Top Chef

‘Top Chef’ Season 18, Episode 1 Recap: Big Bird

Gregory Gourdet and Padma Lakshmi welcomed 15 “cheftestants” to the Rose City.

By Katherine Chew Hamilton April 3, 2021

Portland chef Sara Hauman, left, and her teammates during a Quickfire Challenge

Warning: This article contains spoilers! You can watch the episode here

Top Chef has returned to Bravo for its 18th season, and it promises to be a season like none other. Yes, it’s the only season that has been filmed in a pandemic—the contestants and judges and production crew all bubbled up at a hotel. More excitingly, it’s the first season that’s been filmed in Portland, and given our longtime status as a food-obsessed city, we’d say this has been a long time coming. And this season’s crop of “cheftestants,” as the show calls them, promises to be a particularly talented one. In the words of Tom Colicchio in this season’s sneak preview: “This could be one of the best collections of chefs we’ve had on the show in 18 seasons.”

Gourdet served as a guest judge and welcomed the cheftestants to Portland alongside Padma Lakshmi.

The contestants include two Portlanders: Gabriel Pascuzzi, chef-owner of Stacked Sandwich Shop and Mama Bird, and Sara Hauman, head chef at Soter Vineyards in Carlton. (See our Season 18 preview for more information on our Portland chefs.) Portlander Gregory Gourdet also appears as a guest judge, welcoming the contestants alongside judge and host Padma Lakshmi. But other contestants caught my eye, too. Chef Nelson German’s Dominican-inspired restaurant alaMar and sister bar Sobre Mesa in Oakland were standouts for me when I was living and writing in Oakland. Shota Nakajima’s cooking also looks intriguing—he’s a chef in Seattle focusing on regional Japanese food. Former Olympic long jumper Dawn Burrell is experienced in Japanese and Southern food, and is currently forging a new Afro-Asian dining concept in Houston. Kiki Louya, meanwhile, is a food activist, chef, and consultant in Detroit, and was named one of the New York Times’ 16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America. Last but not least, Brittanny Anderson of Richmond, Virginia, specializes in Alpine cooking, which I’ve never heard of but sounds delightfully cheesy.

Before even learning each other’s names, the chefs were assigned teams at random for their first Quickfire Challenge. I let out a sympathy groan for the contestants as they said their awkward hellos. Each group of three was tasked with cooking a dish using each chef’s can’t-live-without-it ingredient. 

Sara’s must-have was anchovies, and her teammates chose hot peppers and Meyer lemons—natural, vibrant accompaniments for fish. Gabriel, however, wasn’t so lucky: he chose caul fat, Brittanny chose Gruyère cheese, and their third teammate, Maria Mazon, who cooks Mexican cuisine in Tucson, chose Mexican chocolate. 

After throwing around a ton of ideas to no avail, the team finally settled on making mole. But tensions flared up again when deciding what to pair with the mole. “Can we do something with seafood, or no? Gabriel asked. Brittany and Maria immediately rejected the idea. 

“I looked at him like, ‘Are you pendejo?!’” Maria said to the camera.

Later, Gabriel got into a scuffle with Brittanny over some thyme stems on their plated pork mole. “No, no, they’re in, they’re in, don’t grab those!” Gabriel exclaimed. “You want to keep them?” Brittanny asked.

“I worked for Tom Colicchio. That’s something he does all the time,” Gabriel responded.

“Well, he does, not us!” replied Maria.

Tensions brewed between Gabriel, right, and his teammates.

The dish they ultimately served—pork mole with Gruyère gremolata—was a hit with the judges. Yet it didn’t blow the judges away the way that Sara’s team’s harissa-seared halibut with hot pepper–tomato relish and lemon-anchovy salsa verde did, earning her team the first win of the season, plus immunity and an advantage in the next elimination challenge.

This first elimination challenge was nothing to sneeze at. Chefs were randomly assigned with cooking various birds that live in the Pacific Northwest: duck, turkey, squab, quail, and chukar (apparently a kind of partridge? news to me, and to most of the chefs, too). Gabriel was assigned squab, and roasted it with plums and onion petals. Sara, who got to pick her poultry as a reward for her win, made glazed quail with roasted eggplant-coconut yogurt. Both ended up standing before the judges along with two others, unsure of where they stood in the ranking.

“How are you feeling, Sara?” asked Padma Lakshmi. “Terrible,” Sara replied. “I would have done like 10 things different.”

“Every bite was bright and vibrant,” said judge Gail Simmons. “It gave us all a little bit of life.”

“It felt like a very confident plate of food,” said judge Tom Colicchio—and Sara was crowned the challenge’s winner. Guess there are life lessons about confidence we can learn in this cooking show, too. 

And when you lack confidence? That’s when you end up with dishes like the visibly greasy turkey adobo with sweet potato dumplings made by Birmingham, Alabama, barbecue chef and artist Roscoe Hall, who second-guessed himself throughout the cooking process and was eliminated at the end of the episode. Too bad—it would have been great to see some good ’cue. 

In the meantime, we’re eagerly awaiting next week’s episode, in which Akadi makes a guest appearance. (And now that the fufu and mafe cravings have been activated, we’ll probably be heading over to Green Zebra to pick some up while the restaurant is temporarily closed.) 

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