive toward the Gorge despite the fact that I was born here.

Top Chef alum Carrie Baird and Boston/All Stars victor Melissa King are at the orchard to collect our chefs and deliver the challenge’s final twist before everyone is let loose: this will be a vegetable-free experience, and the only fruit they can use is what they pick themselves. Chile-loving Maria, arms outstretched, puts it poignantly: “The fuck?!”

Once the news has settled, the contestants get a chance to taste some Oregon fruit favorites (like the rose-fleshed pink pearl apple) before they’re sent off, wagons in tow, to collect their harvests. It’s immediate pandemonium, apples and pears pelting our heroes Wizard of Oz–style as they fall from surrounding trees.

Nelson’s feet start to give out. Gabriel expresses his relief to be back in Oregon after years in New York, where you can’t “get out to nature” like this (which, there are orchards in New York state?). Sara assures her peers that she’s developed “a sauce plan.” She asks Shota if he wants to collect Akane apples with her, which are also known as “Tokyo Roses.” “Why, because I’m Japanese?” he asks. “Yeah,” she fires back. “OK!” he responds gleefully, and they’re off.

Before long, everyone is open-air cooking, and head judge Tom Colicchio makes the rounds to each chef's station, injecting that specific brand of fear you feel when the teacher glances over your shoulder while you write. Gabriel shares his plan to serve each judge three oysters with a variety of acid-heavy fruit sauces. Avishar is making "Ohiotto," an Ohio risotto(?), to which Tom raises his eyebrows so high they escape the boundaries of his face.

Subject to equal scrutiny is Kiki’s decision to make fried chicken wings with grilled peaches. She’s thrown by Tom’s skepticism ("maybe I shouldn't grill the peaches," she admits, and it's like babe, I don't think that's the problem here), but she decides to stay the course. I think that she is going to go home. 

While Shota pickles salmon, a backwards-hat-sporting Gabriel shouts “son of a bitch” because he has been stung by a bee, and I’m reminded of an idyllic moment in 2018 when I went apple picking in suburban Massachusetts and a bee flew into my mouth and stung my tongue while I was trying to chomp into a stolen pink lady. 💕 Gabriel just shakes it off and says, “Come on, bro,” which I do ultimately admire because I made everyone drive me to CVS and then watch Paddington 2 when we got back to Boston.

While pasta aficionado Byron Gomez folds some dough (he decided to make pasta in an orchard: profiles in courage), a breeze kicks in, and he ominously shouts, "Here comes the wind.” And then it’s Judges’ Table time.

Kwame Onwuachi sports a great lime green jacket and Tom Colicchio shows up in what many in the community are calling A Hat. We cut back and forth between hungry judges and stressed contestants, dealing with fickle winds and fluctuating temperatures and risotto that will not reduce. Avishar is like, “I messed rice up once, I can’t do it again,” and I’m like, buddy, take a page from my book and let one single failure prevent you from ever trying anything similarly risky for the rest of your stupid life! 

Contestants present their dishes in pairs. Gabe’s smoke-glazed plums with pork and chicken leave Amar Santana literally licking his plate. Gabriel braces himself for criticism that “all he made was three oysters,” which, TBH, read my mind, but the oysters go over well. Avishar’s risotto isn’t fruity enough, both al dente and mushy. Nelson serves scallops with apple shallot relish (apparently alliums were allowed??) that’s garnished within an inch of its life. Kiki’s fried chicken is...straight-up raw. 

The judges and Tom’s hat (like New York, its own character) make a final toast with a snowy peak behind them, then return to Portland for deliberations. The bottom three: Avishar, Nelson, and Kiki. The cream of the crop: Gabriel's oysters (Padma saying "those oysters ate beautifully" is my own personal "cellar door"), Chris's scallops, plums, and pickled apples, and Gabe's plate-licking plum and poultry/pork combo. In the end, Gabe takes it, and Occam's razor makes a merciless slice: Kiki's chicken was literally and actually raw, which is gross and dangerous, so she packs her knives and heads to Last Chance Kitchen

Next week, Top Chef goes to the movies* (*the drive-in at the Expo Center), and rest assured, someone here will recap it for you!