Top Chef

'Top Chef' Season 18 Episode 12 Recap: Cheesin’

Our chefs visit the Tillamook Cheese Factory to get that cheddar.

By Katherine Chew Hamilton June 21, 2021

Jamie's all smiles in the kitchen.

We’re back from a drama-filled ending to episode 11, when Jamie attempted to give up her spot in the competition to save Maria. Padma finds Jamie in tears and the rest of the contestants looking somber. 

But it’s onto the next quickfire bright and early the next day—and for any of us who were in elementary school after 1974, the challenge is a familiar one: cook a modern dish using ingredients that would have been available to pioneers on the Oregon Trail. That means no refrigeration and lots of turnips, parsnips, salmon, dried fruit, dried herring, and beef jerky. (Luckily, there’s no risk of dysentery or cholera involved, nor does this challenge involve caulking your wagon and fording a river.)

Our guest judge: a man Padma describes as a culinary pioneer in Portland, chef Vitaly Paley. Gregory Gourdet, wearing an iridescent button-down shirt and a triangle-shaped bolo tie, introduces Paley as his mentor, and says he refers to him as uncle. We learn from Paley that the Oregon Trail often took six months to complete. (I always played the video game on ultra-fast speed; patience is not my strong suit.)

Shota, missing his usual ingredients like miso, soy sauce, and mirin, makes salmon cured in jerky salt with parsnip-apricot puree. Gabe gets started on a campfire roasted trout with lard-roasted root veggies. Jamie’s making salmon with walnut romesco, while Dawn goes for a savory porridge with a fish broth base, squash, and hazelnut-bacon relish. The chefs find themselves desperately searching for some type of acid, with no fresh citrus or vinegar in sight—Dawn grabs some citric acid, while Jamie purees some cranberries and uses lemon oil. Shota, meanwhile, is determined to stop Gabe from winning the challenge. 

“I don’t really care about the advantage; I care about blocking Gabe so he doesn’t get a win in a quickfire,” he says. “Hehe. I’m such an asshole.”

The judges aren’t completely enamored with Shota’s salmon (too dry) or Dawn’s porridge (too fishy). But not to worry, Shota: Jamie comes in to snatch the final quickfire victory. “Pew pew pew!” Padma says with her finger guns in the air, having absorbed a Jamie quirk.

Next up, the chefs head to the Tillamook Cheese Factory, where they’re tasked with making a dish using cheddar five ways—inspired by superstar chef Massimo Bottura’s famous Parmigiano Reggiano dish. At the factory, the chefs don booties and tour the facilities, then get to taste the cheeses. We get a triptych of Jamie nomming on some 2011 maker’s reserve cheddar. 

Shota’s making manju (a Japanese stuffed confection) with cheese miso and cheddar-mushroom dashi, while Jamie’s combining cheddar spaetzle and cheddar Sichuan chili oil with sea bass, a move that gets an eyebrow raise from Tom Colicchio. Dawn is paying homage to her hometown of Philadelphia with a cheesesteak-inspired dish, while Gabe riffs on apples and cheddar with hoja santa-dusted cheese curds and a little kick of chile morita.

Shota asks Gabe to taste his dish. “Can you add more cheese?” Gabe says. But Shota is concerned—wanting to maintain more light, subtle Japanese flavors rather than heavy creaminess. So he passes a bowl of dashi to Jamie to get a second opinion; she approves. Meanwhile, Jamie passes Dawn a spoonful of her cheese sauce to try. “It tastes like peanut butter to me,” Dawn says. It’s because she added sesame paste, Jamie explains. 

Shota’s dish leaves the judges saying “Wow” over and over. Padma says she’s never had anything like it. Gabe’s cheddar apples are a hit, too. Dawn struggles to get her dish plated in time, enlisting Jamie’s help, but she ends up leaving out the gougère—which was the judges’ favorite part of the dish. Jamie then begins running short on time, and her cheesy sea bass with pickled cheese curds and bok choy leaves the judges scratching their heads and feeling as though it was incohesive. (For the record, though, I think cheese and fish are an absolutely acceptable combination—just ask the tuna melt or the Filet O’ Fish.) 

The chef who comes out victorious is Shota, who is coincidentally (or is it?) the chef who most had to push the boundaries of his cooking style. The judges say Gabe’s dish isn’t cheese forward, and wonder if Dawn’s frequent inability to plate every ingredient is a dealbreaker. In the end, though, we’re saying goodbye to Jamie; the chefs just couldn’t get behind her fish-cheese pairing. Jamie is all smiles and no tears, though. “I want to thank you guys for this opportunity again,” she says, promising the judges free whiskey when they visit her restaurant. “I guess we’re gonna clear the room like I cut the cheese,” she says, giggling the whole way out. I’m going to dearly miss that wacky Jamie.

Filed under
Show Comments