Chefs Maria Mazon and Jamie Tran at episode’s end

Clocking back in for Top Chef: Portland recap duty here, folks, after a long break, and I’ve got to say: these chefs look absolutely exhausted. (Not Padma, though. Padma somehow continues to look impossibly daisy-fresh at every possible second. I’ll have what she’s having, please and thank you.)

Watching Episode 11, I tried to put the weariness radiating through my screen into context. This season was filmed in the late summer and fall in Portland, during the agonizingly fraught run-up to the high wire that was the 2020 election, as COVID-19 cases were starting to spike again, presumably during the few weeks when the entire region was covered in a thick blanket of wildfire-induced haze, and just after a summer’s worth of Black Lives Matter protests centered on social justice and police brutality were being met with right-wing counterprotests, outright violence, even death.

We were all exhausted then. Now imagine going through all that under hot studio lights, not knowing the future of your restaurant business at home, feeling like the rest of your career was riding on your ability to taste-test a gribiche-and-squab dish in the dark, then re-create it from scratch in, oh, 20 minutes. It’s no wonder the five chefs left—Maria, Shota, Gabe, Dawn, and Jamie—all seem fried. Also, worth noting that every chef left in the competition at this stage is a person of color—solid stuff, even for a franchise that’s been noticeably more diverse than its peers (cough, cough, The Bachelor, cough) from the beginning.

Gabe and Shota present a Quickfire fish to Rucker and Lakshmi.

Speaking of that gribiche-and-squab concoction (yes, I had to look up gribiche—I’m PoMo’s news editor, not the food editor!—to learn it's French for hard-boiled egg dressing), it comes to us courtesy of one Gabriel Rucker, the James Beard Award–winning chef behind quintessential Portland restaurants Le Pigeon and Canard. For this week’s Quickfire challenge, the chefs are charged with re-creating his dish, but the catch is that they can only taste it in the dark and they’ll be competing relay-race style with a partner, to whom they are not allowed to speak, except until the very end. Fiendish! Since there are an odd number of chefs, Los Angeles chef and Top Chef: Charleston season winner Brooke Williamson tags in and ends up paired with Dawn, the Houston-based former Olympian whose athletic endurance is serving her well in this final stretch.

With a very dapper Rucker watching from behind the proverbial curtain, the chefs take it in turns to deconstruct his dish, smelling, touching, and tasting it in the dark, like those creepy bats in the cave at the Oregon Zoo. Everyone correctly IDs the namesake pigeon at the center of the dish, and most of the chefs pick up on the carrot purée, but only Dawn and Gabe verbally nod to the notes of mustard, and Dawn’s the only one to say she tastes pistachios.

It’s a genuinely suspenseful Quickfire—will Dawn realize that Brooke has already started carrots simmering on the stove for her purée? Why is Maria cooking her squab in a cream gravy, when it’s just supposed to be grilled? Is anyone going to figure out about the gribiche? (Answers: Yes, unclear, yes.) By the end of the challenge, it’s clear that Maria and Jamie have lost, and Shota and Gabe think they’ve got it in the bag, but it’s Dawn who winds up notching her third Quickfire win in a row. I’m starting to think she might wind up as the first Black woman chef to win the whole shebang.

Mystery boxes await!

In a nod to the aforementioned exhaustion factor, the chefs are told they are getting that rarest of things: a night off! Jamie makes a crack about needing a night at the bar, but what they get instead is ushered into some weird-looking event space with pink walls, fake plants, a pool table in the background, and five boxes arranged on a table. Their faces collectively fall as they realize they’re not getting a meal cooked for them by Tom Colicchio himself, but the real waterworks start after the boxes are revealed to be care packages from home, complete with sweet notes from family members. (Jamie’s family and friends remind her to use lots of acid, which she quickly clarifies means lemons and limes, not alllll the drugs.) Also in the box: a grab-bag of ingredients, hand-selected by their family members, which will make up the backbone of their Elimination Challenge dish.

It’s kind of fun to imagine what your own family would pack in such a situation, no? Maria and Jamie get slightly random seeming boxes: octopus, bean sprouts; and chicken wings for Maria; matzo ball soup, challah bread, a single cucumber, more chicken wings, and brisket for Jamie (perhaps not what I would have expected for a Vietnamese chef from Vegas, which goes to show how much I know). But Shota’s parents pack a picnic that’s beyond precise, including wagyu beef, matsutake mushrooms, persimmon, and miso paste. Dawn’s working with a super-Southern box, including collard greens, pork belly, and pecans, and Gabe’s staying true to his Mexican roots with just about everything you’d need to make cochinita pibil, Yucatan-style barbecued pork.

They’re cooking out at Scholls Valley Lodge, a gorgeous event space/family farm on the edge of Hillsboro, and the natural beauty works a tonic for the men, both of whom produce dishes that draw raves from the judges. Gabe, who has elevated his ingredients and produced a plate of panuchos, is “lights out—cooking to win,” says guest judge Dale Talde. Dawn also draws raves for a Thanksgiving-worthy plate, though her failure to swipe some of her red eye gravy on the plates of two of the panel makes it clear she’s safe but not going to win this one. That honor goes to Gabe, leaving Maria and Jamie at the bottom. Maria gets dinged for watery bean sprout salad; Jamie’s Thit Ko brisket is deemed tender (hats off to her for pulling off pressure cooker brisket, as I firmly believed it would fail, having found that this cut is always best done low and slow in the oven), but her accompaniments are pronounced substandard.

At the final judging panel, Tom, Padma and the rest of the crew are noticeably softer and more empathetic than I’ve ever seen them before—in this extraordinary year, the lines between reality and reality TV must have been very blurry indeed. Maria and Jamie both weep, but in the end it’s Maria who is asked to leave. An emotional Jamie tries to volunteer as tribute, to leave in her place, but Maria eventually talks her out of it, asking simply: “Please let me pack my knives with grace.”  

And with that, we’ve got our final four, as the season—like the events of this fall—builds to a crescendo. Here’s hoping for soft landings for Jamie, Dawn, Shota, and Gabe on the other side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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