The Portland-based Season 18 of “Top Chef” continued Thursday night, with tasks that involved whipping up breakfast, and an elimination challenge that required the competing chefs to prepare dishes featuring beer and coffee, two ingredients host and judge Padma Lakshmi described as “iconic Portland brews.”
The Bravo cooking competition series filmed in Portland last fall, using safety protocols designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The pandemic has had a devastating impact on the restaurant industry, a fact reflected in some serious moments in last night’s show, when two of this season’s chefs talked about how each of them had been drinking too much in the wake of restaurant closures and feelings of isolation during lockdowns.
The struggles of restaurants and culinary professionals are part of this season of “Top Chef,” as are the larger issues faced by businesses. For example, onscreen images show the Season 18 chefs staying at the Hotel Monaco in downtown Portland. But according to the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Portland Facebook page, as of December 1, 2020, the hotel was no longer a part of the Kimpton brand. It is now the Royal Sonesta Portland Downtown, and is part of Sonesta International Hotels Corporation.
But, even taking into account changing realities, “Top Chef” is still offering tasty entertainment. Here are highlights from Episode 2, “Trouble Brewing.” Spoilers are coming up, so if you haven’t watched yet, and want to be surprised, you know what to do.
Breakfast is served: In an intro segment, the 14 chefs remaining raised a glass in honor of Roscoe Hall, who last week was the first chef told to pack his knives and go. Portland area chef Sara Hauman, who won both the Quickfire and elimination challenges last week, said, “All eyes on are on me now,” and thought others might be wondering, where did this girl come from?
At the “Top Chef” kitchen, set up at the Portland Expo Center, Padma informed the chefs they would be cooking breakfast for members of the rotating panel of “Top Chef” veterans who are comprising this season’s diners and guest judges. Joining Portland’s own Gregory Gourdet were Amar Santana, Melissa King, Kwame Onwuachi, Dale Talde, Richard Blais and this week’s guest, Carrie Baird.
“Portland is an amazing breakfast town, right Gregory?” Padma said. The Portland-based chef and “Top Chef” alum agreed that there are “so many amazing breakfast spots,” including Fried Egg I’m In Love, Canard and Mother’s Bistro.
Each of the “Top Chef” all-star panelists participating in this “Diner” breakfast challenge would call out an order. The first two chefs to ring the bell to claim the dish would get it. Each pair of chefs had 30 minutes to make dishes for everyone on the panel. And one chef out of the two would be declared the winner of the round, with the judges deciding on one overall winner at the end of the Quickfire.
As the panelists called out their orders, which included dim sim, steak and eggs, fancy toast and more, the chefs raced around the kitchen, gathering ingredients as the 30-minute time ticked down. You could tell the kitchen was, as a safety measure inspired by the pandemic, larger than usual, because the chefs were sweating like marathon runners as they sped around the space.
Local chef Gabriel Pascuzzi, who seems to be getting the “Big ego” edit so far, with scenes that show him being self-confident and assertive, and Maria Mazon both prepared their take on Spam and kimchi fried rice. Gabriel won his round with a dish of pineapple and Spam fried rice.
Sara and Jamie Tran both did their versions of shrimp and grits. In that case, the local chef’s shrimp and grits fritter came in second to Jamie’s cheddar polenta with Cajun Gochujang shrimp. Jamie celebrated in her inimitable style, which involves her making odd little chirping noises and sounds, along with a few happy words.
Elimination challenge: Then it was time for the judges to drive knives to see which of the “iconic Portland brews,” as Padma said, they would be cooking with, beer or coffee. They were instructed to send in their ingredient orders to Whole Foods for curbside pickup, and told they’d have two-and-a-half hour the next day to prep and cook at Red Star Tavern.
Back at the hotel, Sara had a moment with “My lucky fish,” a stuffed creature “that I like to kiss before all of the challenges.”
Sasha Grumman and Brittanny Anderson, who seemed to be developing a friendship, talked about being on the show and its challenges.
The next day, at Red Star Tavern, head judge Tom Colicchio greeted the chefs, then dropped a little bomb. Instead of cooking the individual dishes they planned, they now needed to pair up in teams of two, create a cohesive dish that highlighted both beer and coffee, and make sure one element on the plate represented their contribution, since one chef was still going home.
Gabriel and Dawn Burrell wound up together, apparently to their mutual surprise, since their main ingredients — ahi for him, ribs for her — didn’t exactly go together. Dawn said that Gabriel had agreed to give up his dish, and she praised his restraint.
But Gabriel was still getting the “Big ego” edit, as he told Dawn not to add pepper to the dish, since it needed to emphasize beer or coffee (shout-out to Stumptown Coffee Roasters, by the way, which had a bag of its coffee displayed by one of the chefs).
“Gabriel’s trying to chefsplain things to me that he has no business doing,” Dawn said in her interview. “I know what I’m doing,” she said, adding that she doesn’t do “under-seasoned food.”
“What am I doing?” Gabriel said during preparation. “Bossing me, that’s what you’re doing,” Dawn responded. “We’re bossing each other,” Gabriel said, then added in an interview that he needed to make sure something of his was on the plate, where the focus would be he ribs cooked by Dawn.
“My plan, if we’re not seeing eye-to-eye, is to find some compromise that doesn’t ruin the integrity of the dish,” Gabriel said.
Meanwhile, things seemed more harmonious between Sara and Gabe Erales, whose Mexican flavors were going to be highlighted in the dish they teamed up for.
Judges’ Table: Padma, Tom, and Gail Simmons were joined at the Judges’ Table by Amar and Dale. The judges again praised our hometown chefs, naming the teams of Gabriel and Dawn, Sara and Gabe and Avishar Barua and Seattle chef Shota Nakajima the teams that made their top three dishes.
The judges complimented Gabriel and Dawn’s beer braised pork rib glazed in sour beer with herb salad; Sara and Gabe’s pork tenderloin cured in espresso, smoked yogurt with hazelnut salsa macha and tortilla made with Stout and Porter; and Avishar and Shota’s lobster sunomono, double cream coffee and Stout reduction, carbonated grapes and Furikake.
“Sara, you have a thing with yogurt,” Gail said, of the smoked yogurt element in Sara and Gabe’s dish. “Clearly, you work well with Gabe, and with yogurt.”
The winning team was Avishar and Shota, who celebrated in an interview in which Shota proudly called them an “Asian sensation.”
The duos in the bottom were Chris Viaud and Byron Gomez, whose coffee and Berbere spiced duck breast with mushroom and coffee tortellini, beer and miso foam, and beer marinated mushroom dish left the judges with criticisms; and Sasha and Brittanny, who, despite their friendship, didn’t successfully collaborate on a dish that pleased the judges, who disliked their beer marinated pork loin with beets, milk Stout vinaigrette, coffee romesco and coffee hazelnut crunch.
After deliberating, the judges apparently found that Chris and Byron’s dish at least spotlighted beer and coffee, as the challenge asked. The lack of beer, and overly bitter, burnt flavors of Sasha and Brittanny’s dish ultimately sent Sasha home, as Padma told her to pack her knives and go.
“Top Chef” Portland airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on Bravo.
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— Kristi Turnquist