Top Chef: Portland - Episode 2: Trouble Brewing
By Jason Lee
April 11, 2021
One chef down, thirteen to go. The chefs have gotten their first taste of Top Chef insanity, with Sara coming out on top in the prior episode’s Quickfire and Elimination Challenges. But neither she nor anyone else is feeling comfortable. They fully realize the combination of raw talent, mental stamina, and good fortune required to win the title. They thus take a few moments to pump each other up and muster whatever collective confidence they can before departing the Stew Room and heading home.
Hopefully they got a good night’s rest because a daunting sight confronts them when they arrive in the Top Chef Kitchen. Coming before a roster of All Stars—including new face Carrie Baird, finalist from season 15—Padma tells the cheftestants that, today, they’ll be celebrating the “unsung hero” of the short order cook and manning the Top Chef Diner. Each All Star will name the brunch dish they want to eat, and the two quickest cheftestants to volunteer will compete head to head, with 30 minutes to make their version of the requested dish. The overall winner of the Quickfire will be selected among the dishes that win their head-to-head battle, with the prize being immunity in the Elimination Challenge.
Our first All Star, Amar, requests steak and eggs, and Byron and Gabe are quick to offer up their services. They get started immediately, a whirlwind of knives and raw meat. After waiting a few minutes to stagger the chefs’ start times, Melissa is next up and asks for some dim sum. Just one perfect bite.
The silence is deafening. No one wants to volunteer to cook dim sum for Melissa. Melissa starts to try and sell the idea to the cast of skeptical chefs, saying, “it can be salty, it can be sweet . . .” She has no takers. It’s quite hilarious.
Finally, Avashar and Shota volunteer and are left to figure what the heck they’re going to do.
In contrast to Melissa, multiple chefs are eager to get a crack at Kwame’s requested dish of shrimp and grits, but the opportunity goes to Jamie and Sara. With Jamie having avoided elimination by THISMUCH, and Sara having won the only two challenges so far this season, there’s a clear underdog here.
Gregory asks for fried eggs and veggie hash (Dawn and Sasha get the task) and Carrie reminds every viewer of why she was an adored fan favorite during her season by requesting “FANCY TOAST.” (God, I love Carrie). That gets assigned to Brittanny and Kiki.
Last up, always looking to play the “funny and goofy” role on Top Chef (which, for my tastes, can all too often veer into “annoying and overbearing” territory), Richard Blais asks for corned beef hash, hash browns, and hollandaise. Even the Top Chef editors are seemingly tired of Richard’s schtick, captioning the dish as “the kitchen’s sink.” Nelson and Chris get the honor of making it.
With the dishes assigned and mass chaos ensuing in almost every corner of the Top Chef kitchen, our first pair is finally ready to serve up the fruits of their labor. Byron offers a seared t-bone steak with chimichurri with an over easy egg, but is beaten out by Gabe’s steak marinated in chipotle adobo.
Next up is the hotly anticipated version of dim sum by Shota and Avishar. Shota has a beautiful shrimp dumpling mochi, which draws raves from Dale given the texture he was able to develop despite the short time frame. Avishar tries to compete with a butternut squash fritter, but apart from perhaps deviating a bit too far from the base dish (I’ve certainly never seen anything like that at dim sum), he wasn’t able to finish cooking in time and many of his bowls (including Melissa’s) arrive sans fritter. Unsurprisingly, Shota wins his head-to-head.
The shrimp and grits from Sara and Jamie arrive next and the aromas are intoxicating. Sara has made a shrimp and grits fritter, but it can’t hold a candle to Jamie’s cream polenta with cajun Gochujang shrimp. “That was legit shrimp and grits,” Kwame says.
Joining Avishar by showing that this cast of chefs really has trouble getting everything completed in time, both Sasha and Brittany serve their veggie hash with a fried egg without a fried egg. Sasha simply overlooked that component when Gregory placed his order and Dawn simply ran out of time. With the two even on the egg front, Sasha’s sweet potato hash with lemon creme fraiche is the pick over Dawn’s Yukon Gold potato hash with kale.
Carrie can't wait to see what Brittanny and Kiki have done with fancy toast. In the end, Brittanny’s mushroom au poivre toast beats out Kiki’s avocado toast with goat cheese.
Last up, we have Nelson and Chris’s version of Richard’s kitchen sink order. Padma starts by congratulating them on even getting their dishes completed and before the judges in 30 minutes. With their degree of difficulty dutifully acknowledged, Chris’s eggs with cheddar and black garlic hash with hollandaise is the pick over Nelson’s potato hash with cheddar.
With the heads-to-head done, it’s time to decide which chef can breathe a sigh of relief and relax during the Elimination Challenge, and in a huge surprise, it’s Jamie who wins immunity. By nature, Jamie feels like she’s always bursting at the seams with sunny energy, which manifests itself through chirped non-word sound effects taking the place of English communication. That feeling applies double here, as the victory renders Jamie incapable of expressing her astonishment in human language.
Reflecting later, Jamie notes, “you never know who’s going to be on top.” Seriously. On the verge of elimination in one challenge and winning immunity in the next. It’s anyone’s game this season.
All the All Stars except Dale and Amar leave the kitchen. With Dale sipping some coffee and Amar clutching a beer, Padma recounts how Portland is home to amazing breweries—both coffee breweries and beer breweries alike. The cheftestants’ challenge today is to make a dish that celebrates one of those iconic brews. To figure out which one, they draw knives. With that done, the chefs take 30 minutes to plan and shop before heading home for some R&R.
The cheftestants arrive the next morning to start preparing their dishes . . . and are met by Tom. Immediately, the chefs suspect some sort of twist. They’re right. Instead of making individual dishes, the chefs instead will have to pair up—one assigned coffee and one assigned beer—and make a single dish that highlights both flavors using the ingredients they’ve already purchased.
Pairing up is a bit awkward, since the chefs haven't had a ton of time to get to know each other, much less figure out which fellow chef’s cooking style and temperament will mesh well with their own. Nonetheless, pairs are formed and the chefs begin reconceptualizing their dishes.
For the most part, cooking takes place with minimal drama. Brittanny and Sasha decide that the individual dishes they’d been planning would work pretty well together and thus work out a composite dish. Avishar and Shota, despite their seemingly contrasting personalities (nerd and cool jock, respectively), somehow show signs of a burgeoning bromance. Jamie and Kiki are fast friends, despite the knowledge that because Jamie has immunity, Kiki likely would be sent home if they cook the worst dish. And the pairings of Sara and Gabe, and Nelson and Maria, both work because of shared culinary and personal sensibilities.
Indeed, the only tension involves Dawn and Gabriel, who were reluctant partners. Both are accomplished and confident chefs, and both have clear views as to how their dish should come together. Most of this involves Gabriel trying to impose his decisions on Dawn, including all but forbidding her from including black pepper in the spice mix for her ribs. As Dawn puts it, Gabriel is “trying to chef-explain things to me”—a figure of speech that I instantly adore.
The diners arrive and Jamie and Kiki kick things off with a beer braised fried chicken with coffee stout glaze and a butternut squash puree. As the dishes are placed before the judges, Kiki nervously says, pointing to Jamie, “she has immunity and I don’t. Hopefully, you like this.”
Luckily, the diners do. Gregory loves that they took the time to braise the chicken before frying it so that it’s “super crunchy.” Dale notes that the pair embraced the bitter notes of coffee and beer, balancing it with the sweetness of the butternut squash. Padma’s only criticism is that they placed the chicken wing on top of the butternut squash puree, which made the dish “unnecessarily messy.” Ah Padma, even with chicken wings, you demand finesse.
Shota and Avishar offers a lobster sunomono with a double cream coffee and stout reduction and carbonated grapes—the brainchild of Avishar. Melissa “absolutely loves” the dish, calling it beautifully composed, praising the perfect cook on the lobster, and saying the sauce “just sung for me.” Tom likes how the pair balanced the bitterness of coffee and beer with other sweet elements, as well as adding some pizzazz through the carbonated fruit. Kwame points out that his bowl is completely empty, having eaten every speck. Melissa comments, “same here.”
Next up, Brittanny and Sasha have a beer marinated pork loin with beets, a milk stout vinaigrette, coffee romesco, and a coffee hazelnut crunch. This is the first miss of the night. Dale says that the dish lacks a point of view. Tom delivers a death blow by using the “B” word, saying that even though the components all make sense together, the dish is “bland.” Carrie suggests a sauce would have made the dish better, but is interrupted by Gail who expresses befuddlement at the coffee romesco, which is chalky in texture.
Maria and Nelson make a homey, delicious looking chile relleno a la caribeña with beer coconut curry lobster, papilla negro sauce with coffee, and a sweet potato puree. Gregory says that he found the dish surprisingly satisfying, but Amar dislikes the heat in the salad, noting that the chile is spicy enough.
Gabe and Sara follow with a pork tenderloin cured in espresso, smoked yogurt with hazelnut salsa mocha, and a tortilla made with stout and porter. The description of the tortilla intrigues everyone and leads to each diner picking up their tortilla to see if they can detect any aroma of stout. “It smells beautiful,” Gail says. Dale and Kwame agree, marveling at the ingeniousness of using beer to make a tortilla. Tom loves how he gets both beer and coffee flavor in the dish, but neither is overpowering. Meanwhile, Gregory loves the garnishes.
Byron and Chris are next to serve, and Byron is not feeling confident. He suspects that Chris has not rolled out the pasta thin enough . . . and he’s right. Digging into the coffee and Berbere-spiced duck breast with mushroom and coffee tortellini, beer and miso foam, and beer marinated mushrooms, Melissa praises the beer flavor but laments the thickness of the pasta. Tom suggests that Chris may have used too much flour when rolling out the pasta, which dried it out. Gregory is not a fan of the dish, calling the duck unnecessary and noting that the foam, although tasty, is not a foam.
The forced marriage of Gabriel and Dawn are last to go and serve a coffee and beer braised pork rib glazed in sour beer with herb salad and compressed watermelon. The watermelon, the ingenious idea of Gabriel, is an instant hit. So are Dawn's ribs, which are perfectly cooked. Gail notes that the dish looked like the standard watermelon and ribs, but with the beer, it tasted of so much more. Carrie offers the only criticism, suggesting that some type of pickle or acidic element was needed because the dish overall is so rich.
Back in the Stew Room, all of the chefs think they did well—a notable contrast from last week. Padma arrives, however, to burst the bubble of at least a few. She summons Gabriel, Dawn, Sasha, Brittanny, Avishar, Shota, Gabe, Sara, Chris, and Byron to Judges Table. Again, for us viewers at home, it’s clear that these are the tops and the bottoms in the challenge. The chefs appear to realize that, too, with Kiki questioning what it means to be “not called for a second time,” and thus just “skating by.”
Despite the many missing sauces and missing eggs we’ve seen so far, Tom tells the ten chefs in front of him that this could be the best collection of chefs they’ve had in 18 seasons. Some, of course, did better than others.
Gabriel and Dawn get some quick good news. Padma loved the pork ribs, and Gail praises their decisions to pair such a rich and fatty protein with sour watermelon, calling it a “home run all the way.”
Shota and Avishar can also relax. Tom calls the dish “totally original,” including the carbonated grapes, which were “out of left field” but worked because of the balance they brought to the dish. Padma loved how the dish harmonized the coffee and beer flavors, and Dale says the seasoning was perfect. Amar can't help but chime in, too, saying the sauce was harmonious and delicious.
Finally, Sara is back in the top and brought along Gabe. The judges all loved the puree combined with the yogurt and pickles, which all made sense together. Dale encourages Gabe to sell and market his beer tortilla, which he calls “phenomenal” and “creative.” In terms of embracing the challenge, that tortilla was hard to top.
Clearly, the top three dishes were absolute standouts, but the judges select as the winners of this week’s challenges the two chefs who really highlighted the coffee and beer flavors and balanced everything together . . . and that’s Shota and Avishar. The bromancers exchange a high five—endearingly dorky on Avishar’s part. “The Asian Sensation!” Shota declares.
The mood immediately changes when the two bottom teams are brought out. Chris and Byron each had issues, with Chris’s pasta too tough and brittle (and also lacking filling) and Byron’s foam not really a true foam.
But the bigger issue appears to be with Sasha and Brittany. Sasha says that she stands behind their dish—and my heart jumps with joy every time a chef utters that iconic phrase—but from the judges’ telling, the dish was doomed from the start. Padma notes that the dish felt like a collection of ingredients and lacked a holistic identity. Tom agrees, saying it didn’t come together. Gail wanted more beer flavor. Brittanny notes that stout was in their vinaigrette and the judges express surprise that there was a vinaigrette at all. “You needed much more all over the plate,” Gail says, as it might have brought a better balance overall.
The judges face a tough decision. The single worst bite was probably Chris’s pasta, which was lacking in flavor and texture. However, as Tom points out, by not taking the time to conceive an entirely new dish and instead combining elements from the individual dishes they each had planned, Sasha and Brittanny missed the central point of the challenge. The dish lacked beer flavor, and that’s largely attributable to Brittanny, but the coffee crumble and romesco represented bigger errors, as the bitterness from those elements overwhelmed the dish.
Which means that Sasha is going home today. Brittanny is heartbroken, hugging Sasha and whispering, “I’m so sorry.” But it’s scant consolation, as Sasha is understandably devastated by her elimination, comparing it to a “stab in the heart.” Still, she expresses commendable belief in herself, despite today’s outcome. “One failure does not make me a failure,” she says, “and one mistake does not make everything else invalid.” She’s totally right. That strong outlook is one reason I believe Sasha when she says, “this is just one more challenge where I have to put in the work.” I agree and have no doubt Sasha will do so. Here’s hoping for a strong showing in Last Chance Kitchen.