Top Chef Portland E6 Recap: Smelts Like Team Spirit

TOP CHEF -- "Stumptown U.S.A." Episode 1806 -- Pictured: (l-r) Chris Viaud, Shota Nakajima, Gabriel Pascuzzi, Dawn Burrell -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)
TOP CHEF -- "Stumptown U.S.A." Episode 1806 -- Pictured: (l-r) Chris Viaud, Shota Nakajima, Gabriel Pascuzzi, Dawn Burrell -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo) /

Now that’s more like it! While your mileage may vary, episode 6 of Top Chef Portland represented everything I love about the show and made last week’s disappointment fade from memory. The show moved at a great pace, featured top-notch cooking, educated and entertained concurrently, and included some always-fun snark. When Top Chef is on its game, which is most of the time, it exhibits all of the qualities that still earn it acclaim and awards through 18 seasons.

QUICKFIRE CHALLENGE: Tom Colicchio is a Happy Chef

When Padma Lakshmi was joined in Top Chef Kitchen with Tom Colicchio for the Quickfire Challenge, the chefs’ reactions were painted with surprise, prompting Padma to remark “You all look so nervous to see Tom here. Don’t worry, he’s a fun guy.”

With mushrooms being the focus of the Quickfire and in light of Tom’s love of the same, his involvement only seemed natural. According to Chef Colicchio, “It’s the ultimate ingredient because mushrooms are the closest you can get to eating the earth.”

And with that introduction, the chefs were tasked with creating a dish featuring mushrooms from seven different regions of Oregon. Adding a twist to the challenge and drawing from Portland being known as Stumptown, the cheftestants’ usual cooking stations were rendered obsolete, with it being required that their prep needed to be done atop actual stumps that dotted the Top Chef Kitchen landscape, spiders and mood lighting included. The setting compelled Sara to say that “it appears that we have been transported into some magical Top Chef Kitchen forest.”

Chris, Nelson, and Byron would ultimately cook Tom’s least favorite dishes in the challenge, while Gabriel, Dawn, and Gabe prepared his favorites. In the end, it was Gabriel’s Seared Foie Gras with Fried Chanterelles, Oyster Mushrooms, Oven-Roasted Figs & Herbs that led Tom to say that it had “the most mushroom-forward flavor” in awarding him the victory. With the win came $10,000, but no immunity this week.

ELIMINATION CHALLENGE: Indigenous Peoples and their First Foods

After the Quickfire, Top Chef alum Dale Talde joined Padma and helped her introduce this week’s Elimination Challenge. They mentioned that Oregon was once home to over 60 different tribes of indigenous peoples before detailing the chefs’ impending visit to Cascade Locks, where they’d learn from and then cook for local experts and tribal members & leaders of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

Drawing knives, half the chefs were assigned a local fish and the other half a game protein, before pairing up to create five teams that would cook a Surf & Turf dish. And to add to the stress of an Elimination Challenge, the chefs learned that it would be a double elimination, with both members of the losing team heading off to Last Chance Kitchen.

To say that the double-elimination elicited responses from the chefs would be an understatement, as Gabriel bemoaned the poor timing of his Quickfire win by saying that “I wish I had that immunity”. Maria more amusedly added that “it’s like walking barefoot on Legos sitting on a cactus with an elephant on your shoulders. You can never get f–king comfortable.”

Once at Cascade Locks, the chefs were treated to educational presentations on both harvesting the first foods that comprise the Umatilla Indians’ daily diet and fishing in protected waters for that component of their culture.

Working with ingredients and pairings that many of the chefs hadn’t cooked with before, they overcame that challenge to offer up dishes that Tom said: “is the best food we’ve had all season.” Even Sara quipped “I think our dish is kind of weird but super cool” and the tribal members and judges clearly concurred.

With such unique dishes being presented, I’m inclined to detail each team’s creations, as they’re definitely a few steps away from ordinary, even for Top Chef:

  • Maria & Byron – Green Mole’ Elk with Duck Potato Puree, Smoked Salmon & Berry Sauce
  • Avishar & Chris – Grilled Sturgeon with Venison & Duck Potato Croquette, Mushroom Puree, Pickled Chanterelles & Sturgeon Caviar
  • Dawn & Gabe – Bison Tenderloin with Catfish & Pumpkin Seed Mole’
  • Gabriel & Nelson – Crispy Skin Steelhead, Antelope, Chanterelles & Berries
  • Shota & Sara – Smoked Smelt-Crusted Rabbit Loin, Smoked Smelt & Kabocha Squash Puree, Pickled Smelt


As we get deeper into seasons of Top Chef, the ramped-up quality of cooking inevitably makes the judges’ jobs more difficult, with choosing who to eliminate often becoming a case of splitting hairs. That challenge was quite evident this week, as Padma told the three teams with the least favorite dishes that “None of these dishes were anything but delicious. Whoever goes home tonight will go home having made a good dish.”

And with that Maria & Byron, Avishar & Chris, and Gabriel & Nelson were left to ponder their fate. Unfortunately, the lack of immunity from his earlier Quickfire Challenge victory would prove to be prophetic, as he and Nelson were banished to Last Chance Kitchen. While their dish was by no means poorly done, overcooked fish proved to be their downfall. Not surprisingly, the irascible Gabriel said “I don’t think I deserve to go home right now,” adding “I’m going to Last Chance Kitchen to get back into this competition, I don’t care how many chefs I have to cook against.”

Gabe & Dawn and Sara & Shota, the former dubbing themselves Team Texas and the latter taking on Team Tiny Fish as a name, made the judges’ favorite dishes this week, with Sara & Shota’s pairing of smelt and rabbit taking home the honors. Sara said that she and Shota wanted to keep their dish “super simple” with all-star judge Dale Talde interjecting “You’re lying. It was not a simple dish.

There was so much technique behind that.” Tom added “No chef has ever said, let’s do a dish with rabbit and smelt. To execute that was just amazing to watch. It really was.”


…One of the elements of Top Chef that I always enjoy is snark, whether it’s coming from one of the judges or a cheftestant. When done well, it can be entertaining and often funny, and this week’s award for snarkiness goes to Maria Mazon. In a season devoid of villainous actions, Gabriel has become the target of barbs from viewers, present company included. Between his “I worked for Tom” reminders and his general negative vibe, he’s the one Top Chef Portland contestant who has earned the villain label. So color me amused upon hearing Maria’s parting words to Gabriel, clearly spoken from the heart and accompanied by tears, but still snarkily great nonetheless. Maria sent him off by saying “Gabriel, you’re a perfect, lovely a—–e that I love.”

…Since I’ve made foreshadowing a regular component of these recaps, I can’t write one for episode 6 without mentioning that it was front and center again this week. Before the teams were formed for the Elimination Challenge, it seemed obvious that either Gabriel or a hobbled Nelson were in peril, so when they became a team, the writing was on the proverbial wall.

…Everyone consumes Last Chance Kitchen in their own way. Some viewers watch weekly, while others binge-watch right before the LCK winner reenters the competition. With next week’s episode being the one that welcomes back a previously eliminated chef, now is the time to enjoy Last Chance Kitchen. The mini-episodes are quick watches, Tom is great in them, and they’re the perfect side dish to the Top Chef entree.

…I loved seeing the reactions that the members of the Umatilla Indians when tasting the chefs’ dishes using their first foods. Armand Minthorn, the Spiritual Leader of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation spoke for the others when he said “Because you’ve cooked our food, our food knows who you are now. You’ve honored us today.”

Episode 6 of Top Chef Portland shined, leaving me sated until next Thursday when Chef Jose Andres makes a virtual appearance on behalf of his amazing World Central Kitchen. Seeing the chefs cook for workers at three Portland-area hospitals is sure to tug on the heartstrings and make for compelling television.

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Now that we’re well into Top Chef Portland, who do you think will be named Top Chef this season? Who is your favorite Top Chef winner from a previous season?