Top Chef

‘Top Chef’ Season 18 Semifinal Recap: Crabby Is a Good Thing

Our three remaining cheftestants pay homage to foodie and Portlander James Beard on the Oregon coast.

By Katherine Chew Hamilton June 26, 2021

Dawn preps her Dungeness crab.

We’re getting close to the end, folks. Only three cheftestants—Dawn, Shota, and Gabe—remain, and the pressure is rising faster than it would in the Instant Pot that’s tucked away in the back of your closet. 

Too bad the chefs can’t enjoy a relaxing vacation on the beautiful Oregon coast, where they’re stationed for this episode. Instead, for their final quickfire challenge, Padma Lakshmi rouses them out of bed before dawn, puts them in waterproof bib overalls, and sends them to Netarts Bay to dig up clams—cockles, butter clams, and the obscenely phallic gaper clams. 

In minutes, Shota, a seasoned clammer, is shoulder-deep in the mud. Dawn, on the other hand, admits she doesn’t cook with clams often. Shota works up such a sweat that he needs to take off his down jacket. “Can somebody cue slow music, please?” he says. The producers oblige with sensuous, twangy music. 

Once they’re in the kitchen, Dawn struggles to butcher her clams for her bisque. Gabe chugs away on his caldo de mariscos–inspired clam dish. There’s what seems to be some product placement for Morton Kosher salt, which is bizarre because we know all the chefs love Diamond Crystal. But ultimately, it’s Shota who ends up accidentally butchering his own hand, calling for a medic as he attempts to continue cooking his soy-yuzu-butter-dashi clams one-handed. Shota, with his adorable cackle, says he’s determined to beat Gabe so he can shut him out of his final opportunity for a quickfire win—but Shota’s clams are chewy, and Dawn’s poorly puréed bisque is grainy, dashing Shota’s dreams as Gabe takes the win.

Next up, the chefs enter their second-to-last elimination challenge. James Beard, Padma tells the chefs, was born and raised in Portland. (Of course, you know that if you’d read my story on James Beard in the Fall 2020 issue of Portland Monthly.) In honor of Beard, they’ll be cooking with one of the legendary chef and food personality’s favorite ingredients (and mine, too): two courses of Dungeness crab, one hot and one cold. The chefs even catch the crabs themselves, with Gabe on the verge of falling overboard as he pulls up his crab net. Gabe and Gregory Gourdet wield live crabs at each other, and Gregory gets pinched. “Boys,” my viewing partner (my mom) says, rolling her eyes.

The chefs shop for their ingredients; Gabe gets an extra $100 as a bonus for winning his one and only quickfire. For his hot course, he plans a sunchoke mole verde with crab and lobster mushrooms, with a genius idea for crab fat tortillas on the side. Shota decides to base his dish on his favorite Japanese gas station snack: a 50-cent piece of braised daikon, elevated with crab dashi. Dawn, meanwhile, plots a butter-loaded crab boil like the ones she and her family like to eat. Before they get into the kitchen, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame pops in via Zoom for a motivational talk and recounts the time James Beard ate at her restaurant 48 years ago. Dawn is starstruck. Gabe tries to get pointers by asking what crab dish she would cook for Beard; she expertly dodges the question.

The chefs head to the kitchen to make their cold courses. Dawn makes a crab and cashew soup. Gabe preps a Mexican crab salad with cold crab soup and avocado crema, while Shota gets to work on crab sushi two ways. But not everything goes as planned: Shota’s ume rice for sushi the second way isn’t up to his standards, while Gabe’s crab soup hasn’t had the chance to cool. But all the dishes are a hit with the judges. The judges—including Portlander guest judge Naomi Pomeroy—admire Shota’s confidence to serve a single bite of food, praise Gabe’s excellent flavors, and remark on Dawn’s creative pairing of cashews and crab.

The chef have just an hour left to finish their dishes. Shota is cool as crab salad—his daikon is already braising, and his crab meat is already picked. Meanwhile, Dawn is struggling to prep her potatoes for her crab boil, and Gabe is frantically searching the kitchen for a rolling pin. In the end, Dawn plates her crab and sauce, but fails to get the potatoes on the plate in time; Gabe, meanwhile, accidentally melts linen cloth onto one of his tortillas, meaning he’s one tortilla short, and his sunchoke mole is polarizing. But all the dishes, to varying degrees, are a success with the judges.

As they await their fates, all the chefs are nervous—Shota with one way of sushi instead of two, Dawn with her missing potatoes, and Gabe with the absent tortilla. The judges give the victory to Shota, who despite missing one of his sushi pieces served impeccable food. It feels impossible to predict who, between Dawn and Gabe, is going home. “Dawn …,” Padma says. I hold my breath. “Gabe. Pack your bags, you’re both going to the finale!” 

Dawn squeals and does a little lap around the room, then hugs Gabe. All three chefs get into a little three-way hug. It’s heartening to see reality TV contestants who truly support each other like this. Even Shota, who now has two competitors instead of one in the finale, seems happy (and confident).

“I like that the three of us are competing. I don’t like easy challenges,” he says. With an attitude like that, I’m willing to place my bet on Shota as the Top Chef champion. We’ll find out next week!