Not since four mop-topped musicians from Liverpool landed at JFK Airport in 1964 has our country seen the kind of frenzy that overtook Top Chef Portland this week. With the arrival of TofuMania, citizens far and wide were abuzz with excitement at the prospect of the seminal event. Alas, despite the appeal of this week’s Tournament of Tofu, John, Paul, George, and Ringo’s legacies remain firmly intact.
As great as Top Chef Portland is–and this week’s episode was no exception–the culinary focus of both challenges left me wanting. Though I’m clearly in the minority, Chipotle does absolutely nothing for me, so a QuickFire Challenge pantry featuring 53 of the chain’s fresh ingredients definitely wasn’t enticing. This installment’s Elimination Challenge was chock full of tofu, something else that holds no personal appeal, so the usual food envy never materialized throughout the hour like it normally does.
That said, the format for both challenges made for a fascinating episode nonetheless. Just three months removed from March Madness, Top Chef Portland incorporated tournament-style competition into the festivities, thoroughly testing the cheftestants and their agility in the kitchen.
With Gail Simmons and Tom Colicchio making a rare appearance in the Top Chef Kitchen during a QuickFire Challenge, they joined Padma Lakshmi in drawing knives to determine pairs of chefs who would vie one-on-one, with guest judge Richard Blais ultimately determining which among the three winners was the best dish.
Gabe and Jamie went head-to-head with Gail as their judge, while Byron and Dawn cooked for Tom, and Maria and Shota cooked for Padma. While immunity is nothing more than a distant memory at this point of the competition, the victor would still earn $10,000 for taking home QC honors.
Padma asked Maria and Shota to make their dishes tart & spicy, and despite the Chipotle pantry giving Maria an obvious advantage, Shota won the round. Byron and Dawn set out to satisfy Tom’s desire for a tangy & crunch plate, with Dawn emerging as the victor. As for Gail, she sought a smoky & charred dish from Gabe and Jamie, with the former edging out the latter to move on. With Richard being the ultimate arbiter for the Quickfire, he said that Dawn “hit the challenge on the head” in naming her the winner.
And with that, it’s time for TOFUMANIA! Not only was the ingredient the focus of the Elimination Challenge, but a variety of its forms would each be featured in a round of the tournament-style competition. With guest judge Edward Lee joining the panel, the chefs drew knives to determine this round’s head-to-head matchups. If a chef lost their one-on-one battle, they would have to cook again and perhaps a third time to sidestep elimination. This was one tournament where advancing through the bracket was not advantageous.
In the first round, Maria faced Shota again, with medium tofu being the assigned ingredient, while Dawn and Gabe worked with firm tofu, and Byron and Jamie drawing extra firm tofu. The three winning chefs in round one would be safe, and the three who fell short would head back to their stations where fried tofu awaited them. The two unlucky losers from the fried tofu round were sent to round three, where they’d have to use soft tofu in preparing a dessert.
Before cooking for their Top Chef Portland survival, though, the six remaining chefs were treated to a tour of Ota Tofu, America’s oldest tofu manufacturer, where they would get a crash course in the different varietals referenced above.
Armed with their tofu intel, the chefs prepped for the next day’s cook, which took place at Portland’s picturesque Japanese Gardens. Awaiting them were not only guest judge Edward Lee with Padma, Gail, and Tom, but all-star panelists Gregory, Richard, Kristen, Dale, Kwame, and Melissa as well.
Shota bested Maria again in round one in a narrow victory, moving the talented and funny Tucson-based chef on to the fried tofu challenge in the second round. Dawn and Gabe’s battle was also a close one, but Gabe eventually emerged, sending Dawn on to the second round as well. In the third cook-off, Jamie toppled Byron, who rounded out the chef trio still scrambling for survival.
In earning the fried tofu win, a relieved Maria said “I go to the happy side and enjoy some Sake,” leaving Dawn and Byron to take on the challenge of creating a dessert using soft tofu with the winner of the loser’s bracket earning their spot among the final five and the defeated chef heading to the season’s final Last Chance Kitchen. When all the cooking was done, Byron Gomez fell short with his dessert and heard Padma utter the always dreaded words, “please pack your knives and go.”
…Since Edward Lee was the guest judge for this week’s Tournament of Tofu, I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend one of the books he’s written. Buttermilk Graffiti is equal parts travelogue, memoir, essay, and cookbook, resulting in an engaging and educational read. If you enjoy non-fiction books about food, I suggest you pick up or download Buttermilk Graffiti.
…If you still haven’t watched Last Chance Kitchen this season or have simply fallen behind, you’ll want to catch up before next week’s episode of Top Chef Portland. The latest episode of the online competition brings this year’s edition to a close and determines who might have a chance to follow Kristen Kish, Brooke Williamson, and Joe Flamm’s footsteps from LCK to Top Chef winner.
Now that I’ve survived the TofuMania-induced fervor, it’s time to towel off and get ready for the homestretch of Top Chef Portland. With five talented chefs remaining, it’s probably fair to say that the best is yet to come, especially if we’ve seen the last of Chipotle and tofu challenges.
Now that Top Chef Portland is down to five chefs, who do you think will go on to be named Top Chef?