Thursday night brought us episode 2 of Top Chef Portland and before I jump in on the details of the show, let’s address the self-established elephant in the room right off the bat — Gabriel Pascuzzi didn’t make a single reference to having worked for Tom Colicchio. Not one in a supersized 75-minute episode. Nada. Nothing. AND he actually smiled a few times, totally obliterating my first impressions from the season premiere. Mea culpa.
We now return you to our regularly scheduled recap…
QUICKFIRE CHALLENGE: Rise and Shine
This week’s festivities kicked off with the Top Chef Kitchen being transformed into a diner, foretelling a Quickfire Challenge that represents Portland’s reputation as being a great breakfast city. With Padma affirming exactly that with all-star judge and local Gregory Gourdet, she introduced details of the challenge.
Joined by fellow Top Chef alumni Dale Talde, Amar Santana, Carrie Baird, Melissa King, Kwame Onwuachi, and the always attention-seeking Richard Blais — thankfully sans beaver tail coif — Gourdet & company honored who Padma called “the unsung heroes of the culinary world”, the short-order cook, by requesting their preferred breakfast. Fittingly, when each all-star called their order, the first two chefs to ring a bell were assigned that dish, until each cheftestant had an assigned dish.
With Elimination Challenge immunity at stake and only 30 minutes to deliver eight plates, the pressure-packed race was on. While orders ranged from such staples as steak & eggs to shrimp & grits to more specialized dishes like spam & kimchi fried rice, it was the aforementioned Blais’ interminable calling of corned beef hash with eggs over medium, hash browns and hollandaise sauce that prompted him to tell Nelson and Chris that “gentlemen, there’s a big part of me that wants to apologize to you both” before Padma appropriately piped in with “yeah, you should say sorry Richard”. She doubled down at the end of the challenge by adding “that’s the last time I’m gonna let Richard order for us.”
Like the processional that boarded Noah’s Ark, chefs presented their dishes two by two until individual winners were named for each order. The seven best breakfasts belonged to Gabe, Shota, Jamie, Gabriel, Sasha, Brittanny, and Chris, with Jamie’s cheddar polenta with cajun gojuchang shrimp earning her the win and immunity in the upcoming Elimination Challenge.
ELIMINATION CHALLENGE: Simply BREWtal
Since the Elimination Challenge featured two more sources of Portland bragging rights, coffee and beer, and readily admitting that I drink neither, my default is to have pun, I mean fun with the featured ingredients.
Drawing knives to determine whether they’d be cooking with beer or coffee, the chefs clearly found doing either to be a daunting task. Imagine their surprise, or horror, when Tom Colicchio popped in and threw them a curveball, directing each chef who drew beer to pair up with one who drew coffee, then tasking them to create one cohesive dish featuring both ingredients. See, I wasn’t kidding in the header above, it truly was a BREWtal challenge!
I don’t know beans about coffee, nor do I have a head for beer, so you’d think that as a viewer there’d be some detachment for me in watching this challenge. Nope! Instead, I channeled my inner Bobby McFerrin and said to myself, don’t worry, be hoppy. And I’m glad I did because I liked the challenge a latte. As you can see, it’s not hard for me to properly espresso myself here.
As if Tom’s curveball wasn’t enough, another interesting twist was learning that despite working as pairs, only one chef would be packing their knives and leaving. That would force the chefs to spotlight what components they had each contributed to the final product, as well as putting the burden of delineating between the two on Padma, Gail, Tom, and all-stars Amar Santana and Dale Talde at Judges’ Table.
Despite clashing throughout the challenge(see story title above), Gabriel and Dawn’s ribs & watermelon dish landed them in the top three, where they stood alongside Avishar and Shota, and Gabe and Sara as the creators of the judges’ favorite dishes. In obvious anticipation of my referring to Tom’s swerve as a curveball, baseball references were batted around by Gail when she told Gabriel and Dawn that their dish “was just a home run all the way” and Tom in describing Avishar and Shota’s lobster sunomono as “totally original” and “out of left field”. There can be only one Elimination Challenge winning team though and those honors went to Avishar and Shota.
Less successful were the duos of Brittanny and Sasha, and Chris and Byron. While the judges felt that Chris’s pasta was too thick and dry, his and Byron’s dish did meet the stated challenge of marrying beer and coffee, leaving Brittanny and Sasha’s pork dish to expose the two of them for elimination. Padma told the pair that “there was not a holistic identity to that dish”, with Sasha’s contributions to it, a hazelnut crumble and a romesco sauce, earning her a trip to Last Chance Kitchen, where Roscoe Hall awaits her.
…Since I wear my love for Top Chef on my sleeve, this comment shouldn’t be misconstrued as a criticism. Instead, it’s an observation, one that’s based on watching the show from Season 1 through now episode 2 of Season 18. The show’s producers, Magical Elves, have shared their sustained brilliance from the beginning and have perfected the art of foreshadowing within an episode. Whether intentional or not, I can often glean from chef interviews within the show which one is likely to be packing their knives and leaving later that episode. Episode 2 was no exception, which leads to my next random thought.
…In providing a valuable platform on which Sasha could share the heart-wrenching story of her personal journey during the pandemic, producers also left me pretty certain that she would be this week’s competitive casualty. Despite the foreshadowing, I appreciated her honesty in talking about the prominence alcohol played in her life during a rough 2020. Her candor could potentially inspire others to seek help, as could Shota’s in referencing a similar reliance on pandemic drinking during one of his interviews in this episode.
…Speaking of Shota, I’ll repeat what I and many others expressed after last week’s premiere; I can’t get enough of his laugh. It brightens up the show and in conjunction with his pleasant demeanor, makes him an inevitable fan favorite. Don’t get me wrong, he’s competitive, as evidenced by him saying “I’ll just ninja-mode this” during the Quickfire, but he’s a fun watch and is a chef for whom I’m hoping an extended run on the show is destined.
…While I can’t get enough of Shota’s laugh, I am totally over Jamie Tran’s I-don’t-know-whats. She warned us during the premiere episode, but that doesn’t soften the annoying blow of what I would describe as nervous gibberish. Michael Winslow, she’s not(Google him to understand the reference!), but she’s definitely working with his starter kit. Whether manifesting itself as sound effects or unintelligible words–“cooters! oh my god, cooters!”– this verbal trait of Jamie’s actually had me eventually lunging for my mute button whenever she spoke. When a fellow cheftestant has to translate her reaction to taking the Quickfire Challenge, “she said she’s very happy to win”, you know things are already spiraling out of control.
…One of my Random Thoughts last week mentioned that I was intrigued by Dawn Burrell. Scratch that. This take may not age well, but I’m starting to think that she’s her own worst enemy and that the result will find her falling short of her own expectations. She seems to struggle under pressure, which is surprising for an accomplished former Olympian, while she also doesn’t appear to play well with others, as was evidenced by her stream of prickly comments to Elimination Challenge partner Gabriel before condescendingly patting him on the back while calling him “Boo Boo”.
Even though this week’s Elimination Challenge featured two ingredients that I have no appreciation for, I thought the episode’s two challenges were the perfect blend and I can barley wait for next week’s installment of Top Chef Portland. The show mochas me very hoppy!
Are you a breakfast person? If so, what’s your breakfast go-to at a diner?