Top Chef Portland: An Emotional Time Was Had By All

TOP CHEF -- "Blind Ambitions" Episode 1811 -- Pictured: (l-r) Maria Mazon, Jamie Tran -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)
TOP CHEF -- "Blind Ambitions" Episode 1811 -- Pictured: (l-r) Maria Mazon, Jamie Tran -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo) /

I’m not an essayist–far from it–but after watching the latest episode of Top Chef Portland, I find myself more inclined to wax poetic about it than write my usual recap. Yes, there were the usual two challenges, and sure, they were compelling ones, but for me, this week’s show was all about the feels. Isn’t that the de rigueur way of saying that heartstrings were tugged and eyes were a tad moist?

There are those among Top Chef Portland fans who believe that the kumbaya feel of Season 18 is a byproduct of the show filming in a bubble during a pandemic, but I beg to differ. I believe that the original 15 cheftestants and now the four remaining ones are simply good people who can invest in an intense high stakes competition without feeling the need to antagonize others in the process. Even as cranky as Gabriel Pascuzzi was during his time on the show, he was never consumed with wreaking havoc for the other chefs like so many others have in previous seasons.

What we’ve been treated to this season has been 15 talented chefs who either entered the Top Chef Kitchen fully cognizant of their flaws or whose personal blemishes have been self-revelatory as a result of competing under the bright lights of Top Chef Portland. Regardless of whether they’ve been comfortable in their own skin, at no time has a chef’s insecurities or ego morphed into prickly interaction with a fellow competitor. And still, despite the absence of a textbook Top Chef villain like Tiffani Faison (Season 1), Heather Terhune (Season 9), Stefan Richter (Season 5), or Marcel Vigneron (Season 2), among many others(yes, Brian Malarkey included!), Top Chef Portland hasn’t skipped a beat.

Broadbrush flowery praise aside, Thursday’s installment of Top Chef Portland was 60 minutes of everything that makes the show the genre’s gold standard. It had it all, from engaging Quickfire and Elimination Challenges to a tidal wave of emotions to the peak of selflessness in a season full of examples of the same.

Sitting atop Mount Selfless was Jamie Tran, who, upon hearing Padma telling Maria Mazon to pack her knives and go, immediately and emotionally tried to give up her place in the final four so Maria could avoid elimination. Upon hearing Maria’s aforementioned self-revelatory admissions at Judges’ Table and expressing catharsis at having already battled back from her own, Jamie’s newfound inner peace on the Top Chef battlefield compelled her to offer Maria that same second chance. In true Maria fashion, the always quick-with-a-quip chef likened the setting to a Mexican novella, humorously easing the tension at Judges’ Table and setting the stage for her contented exit.

As tear-inducing as Judges’ Table was, it was just the tip of this week’s emotional iceberg. Thinking that they’d been given the night off, the then-five remaining chefs returned to their hotel to find all-stars Kristen Kish and Brooke Williamson awaiting them. Also awaiting them were boxes full of ingredients curated by each of the final five’s loved ones, from which they would create dishes for the Elimination Challenge. Included with each family box were handwritten letters that elicited very emotional responses from the weary, homesick chefs. Even Kristen and Brooke were misty-eyed and caught up in the moment.

Episode 11 of Top Chef Portland shined and, even within the entire body of the show’s season-long work, will stand out to me as the best…so far. As we head down the stretch and wonder who among Gabe, Jamie, Shota, and Dawn will be named Top Chef, it’s not unreasonable to expect even more excellence in the waning weeks. The cream rises to the top, and Top Chef knows no peer.

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