Top Chef: Portland - Episode 1: First Impressions
By Jason Lee
April 5, 2021
With the country scraping, tooth and nail, to get back to some semblance of pre-COVID-19 normalcy (Exhibit A: those venerable behemoths, Godzilla and King Kong, bringing some monster might back to the box office), Bravo is back with its latest iteration of Top Chef. This is the show’s mind-boggling 18th season, which brings me, someone who discovered the show and got hooked during its second season, yet another reminder of how old I’m becoming.
The producers quickly make clear that this season will be unlike any other. To state the obvious, it’s taking place in the midst of a global pandemic. It’s also a time when the restaurant industry is in turmoil, questioning its business model and watching as countless neighborhood institutions close their doors forever.
With that in mind, we’re brought to the lovely city of Portland and the new Top Chef Kitchen, which is larger than ever to permit social distancing. Padma and Gregory, Top Chef finalist and runner-up to Mei Lin, are dutifully standing on two black mats spaced six feet apart. They welcome this year’s crop of 15 cheftestants ready to vie for $250,000 and the title of Top Chef. I usually think the title is more important than the prize money, but I think the opposite might be true right now.
Padma talks about how this season will be one focused on coming together, and as such, instead of having guest judges join the judging panel each week, there’ll be a rotating panel of all-stars to provide their input and feedback. It’s a wise move. Not only does it minimize the number of participants who’d have to be tested and social distance, it also allows Top Chef to take advantage of the amazing talent that has graced the show in its 18 (!!!) years. It’s got a deep bench, to say the least.
Among the 15 chefs are James Beard nominees, many Portland residents, and even a former Olympic athlete. More importantly, there’s not a sous chef among them — a first for the show. As Padma notes, each person competing this season is used to being the boss in the kitchen.
So why not start things off with a team Quickfire? In front of the cheftestants are boxes that contain the one ingredient each chef said they couldn’t live without. After drawing knives to form five teams of three, the chefs have to take their three can’t-live-without-ingredients and make it into a cohesive, delicious dish in 30 minutes—all without knowing much of anything about their teammates. Based on the set of ingredients, some teams appear to have an advantage (kombu, rice vinegar, and butter) over others (gruyere cheese, caul fat, and chocolate).
It’s an entertaining 30-minute whirlwind — you barely have a chance to start getting to know one group of chefs before the cameras move onto another team — made more chaotic by the fact that the kitchen is larger than normal, meaning that getting that pot or ingredient you want is that much harder. We also are treated to a number of clashes in personality, which was to be expected. One sad change resulting from the pandemic is Padma and Gregory are not able to walk around and talk with the chefs, as they usually do during the Quickfire. The focus instead stays on the cooking and navigation of team dynamics.
When the 30 minutes expire, the teams present their offerings. The Brown team has harissa seared halibut with Meyer lemon, anchovy salsa verde, roasted hot pepper relish, and an herb salad. Padma likes the blend of flavors, most specifically the anchovy (one basket ingredient) and roasted hot peppers (another basket ingredient).
The Blue team take their kombu, rice vinegar, and butter to make scallops poached in kombu butter with parsnip puree and pickles. Just the mere mention of scallops is enough to make any Top Chef fan roll their eyes, perhaps doing an impression of Fabio’s incredible put down, “This is Top CHEF, not Top SCALLOP.”
Next up is the Red team with a surf and turf featuring MORE scallops, which are paired with mushrooms, a tomato sofrito, mofongo, mushroom puree, and an apple chutney vinaigrette. Without comment from the judges, we move on to the Green team with a halibut memela alongside a fish sauce butterscotch and smoked trout roe crema. Closing things out is the Yellow team with a delicious looking pork loin roasted in caul fat with mole and “gruyere gremolata.” Padma questions what the hell a gruyere gremolata is. The team can only shrug their shoulders at the absurdity of the ingredients they had to combine (gruyere cheese, caul fat, and chocolate).
While Padma and Gregory declare that the cheftestants have gotten off to a “really impressive start,” they single out two teams who didn’t keep pace with the others. The Blue team didn’t do enough to highlight butter, and overall Gregory thought it lacked acid. The Green team similarly underwhelmed, as it highlighted the fish and not the three can’t-live-without-them ingredients.
Getting better news is the Brown team, who perfectly cooked their fish and smartly integrated the Meyer lemon (one chef’s ingredient) in the salsa verde. The Yellow team also gets props for perfectly cooking their pork loin and having a delicious mole. To top it all off, Padma declares that she will henceforth add gruyere to her gremolata.
Though the degree of difficulty shouldered by the Yellow team and its hodgepodge of ingredients would seem to give them the victory, instead the Brown team is victorious. Perhaps even more important than the win itself, each of the three chefs will have immunity in the Elimination Challenge. In short: no going home first!
Wasting no time, Padma moves onto the Elimination Challenge, bringing in five all stars who’ll be joining the judges at Judges’ Table: Melissa King (last season’s winner), Richard Blais, Dale Talde, Kwame Onwuachi, and Amar Santana. Each all star is carrying a local bird available in Oregon: quail, duck, chukar (partridge), turkey, squab. Each chef will be randomly assigned to cook one of those proteins (they’ll appropriately have to crack an egg containing the name of their bird) and show the judges who they are as a chef. Driving the point home even further: the dishes will be presented blindly, meaning that the food on the plate will be the only introduction for the judges to this season’s cast. As winners of the Quickfire, the Brown team gets to select the bird they want to cook.
As the chefs start to plan their dishes, we see the second sad change due to the pandemic. Whereas the chefs would normally drive to the local Whole Foods and make mad dashes around the store to grab every ingredient they need, instead, the each chef is given an iPad so that they can place a to-go order. Sigh. It’s going to be hard to lose the manic Whole Foods scramble, not to mention the strategy that goes into getting to the meat counter first and grabbing a choice protein before another chef gets there.
Almost immediately, we see yet another change: there’s no Top Chef house. Given the obvious inability to have the cheftestants share rooms, Top Chef has rented out an entire hotel for the cheftestants and, presumably, the judges and crew. The evening is spent not lounging on some beautiful deck or in a glorious game room, but instead in the hotel lobby.
The next day, the chefs head over to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry to cook up their bird dishes. Other than one chef, Jamie, sending her fellow chefs into coughing fits with the strength of her Thai chili peppers and another chef, Roscoe, slowly dealing with the realization that perhaps he should have made a dish that’s more “him” (though he’s an accomplished pit master, he’s gone in a more fine dining direction), there’s minimal drama.
Before we know it, the squab dishes are up. Gabriel offers a roasted squab with local honey, charred onion petals, grilled plums, and jus. The dish looks absolutely beautiful and the diners (which include the judges and this episode’s all stars) praise the cooking on the squab and the simplicity of the dish. In particular, Tom likes the sauce, which is light and very plum-forward.
Bryon has a sweet Thai-style grilled squab with green mango jicama salad, sweet potato cake, coconut sauce, and herb oil. Despite the promise of Thai flavors, Dale can’t find them. The consensus is that the approach is good but the flavors don’t really tie together.
Last up, we have Maria with enchiladas potosinas stuffed with braised squab and quest fresco over goat cheese crema. Wracking my brain, I believe this is the first time I’ve ever seen enchiladas served on Top Chef. Good thing for her: the judges declare the enchiladas spicy but yummy. Maria has done a great job of showing who she is and where she comes from. The only criticism is that the squab is not front and center in the dish
Duck is next up. Roscoe, our pit master, goes first with duck adobo with sweet potato dumplings sitting in some type of broth. The dish is a miss — the duck is not cooked well and the broth is greasy and cloudy. Tom suggests the chef who made the dish was confused and scared.
Shota, a Japanese chef, serves a soy braised duck breast with candied pecans, bonito flakes, and pumpkin white miso puree. The dish is a joy to look at and eat. The flavors of the duck are perfectly balanced, counterbalanced with acid and sweetness. Gail notes that the dish “eats well,” as the duck is very tender and melts in the mouth.
Finally, we have Gabe with a chintesle-glazed duck with smoked mushrooms, charred onions, figs, and papilla mix. The diners all love the flavors, crispiness of the duck, and balance of the dish.
The quail trio is next. Sara presents a glazed quail with green beans, charred dates, and grilled eggplant coconut yogurt. One diner calls the dish a “flavor explosion,” and other diner calling the combination of flavors “unexpected” and great. Tom can tell that the dish was made by a very confident chef
Sasha follows with roasted quail, polenta, creme fraiche, roasted grapes, and a red wine jus. As an introduction, it’s not a successful one. Tom doesn’t find much roast on the duck and everyone laments the heaviness and density of the polenta. I would have described it as “gloppy.” While the sauce is nice, it’s a bit too heavy on butter.
Hoping to turn the tide, Kiki has a moambe quail with sweet corn grits plus boiled and pickled peanuts. As a peanut stew, Kwame notes that the flavor profile is exactly what the dish is supposed to be. Tom notes that the quail gets lost. The diners all agree that the dish would have been better with more sauce and more quail.
The chefs cooking turkey are rushing to finish their dishes and the timer beeps before one chef, Dawn, is able to add the sauce to her dish. “Am I allowed to put this on?” she asks one of the producers. “No, you’re not,” she is told. Dawn throws a towel to the floor in frustration. She knows this is not a good start.
Still, the show goes on. Chris is first with a sous vide turkey breast and rum braised turkey thigh with toasted farro, roasted mushrooms, and corn soubise. It looks like a holiday dish and is successful in evoking those flavors. Melissa, however, finds that there’s too much going on. Another diner notes an unpleasant bitterness coming from something in the dish.
Next is Dawn and her turkey peanut “stew” (though minus the sauce that would have made it a stew) with sautéed vegetables and savory calas. The all-stars immediately recognize that the chef probably ran out of time. Gail expresses disappointment about “the stew that isn’t” because the other components have great flavor. Tom agrees, pointing out that the turkey was nicely cooked.
Finally, we have Jamie. As she was finishing up, she realized that she had overcooked her turkey. Crestfallen, all the energy left her body and she basically went through the motions in plating the rest of her dish. That translated to the plate of lemongrass turkey with yellow curry couscous, sautéed rapini, and plum sauce. Padma notes that she loves all of the individual components in theory, but not all together. “Especially with broccoli,” she adds, making a face. Tom simply notes that the turkey gets lost in all the flavors.
We’re down to our last bird (chukar), and Avishar is not loving what he’s cooked. Stepping back after plating his dish of fried chukar with jhol, pilau, and south asian fried spiced pickles, he comments that he “doesn’t have anything on the plate that [he] like[s].” The diners agree. Tom says that he expected a ton of flavor from the dish but didn’t get it. Noting that the show has been going on for 18 seasons, Tom can barely believe that he’s still being served food (here, the rice and beans) that lack seasoning.
Brittanny performs better with chukar paired with sweet potato puree, grape ravigote, and calvados jus. The puree is great, and the cook on the chukar is, as well. Overall, the dish does a nice job of pairing acidity with the sweetness of the sweet potato.
Last up is Nelson with a Caribbean-braised chukar with wild rice, black beans, and tostones. Dale is loving the rice and beans, and could easily eat the dish without the chukar. Nelson seems to have done a good job about telling the diners about who he is.
All in all, it’s a much rockier start than I would have expected. Though I realize it’s the first episode, there are still more mistakes (both in terms of composition and execution) than I remember seeing on other season debuts. I wonder if the chefs, who might have had their restaurants shut down during the pandemic, are simply rusty.
Padma enters the kitchen and lists eight dishes. She requests that the chefs who cooked those eight dishes join her at Judges Table. Hearing the list, it’s clear to me that she’s calling out the four top dishes and four bottom dishes. The chefs, however, don’t know this. They jump to the conclusion that the top eight dishes are being brought before the judges, and everyone else in the stew room (who are actually safe) are in the bottom. Dawn, who didn’t add the stew to her stew, is sure she’ll be up for elimination.
When the eight chefs arrive at Judges’ Table, Sara, Shota, Gabe, and Gabriel are announced as the top four chefs this week. Sara is in total disbelief. She was sure she was in the bottom and tells the judges there are 10 things she would have done differently if she could remake her dish. Despite this, the judges adored her quail. Melissa loved the charred flavor and compliments the use of the yogurt. Gail says that every bite was vibrant and “gave life.” Tom felt that, whoever the chef was, she had a good sense of where her passion lies based on what was on the plate. Sara beams. Her performance was so much better than she’d expected.
As for the three other chefs, Padma loved Shota’s miso puree and says it was “genius” to pair it with the soy-glazed squab. Tom and Gail are both intrigued by the technique Shota used to cook the duck. Gabe’s dish, according to Padma, ate like a beautiful fall meal. Gail loved his sauce, and Melissa appreciated the use of sweet figs against earthy mushrooms. Gabriel’s dish was, for Padma, a “study in simplicity and purity.” Tom notes that it’s not simple to cook simple food and says the cook on the squab was perfect.
The winner, though, was the chef who showcased creativity and themselves, and that’s Sara, who can barely believe this has happened. Not only was she on the team who won the first Quickfire, she takes home the first Elimination win. She has no idea how this happened, but she’ll take it.
As for the four bottom chefs (Sasha, Roscoe, Jamie, and Avishar), Sasha won’t be going home because she has immunity. That’s really lucky for her, as the polenta was far too dense and the flavors didn’t fit together well.
Turning their attention to the other three chefs, the judges really couldn’t get past Roscoe’s broth, which was cloudy and greasy. Use of the broth made the dish also bad in another way: it dried up the duck because he’d sliced it so thin. Tom couldn’t figure out what Roscoe was going for, which leads Roscoe to disclose his pit master background. The judges are dumbfounded and can’t understand why he didn’t do something else for the dish, like maybe smoke the meat.
Right off the bat, Jamie acknowledges that her turkey was overcooked (Gail calls it “annihilated”). But the turkey wasn’t the only problem — the flavors really clashed. Tom notes that, in an orchestra, not every instrument is playing at the same volume. Here, that was unfortunately the case, and the casualty was the turkey, which was totally drowned out.
As for Avishar, his fried chukar was great but the rice was undercooked and bland, and his curry was really bland as well. For Tom, this violated Rule #1 as a chef, which is “SEASON YOUR FOOD.”
The top and bottom chefs are sent back to the Stew Room while the judges deliberate. Once they arrive, they inform the seven chefs who weren’t called out that they are, in fact, safe. The disbelief is palpable. Each of those chefs who’d been sitting and waiting were convinced that they were (to borrow a phrase from another competition cooking show) on the chopping block. Relief pours out of each and every one of them — most visibly, Dawn.
Deliberation concludes and the three bottom chefs are brought back to Judges’ Table. Tom gives the chefs a quick lesson on how to succeed on Top Chef: be smart in how you design your dish and back it up with solid technique. That’s how you get something that’s really flavorful. None of these three chefs were able to do so, and one of them will be going home “for the reason everyone goes home on this show: they cooked the worst dish.” Today, that’s Roscoe.
He doesn’t seem too surprised, and nor should he be. Beyond not making a dish that tasted good, I personally think he probably had the biggest failure at cooking a dish that showcased who he is as a chef — with a pit master trying to make duck adobo swimming in a broth. Tom reminds him that Last Chance Kitchen still awaits. Roscoe vows to redeem himself there.