This week’s episode of Top Chef Portland sought to inform and educate, both the cheftestants and the show’s viewers. After a sweet Quickfire Challenge, the Elimination Challenge took the chefs on an actual tour of Portland restaurants that represent the African diaspora before sending them into the kitchen to create their own interpretations of the varied cuisines.
What is the African diaspora? It is the dispersal of Africans from mostly Central and Western Africa throughout the world, with a predominance of representation in the Americas and the Caribbean. As the episode unfolded, I continued to learn, including being taught that cuisines ranging from Congolese to Haitian to Jamaican are all culinary descendants of the African diaspora.
QUICKFIRE CHALLENGE: Just Desserts
Before heading out into Portland to experience some of these regional cuisines, the chefs tackled a dessert challenge. Using Talenti’s new Gelato Layers as an example, the competitors were asked to create a layered dessert, with the only requirement being that it has at least three layers.
If you’ve watched Top Chef in previous seasons, you’ll know that chefs are historically reticent to do desserts on the show. Standing firmly within their respective wheelhouse, the contestants only tiptoe into desserts when they’re part of an assigned challenge. On Top Chef, savory rules.
When there’s immunity and a $10,000 prize at stake, the chefs quickly become amenable to dabbling in desserts. Then sprinkle on the added acclaim of having the winning dish become the inspiration for a brand new flavor of Talenti Layers and the chefs had all the incentive they needed to excel.
After Brittanny, Kiki, and Maria were singled out by Padma and alumni judge Carrie Baird for having their least favorite layered desserts, Byron, Avishar, and Sara were called to the front of the Top Chef Kitchen on the strength of creating the best desserts.
As an Ohio native and rabid fan of the Ohio State Buckeyes, I was quite pleased to see Columbus’ own Avishar be named winner of the Quickfire Challenge for his Buckeye Bonbon with Brown Butter & Liquid Graham Cracker. For the uninformed, a buckeye is Ohio’s state dish and is usually comprised of peanut butter coated in chocolate, thus resembling an actual buckeye. O-H-I-O!
ELIMINATION CHALLENGE: Shining a Light on Pan African Cuisine
Before prepping and cooking, the chefs were split into two groups and joined Top Chef alums Gregory Gourdet and Kwame Onwuachi on a tasting tour of Portland’s Pan African cuisine. While not a team challenge, Kwame quipped “this is not a competition between me and Gregory, but we better f—–g win!” before leading his group out of the Top Chef Kitchen.
Along with Kwame, Nelson, Byron, Brittanny, Jamie, Gabriel, and Dawn dined at Akadi PDX, a West African restaurant, before sampling fare from Bake on the Run, a food cart specializing in Guyanese cuisine. Concurrently, Gregory took Chris, Gabe, Avishar, Shota, Kiki, Sara, and Maria to Yaad Style for Jamaican cuisine, followed by a stop at Mathilde’s Kitchen for Haitian fare. Kwame captured the diversity of cuisines perfectly when he commented “that’s the beauty of the diaspora, of how the tentacles reach all across the globe.”
While Tom said “this is some extraordinary cooking” about the collective dishes that the chefs presented, it was Dawn’s Curried Goat, Crispy Roti with Fondant Potatoes & Green Pepper that compelled all-star panelist Richard Blais to rave that “she nailed the inspiration when it comes to these flavors. It’s the first dish I want the recipe for”, with Kwame adding that “this green puree, I want a jar of it.” Hey, if Top Chef’s producers can regularly foreshadow outcomes (more on that in Random Thoughts below), so can I!
After Padma requested their presence at Judges’ Table, Jamie, Dawn, and Shota were asked to step forward first before learning that they had produced the judges’ favorite dishes, leaving Kiki, Brittanny, and Chris to anxiously step aside before facing elimination for cooking the least favorite plates.
Despite Gail telling Jamie that her snapper “felt like you’ve been making this dish for years” and the judges also praising Shota’s efforts, it was Dawn Burrell who captured this week’s honors. Her curried goat prompted Gregory to tell the winning chef that she “truly represented the flavors of the African diaspora”. Kwame was also clearly moved by Dawn’s dish, as he told her that “you’re making the ancestors proud.”
With Dawn being acknowledged for having excelled, the time came to learn who among Kiki, Brittanny, and Chris would be detoured to Last Chance Kitchen. With the judges singling out Kiki’s Fufu as the component of her dish that put her in the bottom three and urging Chris to put more of himself in his dishes, they ultimately sent an emotional Brittanny packing.
…On the subject of the producers foreshadowing in many episodes of Top Chef, it was pretty obvious from early on in this week’s episode, at least to me, that Brittanny Anderson would wind up being eliminated. Her fragile confidence was on full display both in the kitchen and through her interviews and she herself confirmed that by dejectedly saying “I think the pressure of Top Chef is intense” after Padma told her to pack her knives and go.
…I hate to pile on, except when it’s about Brian Malarkey in prior seasons of Top Chef, but Jamie’s continued verbal calisthenics are simply annoying and nothing more than a distraction. They’re certainly not amusing, but I sense that we’ll be treated to them on a weekly basis for as long as she’s in the competition. For me, it’s unfortunate too, because her actual cooking shined in the Elimination Challenge, but the focus on her gibberish took away from the spotlight she should’ve enjoyed.
…Not only did I learn a lot from this episode, but I was also particularly taken by the raw emotion Kiki Louya displayed throughout the show. She talked about her father being from Congo, as well as the struggles she’s experienced at her own Detroit restaurants, adding “the reason that I came on Top Chef is I want to shed light on what it means to be an African-American woman in this industry.” Her personal journey jumped through the screen.
Rarely do I go through an episode of Top Chef without learning something, but this week’s knowledge was far more personal for many of the chefs and judges, leaving me and undoubtedly most other viewers getting a more visceral education. Experiential learning, even via a television show, is always a good thing.
What did you take away from this episode? Did it inspire you to discover the story behind the food on the plate?