Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein make a special guest appearance in Episode 9.

Welcome back to our next installment of Portland Monthly’s Top Chef recaps. Once again, we’ve fallen a bit behind—but if you, too, are playing catchup on old episodes, you’ve come to the right place.

Episode 8

Episode 8 kicks off with a bang, skipping the usual quickfire challenge in favor of a single elimination challenge that’s become a tried-and-true Top Chef tradition: Restaurant Wars. Chefs are divided into two teams, each of which is tasked with creating a pop-up restaurant with a cohesive concept, from decor to menu. With the pared-down pandemic experience, the chefs will be feeding the judges in a much more intimate format than past years: via a seven-course tasting menu, which they’ll serve to the judges themselves. 

One fun fact about Portland I didn’t know: the city’s name was decided by the flip of a coin. (If Portland hadn’t won, we’d be Boston, Oregon, which sounds so wrong.) The chefs’ teams, too, are decided by coin flip: Shota, Jamie, Maria, and Byron on one team, and Gabe, Sara, Dawn, and Chris on the other. 

“To be honest, I think the other team has more strength in cooking style, but we have the funner team. We have the party team. We have the lit team, as Jamie would say,” Shota says.

Right away, the teams get to work designing their restaurant concepts. For Shota, Jamie, Maria, and Byron, the concept comes together surprisingly quickly: use the kaiseki format, and fuse together Latin and Asian flavors. They name it Kokoson, a portmanteau of the Japanese and Spanish words for “heart.” The charismatic Maria, they decide, will handle the front of house.

Sara Hauman is hard at work in the Restaurant Wars challenge.

Meanwhile, Sara, Dawn, Gabe, and Chris decide on local seafood inspired by each of their cultural influences as their theme—a decidedly less focused approach than Team Kokoson. “I have seen other Top Chefs, and the global perspective never works out,” Sara laughs. They name it Penny, both after the coin flip that named Portland and after Gabe’s daughter. Their service plan? All hands on deck for all courses. (The no-plan plan, as Sara calls it.)

The chefs leave their kitchen at The Redd on Salmon Street and begin gathering supplies locally: meat from Laurelhurst Market, Asian groceries from Uwajimaya, spices and veggies from the Portland Mercado, seafood from Flying Fish. Then they get to work on their dishes. Dawn’s still in the midst of her creative process, and she’s not sure what she wants to make—she knows it’ll involve crab and caviar—but her teammates are getting nervous. She’s also prepping a scallop with tasso ham and XO sauce dish that looks mouthwatering. Gabe gets started on a tostada amuse bouche and a main course of octopus in mole verde, while Chris works on his pasta in the hopes of redeeming his previous pasta fails, plus kelp ice cream for dessert. Sara’s handling two courses—a halibut dish in ajo blanco, plus veggies with salmon skin. Maria gets to work on a lengua sando, Jamie starts her short ribs, Byron begins working on a crudo, and all of Team Kokoson works on a hot pot dish.  

Kokoson’s very first dish—Japanese eggplant with sesame mole and ham furikake—is a hit with the judges. So is the cured salmon with rocoto curry, though some judges say the fish is overpowered by the sauce. Maria’s lengua sando is another winner, as is Shota’s lotus root and rockfish tempura. Jamie’s short rib with puffed rice, the collaborative hot pot, and Jamie and Byron’s pineapple tres leches all knock it out of the park, too. I found myself drooling over every single dish, and if Kokoson ever decides to do a real-world pop-up, I’d fly across the country to try it.

As for Penny? Gabe’s tostada amuse bouche falls flat—too big and poorly executed—while Dawn’s last-minute crab and caviar corn cake wows the judges. Sara’s halibut crudo with ajo blanco is another miss. “This dish is like a Grateful Dead concert,” says Tom Colicchio. “It needs acid.”

Meanwhile, no one’s handling the front of house at Penny, leaving the judges to gape at the chaos in the kitchen. Sara’s bok choy and salmon skin dish gets mixed reviews; some missed the salmon, while others admired its quirkiness. Chris’s shrimp tortellini in brodo gets high marks for the brodo, but not so much for the pasta. Gabe’s octopus dish? Too bitter. Luckily, things end on a sweet note with Chris’s hazelnut and sorghum-topped kelp ice cream, which is such a hit that Dale requests seconds.

Not surprisingly, Kokoson is crowned the winner—and Maria gets the highest honor as the standout chef, which brings her to tears. As for Penny? The judges had something bad to say about pretty much everyone’s dishes except for Dawn’s. Sara’s halibut was too bland, creamy, and chaotic, and she sadly gets sent home. Goodbye to our only remaining Portland chef!

Episode 9

Dawn serves her hipster fonio and semolina "cornbread" to Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein.

In Episode 9, it’s time to get quirky with a kitchen full of vintage cooking appliances and a special guest appearance by none other than Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. Dawn, we learn, is a huge fan of Portlandia. Their quickfire challenge: to cook with ingredients often considered “hipster,” like hemp oil, almond flour, alternative milks, and kombucha, or “kombocha,” as Padma pronounces it. (I’m actually surprised Padma isn’t a kombucha drinker.) The chefs name some hipster stereotypes, many of which are at least 10 years outdated: skinny pants (Jamie), single-speed bicycles (Gabe). Jamie, meanwhile, expresses her love for flaxseed milk. “I don’t think I’m a hipster,” she says. “I’m lactose intolerant.”

As he’s explaining his green bean dish, Shota (adorably) needs to glance at his ingredient list that he’s written in Sharpie on his hand. “That is hipster,” Padma says. “It’s not hipster until you get that as a tattoo,” replies Fred Armisen. Maria makes a tomato soup with cardamom, harissa, and coconut milk. Dawn makes a fake cornbread with fonio and semolina in an old-school mold shaped like ears of corn, served with pancetta jam, goat butter, and pear butter. “How do you make the bread part of it?” Fred asks Dawn. “I made it in the oven,” she replies with a deadpan smile. Dawn is crowned the winner—her first quickfire win.

For our elimination challenge, the chefs are tasked with creating and writing a recipe for home cooks in a matter of hours. “I don’t like to write things,” Shota says. “I love measuring out every ingredient. It’s the bestest,” says Chris. 

After the recipes are done, the recipe testers arrive: the Top Chef All Stars panelists, including our very own Gregory Gourdet. Each panelist is tasked with cooking one cheftestant’s dish for the elimination challenge, while each cheftestant will cook their own version of the recipe for the judges. Clearly, many of the cheftestants don’t write recipes for home cooks often; Maria’s recipe involves three whole chickens, Shota forgets to tell home cooks to add oil to the pan before searing, Byron’s involves an uber-complicated seafood broth, and Chris’s sorghum gnocchi dough (pasta again? really, bro?!) comes out in a thin, runny batter. In the end, we say goodbye to Chris—he tried and failed at pasta one too many times.

Episode 10

Byron says farewell at the Portland Japanese Garden.

Next up, our chefs are tasked with using 53 ingredients commonly used in the Chipotle kitchen (yes, of fast-casual burrito bowl fame) to make dishes according to the judges’ requests. Tom wants something tangy and crunchy; Gail wants something smoky and charred; Padma wants something spicy and tart. Byron accidentally forgets about his pork on the grill, which catches on fire. Dawn ultimately snags another win with her tangy-crunchy dish: wood-fired pork loin with crispy onions and poblano avocado puree.

Next up, the cheftestants head to Ota Tofu to tour the facilities and see the tofu-making process in action at the country’s oldest operating tofu manufacturer. They draw knives, each corresponding to a different type of tofu—firm, extra firm, and medium—that they’ll use to make a dish competing with one other cheftestant in the first round of the Tofu Tournament, held at the Portland Japanese Garden

Maria and Shota face off in the medium tofu category, which makes Maria nervous. “Shota uses tofu like I use lime and chile,” Maria says. But despite her tamales not going as planned, Maria does very well—tying with Shota’s tofu-many-ways dish. He ends up winning their match by a thin margin. Dawn and Gabe face off, and it’s another tie! After some deliberation, Gabe’s braised tofu is crowned the winner over Dawn’s tofu brown stew. Jamie’s tofu banh xeo, however, is a clear winner over Byron’s pan-seared tofu with tofu vinaigrette.

The losing chefs are onto the fried tofu round. Dawn makes Nashville-style hot tofu, but cuts her finger on a mandolin while trying to shred radishes as a last-minute garnish. The other cheftestants sweetly step in to help, but she’s already bled into one of her plates and can only serve nine plates instead of ten, which means she’s automatically headed to the next round. Jamie, sitting safely on the sidelines, covers her eyes in agony. Maria’s dish wins nearly unanimously, and she heads to safety. 

Now it’s a soft tofu dessert face-off between Dawn and Byron to decide who goes home. Both chefs have prepared eerily similar desserts—tofu pudding or custard with dried mango and crunchy bits made with okara. Dawn’s dish, described as a “textural wonderland,” has a slight edge—which means Byron is headed home.

And that’s all, folks! Stay tuned for our recap of Episode 11. Meanwhile, we’ll be sitting here hoping Sara makes a return via Top Chef: Last Chance Kitchen.

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