What’s this? I am not Portland Monthly food editor Katherine Chew Hamilton, nor am I PoMo arts editor Conner Reed; I am not even, though I devoutly wish I was, our magazine’s esteemed food critic Karen Brooks (who, fun fact, was once a judge on Top Chef Masters, a sister program to that of which we are here to speak!).
But look, we have a magazine to make, and everyone is busy, and sometimes a mere news editor who happens to have a penchant for reality TV worms her way into the Top Chef rotation, okay?
I used to be a big Top Chef fan, but somewhere around the Seattle/Boston seasons of 2014/2015, I fell off the bandwagon. But I’m back, baby, for our very own Portland-set season, and three episodes in, I can’t remember why they lost me in the first place. To the recap!
We open with a quick shot of the Japanese Garden, looking picture-perfect, and then cut to Padma in the kitchen, with—hold the phone. Where did those bangs come from? I swear to God, she didn’t have them last week. Did she visit a stylist in Portland during filming? Do I need bangs? The likely answer is only if I can get Padma’s stylist to cut them.
Okay, onwards to the Quickfire Challenge, which this week is bought and paid for by Talenti Gelato™: the cheftestants have to make a dessert inspired by the company’s “layers” line. This is a missed opportunity for Oregon ice creameries, right? How did the Umpqua/Tillamook folks let them get away with this? (No shade to Talenti, but for the real best gelato in town, you want Pinolo Gelato on Division Street, obvs.)
If memory serves, the cheftestants never like making dessert. The smart ones have a few in their pocket that they perfect beforehand and whip out for Restaurant Wars, but that’s not so possible in a Quickfire. Still, everyone gets their game faces on, especially when Padma drops that the winner gets $10,000.
Local chef Sara Hauman gets going right away on a cream puff with grilled strawberries and I *must* know if they were Hoods or Shuksans, and from which local farm they were sourced. (Partial to Unger Farms, myself.) Alpine-food specialist Brittany Anderson embarks on a gingerbread trifle with rum, and I think she has maybe mistaken Top Chef for the Great British Bakeoff’s Christmas special, but you just know Padma would never be caught dead in one of Paul Hollywood’s fugly holiday sweaters.
Chris Viaud, the classically French trained chef from New Hampshire, attempts to recreate Oregon in layers with a “hazelnut cake with blueberry and pinot noir puree and a chanterelle mushroom cream.” Judging from the quizzical looks on their faces, the judges are as skeptical as I am about this chanterelle mushroom cream situation, and Viaud ruins the entire effect by calling the dish the “Ore-GONE trail.”
Another potential standout for me from this round is Detroit chef Kiki Louya, who produces a layered peach cobbler, but in the end the judges give it to the nerdy, endearing Ohio chef Avishar Barua, who started off the season with a bit of a flail but emerged this week as a dark horse competitor to watch. His entry is a layered take on the Ohio state dish, the buckeye, which sounds like a fancy Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and prompts me to Google whether Oregon too has an official state dessert (We do! It’s marionberry pie, an excellent version of which is available at the Apple Valley Country Store in Hood River).
Padma plays it especially cool on this round, chewing her mouthful of buckeye for what seems like an eternity while fixing Avishar with a suspicious look, but eventually declares him the winner and he literally jumps for joy. See what I mean? Endearing. Louya and Anderson wind up on the bottom, along with chef Maria Mazon, who perhaps should not have fried her arroz con leche in panko?
The elimination challenge this week sends the chefs to some of Portland’s flagship pan-African restaurants to draw inspiration from the cuisine that has influenced flavors and culinary traditions all over the world. They split into two groups, one captained by Portland chef, judge and former Top Chef runner-up Gregory Gourdet (sporting a leopard-print fur jacket that is both a weird choice for summer in Portland and cements his status as an absolute legend) and one led by hipster-glasses wearing judge, former contestant, chef, and author Kwame Onwuachi, who warns his team that they had better get ready to beat Gourdet’s crew.
The groups head to West African standout Akadi and Yaad Style Jamaican in Northeast Portland, to Guyanese food cart Boke on the Run at the Hawthorne Asylum pod, and to grab Haitian food from the owner of Mathilde’s Kitchen, a food and beverage distributor based out of the Portland Mercado. Note that the filming of this season took place during the heights of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Portland last summer, and the chefs are all visibly moved by the food they’re eating and the chance to spotlight it; Stacked Sandwich chef Gabriel Pascuzzi has a telling aside at Akadi, saying he is “kind of embarrassed that I haven’t been here yet,” despite the fact that his own restaurant is less than three miles away.
Back in the kitchen, the chefs set to work (though not before Anderson allows the camera to film her morning self-affirmations/hype-up routine—why, Brittany, why?). Viaud is aiming straight for Gourdet’s Haitian heart with his pan-fried snapper marinated in epis, and having recently been lucky enough to celebrate my husband’s birthday at Kann and gotten to try Gourdet’s epis-marinated Pacific Rockfish in pepper sauce, I make a note that Viaud better be on point.
What else among these dishes would I most want to eat, just based on conception and backstory? Definitely Louya’s fufu, African-style cassava and plantain dumplings in beef-tomato-peanut saka-saka stew, based on a recipe handed down from her father, a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Perfectionist Houston chef Dawn Burrell’s braised goat curry with roti sounds like the best-ever dish on offer at a Feast Night Market event, and I’m officially crushing on Dominican chef Nelson German’s super-duper sexy baritone, so of course I’m all in on his piri-piri braised chicken with jerk-spiced yucca, sweet plantains and fava bean puree, a take on traditional Nigerian pepper stew.
Reality TV producers love to throw in red herrings, even on quality shows like Top Chef, so I’m suspicious when the camera lingers on Louya worrying about the texture of her fufu and Anderson nonchalantly declaring that she’s not a fan of spice, and adding a sploosh of coconut cream to tamp down the heat in her dish.
Sure enough, when they serve their dishes (this time in the dining room of Lovely Rita at the Hoxton—and let the record show that Padma’s bangs are now nowhere in evidence. WAS IT A WIG ALL ALONG?), Anderson is dinged for a lack of depth in her sauce. The comments for Pascuzzi’s Oregon lamb dish, which he bills as a “red stew” while using finger quotes for no discernible reason, are equally savage: Tom Colicchio is not a fan of his goat-cheese laced “designer mashed potatoes” while former Top Chef winner Richard Blais minces no words: “This dish is too white.” Also in the miss category is Viaud’s epis, which Gourdet finds too try-hard, while Onwuachi is withering about Louya’s fufu, which are too starchy and cold (truly, that does not seem appetizing, much as I am Team Kiki.)
All is not lost though—Burrell’s on-the-bone braised goat and fondant potatoes, with a swipe of bright green pepper sauce on the side gets raves, including Blais’s take that it’s the first dish of the season for which he’d want the recipe. The judges also love Seattle chef Shota Nakajima’s black cod and cabbage in a tumeric-clove-allspice-yuzu sauce, which Gourdet notes "looked Japanese" when it hit the table, but revealed a sneaky level of heat, and Vegas chef Jamie Tran’s African-Vietnamese crispy snapper, turmeric couscous, heirloom tomatoes and pickles.
Burrell takes it at the final judging, and it is lovely to see her beam for perhaps the first time in the competition. Anderson, Louya and Viaud are not so lucky and wind up in the final bottom three (please note that Pascuzzi has clearly dodged a bullet by not being among them, given the sins of his mashed potatoes). The comments for Anderson and Viaud in particular are brutal, but Anderson shoots herself in the foot by admitting that she “doesn’t know who I am as a chef,” and owning up to cooking with her head instead of her heart. Those are cardinal sins in the Top Chef universe, and she’s asked without fanfare to pack her knives and go.
Next week: looks like we’re headed to the Hood River Valley for an Oregon summer fruit-themed challenge and I cannot wait.