Christmas came early this year, and Bravo was the tree, as nestled beneath it was the gift that most of us have been eagerly awaiting—a new season of Top Chef. Like a certain Colonel, Top Chef’s secret recipe remains a mystery to aspirational networks and producers everywhere. Despite pandemic-induced conditions that resulted in some tweaks to the tried & true, Top Chef Portland is proof-positive that the show remains the gold standard.
The premiere episode of Top Chef Portland presents an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, seeing hosts Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons, and Tom Colicchio back provides the welcome sense of comfort and familiarity, while this season’s cheftestants are like the classmates we meet for the first time on the first day of school. Like every season’s slate of talented chefs, it didn’t take long for me to identify ones that I favored almost from the start, as well as others that pushed the wrong buttons from the get-go. It’s said that you only get one chance to make a first impression, so I’ll be curious to see if my own snap judgments prove to be on-point or premature.
One of the unique features of Top Chef Portland that were inevitably influenced by filming during the pandemic includes the addition of an all-star panel of show alums serving as guest judges throughout the season. In light of the fact that we’re meeting new cheftestants, it’s nice to see some familiar faces join Padma, Gail, and Tom. Another competition casualty is the inclusion of the always-spirited, often frantic shopping expeditions to Whole Foods, as chefs will let their fingers do the walking via online ordering before letting their knives do the rest in the kitchen.
QUICKFIRE CHALLENGE: Perfect Strangers
Welcome to the Top Chef kitchen, now compete for Elimination Challenge immunity with two total strangers in a group challenge. So much for letting the chefs dip their toes in the water before submerging themselves. Nope, instead, knives were drawn, teams of three were formed, and combining the use of each chef’s one ingredient that they pre-selected as one they can’t work without, the competitors immediately headed into a culinary blind date.
“Working with people who you don’t even know their name is a pretty wild concept.” – Sara Hauman
I quote Sara not only because she perfectly captured the essence of the initial Quickfire Challenge but also because she quickly raced to the front of my favored chefs with her modesty and self-deprecating quips, the latter of which would shine bright throughout the episode.
As unfamiliar as the chefs standing to their right and left may have been, a familiar face joined Padma for the Quickfire in the form of Portland’s own Gregory Gourdet. Fresh off of competing at a high level on Top Chef All Stars LA, Gregory’s relief at being on the other side of the kitchen didn’t go unnoticed.
Cohesively marrying Sasha Grumman’s Meyer lemon, Kiki Louya’s hot peppers, and the aforementioned Sara Hauman’s salted anchovies, the brown team created a Harissa-rubbed seared halibut with Meyer lemon anchovy salsa verde, roasted hot pepper relish & herb salad that earned them the season’s first bragging rights and more importantly, immunity in the Elimination Challenge.
ELIMINATION CHALLENGE: The Game Bird is On.
According to Padma, “Portland is obsessed with birds”, so it came as no surprise when the chefs were challenged to create a dish featuring a game bird found in Oregon. Eschewing the drawing of knives to determine which game bird each chef would work with, producers cleverly had them draw eggs, inside of which was a slip of paper identifying their assigned ingredient. Those items included quail, duck, turkey, squab, and chukar, also known as partridge.
The season’s first alum to join Padma, Gail, and Tom at Judges’ Table was none other than defending Top Chef winner Melissa King, who brought the same qualities to Portland that earned her both the Season 17 crown and Fan Favorite honors. Her insights on the dishes were constructive and reasoned, while she exuded the recognizable warmth that has made her so popular.
Cooking their way to the top four this week were Sara Hauman, Shota Nakajima, Gabe Erales, and Gabriel Pascuzzi, while Avishar Barua, Roscoe Hall, Jamie Tran, and Sasha Grumman had the judges’ least favorite dishes and faced elimination. Fortunately for Sasha, she had earned immunity with her brown team’s Quickfire Challenge win, so she was spared the ignominy of being the season’s first chef to pack their knives and head to Last Chance Kitchen.
Despite earlier telling her fellow chefs that “I’m pretty sure I put up the worst dish,” Sara won the Elimination Challenge. Continuing her trend of being eminently quotable, she responded to the good news by saying that “I don’t know how that happened. Now I feel really stupid.” Much like Stephanie Cmar during Season 17, that humility led me to quickly join Team Sara.
Even though he possesses impressive credentials and is Executive Chef at renowned pitmaster Rodney Scott’s eponymous BBQ restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama, Roscoe Hall underwhelmed with his adobo duck with sweet potato dumpling and became the first chef to be sent packing. “Top Chef is a wild experience, the brief period I’ve had”, mused the soft-spoken chef upon learning his fate.
…Another returning Top Chef alum was Richard Blais, whose first appearance in Portland’s Top Chef Kitchen featured a hairstyle that would best be described as looking like a rear-facing beaver climbed upon his head and took up residence there. I wouldn’t normally comment on someone’s physical appearance in a Top Chef recap, but hearing Gabriel Pascuzzi observe “Jesus, that’s some hair” and Padma telling Richard that “I’m nervous about your hair,” the kooky coiffure seems like fair game. Get it, game?!
…Every season, there’s at least one chef, sometimes more, that gets under my, and I’m sure many others’ skin before the first chiffonade, and this season it’s Gabriel. Viewers were told early on that Gabriel once worked for Tom at his Colicchio & Sons restaurant, which was a nice thing to share in the spirit of full disclosure, but apparently, Gabriel is dead-set on reminding us of that at every turn. It gets old quick, as does his smug personality. But it’s early, so I reserve the right to eat my words at some point during the season. Or not.
…Even though Sara won the first Elimination Challenge and despite planting my flag at her cooking station, the highlight of this episode and I suspect subsequent episodes is Shota Nakajima’s laugh. It truly is the gift that keeps on giving throughout the show and one I hope we get to enjoy for many weeks to come.
…I’m intrigued by Dawn Burrell. The former Olympic long jumper-turned-chef didn’t land in the top or bottom four and, as a result, was just another competitor this week, but I was compelled by her passion and self-critiques, leaving me eager to follow her journey on the show however long it lasts.
If there’s a neatly-wrapped new season of Top Chef under Bravo’s tree every spring, I see no reason to ask for any other gifts. With Padma, Gail, and Tom at the helm, the show continues to excel, and we as viewers of food television are all the better for it.
Hey, did you know that Gabriel Pascuzzi used to work for Tom Colicchio?!
What area of the country would you like to see Top Chef visit in upcoming seasons? Which one has been your favorite so far?