Top Chef Portland Recap: Restaurant Wars, The Sound of Silence

TOP CHEF -- "Restaurant Wars" Episode 1808 -- Pictured: (l-r) Byron Gomez, Jamie Tran, Shota Nakajima -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)
TOP CHEF -- "Restaurant Wars" Episode 1808 -- Pictured: (l-r) Byron Gomez, Jamie Tran, Shota Nakajima -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo) /

Through no fault of the producers or the cheftestants, a pandemic-based Restaurant Wars on Top Chef Portland was devoid of the usual conflict, stress, angst, and overall intensity of the annual competition, resulting in a more subdued episode highlighted by one team’s excellence and another’s relative silence.

And in the naked light, I saw                                                                                                                                Ten thousand people, maybe more                                                                                                              People talking without speaking                                                                                                                  People hearing without listening                                                                                                                People writing songs that voices never share                                                                                           And no one dared                                                                                                                                            Disturb the sound of silence           

And within Paul Simon’s legendary lyrics, we find the metaphorical story of team Penny in Restaurant Wars. Presented with the opportunity to shine during a unique Chef’s Table iteration of Restaurant Wars dictated by filming during a pandemic, Gabe Erales, Dawn Burrell, Sara Hauman, and Chris Viaud were silent, both among themselves and within the always-interactive framework of a Chef’s Table and its diners. On team Penny, no one dared disturb the sound of silence.

In addition to lacking communication across the board, team Penny also had less energy than an uncharged Tesla, which only compounded the factors that would lead to them losing Restaurant Wars. The chefs prepared dishes that generally pleased the judges and all-stars, but the glaring lack of cohesion in conceiving and executing their seven-course menu resulted in a loss.

Team Kokosan on the other hand embraced the Chef’s Table concept and executed a seven-course menu that drew universal praise, prompting Tom Colicchio to rave that “they raised the bar for every Restaurant Wars that there’s ever going to be in the future.” Naming their restaurant by combining the Japanese word Kokoro and the Spanish word Corazon to reflect their shared meaning of heart, Shota Nakajima, Maria Mazon, Byron Gomez, and Jamie Tran rode a common vision to what was an obvious clear victory.

While team Kokosan’s chefs each contributed to their menu’s overall excellence, it was Maria’s deft hand in sustaining the vital meal-long interaction with diners that stood out and earned her the overall win. As the chef herself said prophetically prior to service, “once I step out of the kitchen, Maria’s gonna turn on. I’m like Monica from Friends. I’m the hostess with the mostest.” And indeed she was.

Even though team Penny avoided the internal battles and backbiting that often come with the pressure-packed Restaurant Wars challenge, the absence of communication that inspired this recap’s theme wove its way through the chefs’ entire process, from menu planning to shopping to execution to service. Sure, Dawn Burrell’s dishes were exemplary, but at no point during the competition did she exhibit any interest or willingness to collaborate with her teammates. She flew solo throughout, leading Chris to remark that “she has a very difficult time communicating with the rest of the team.” Add that to an ill-conceived and unnecessary amuse bouche’ that Gabe created, a haphazardly-constructed menu, and near-silence between the chefs and the diners and Penny was a recipe for disappointment.

With the loss comes a one-way ticket to Last Chance Kitchen and that dubious honor this week went to the popular Sara Hauman, whose two dishes left the judges unsatisfied. Gabe’s aforementioned opener to the meal left him perilously close to walking the Top Chef plank, but he ultimately lived to cook one more day.


…Every season of Top Chef features at least one and often more chefs who cling to the hope of being able to execute an item despite never actually doing so. This season, fresh pasta seems to be Chris’s kryptonite (along with salt & pepper, but I digress), leaving me to hope for his sake that he doesn’t start believing that the third time’s a charm.

…On the other hand, I can’t help but think, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, that Sara’s downfall this week was the result of her not using her secret weapon yogurt in either of her dishes. Chef Sara, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

…Speaking of tongue, I’d be remiss if I didn’t elaborate on the ingredients that went into Maria’s win this week. Yes, her front-of-the-house talents garnered rave reviews, but the always-amusing chef’s lengua (beef tongue) sandwiches with a dipping sauce were an undisputed winner.

…Maria’s one-liners have become must-see TV for me in recent weeks, but one of her zingers in this episode left me thinking that perhaps she needs to get back to Tucson ASAP and reconnect with her wife. Many people enjoy food shopping at their favorite store, but when Maria exclaimed that “shopping at the Whole Foods Market is orgasmic,” she colored the way that I’ll look at other WF shoppers the next time I’m in the store.

The s–tshow that was 2020 handed Top Chef Portland potential lemons for the season’s installment of Restaurant Wars, but they definitely made lemonade out of them in pivoting to a Chef’s Table concept. While I look forward to the return of snarkiness and intensity in Season 19’s edition of the challenge, this year’s version didn’t disappoint despite the sound of silence emanating from Penny.

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Did you enjoy the Chef’s Table approach to Restaurant Wars or do you look forward to a return to the traditional format?