Top Chef: Portland - Episode 4: Thrown for a Loop
By Jason Lee
April 25, 2021
With yet more bills to pay, Padma and Dale are here for a second straight product-placement heavy Quickfire. Seemingly on a comfort food kick (and honestly, who isn’t?), we had ice cream with Talenti last week and it’s Campbell’s Soup this week. Referencing our pandemic-era need to keep our pantries well-stocked, Padma and Dale open up a pair of pantry doors to reveal rows of cans of Campbell’s Soup. The chefs must create a dish that evokes a food memory using one of those iconic products. The winner gets immunity and $10,000.
Chris incorporates the soup that most of us probably know best—Campbell’s tomato soup—into a dish of cod braised with charred cabbage, a spicy sofrito, and fennel. For his part, Shota uses the soup that most of the chefs have chosen to use—Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup—to try and make a chawanmushi with crab. Unfortunately for him, his steamer didn’t work as expected and the dish isn’t full cooked.
“Did you mean for the custard to be this loose?” Padma asks. Shota gamely answers that he did, though confessing to us as an aside that he most certainly did not.
Dawn has a chicken and rice fritter paired smartly with a piece of crispy chicken skin. Jamie has a take on a Vietnamese shrimp tomato soup. Sara serves a smoked mushroom stroganoff that impresses with its meaty flavor. Byron brings a bit of Thanksgiving to the table with a poached chicken and cream of mushroom bread pudding. Nelson has seared cod with applewood smoked bacon and a tomato ginger sauce. Avishar plays with chicken tikka masala, serving up a chicken toast masala that Dale calls “inventive.”
Like Shota, Kiki gets a revealing question when she serves her swiss chard gratin, with Padma asking how long she cooked the chard. Chris goes where every viewer (and both judges) had hoped one of the chefs would go, with a grilled cheese spin on panzanella, plus a tomato soup vinaigrette. Maria has her trademark “big bowl o’food” with a cabbage salad, poached egg, and tomato soup vinaigrette. Finally, Gabe has a grilled filet with roasted delicata squash, chanterelles, miso, and a cream of mushroom pan sauce.
Dale compliments all of the chefs on a generally high level of execution. Excluded from this is Nelson, who “hammered” his cod. Also excluded is Shota (for the pool of liquid that didn’t get incorporated into his chawanmushi) and Kiki (as her swiss chard wasn’t cooked enough and felt like a “warm dressed salad).
The three chefs who have done enough to challenge for immunity are Gabe, Sara, and Chris—the chef who barely escaped elimination last week. Gabe brought deep flavors to his dish, which tasted like it had been cooked for far longer than the allotted 30 minutes. Sara’s smoking of her mushrooms was great and Padma loved her spaetzle. Finally, Chris was extremely clever making a tomato soup vinaigrette and pairing it with a play on grilled cheese.
Again showing that it’s anyone’s game—you can be on the verge of elimination one day and on top of the competition the next—Chris wins immunity and a $10,000 bounty. He’ll breathe a bit easier during today’s Elimination Challenge.
A challenge that won't take place in any Portland restaurant. The cheftestants will be taking an hour-long drive to get to the Mount Hood region where they’ll have a range of fruit ready to be picked and incorporated into a dish for today’s Elimination Challenge. One twist: the dish will have to be savory.
It’s a gorgeous drive up to the orchard. Surely, I wasn't the only viewer thinking that it might make a pleasant (and safe) pandemic-era trip. Upon arriving, the chefs are greeted by Melissa and Carrie. The chefs smell a twist. They’re right. Though there’s a bounty of delicious fruit hanging on the trees—peaches, plums, apples, etc.—that’s pretty much what the cheftestants will have to work with in terms of plant-based sources. There are no vegetables in the pantry.
“Spin, hah!” Melissa comments. LOL.
The chefs are given a few minutes to sample the available fruit in the orchard before getting another 20 minutes or so to rush among the trees and try to find the fruits that will work for them. With their bags full of juicy, ripe fruit, the chefs head over to outdoor cook stations set up in two parallel rows. It’s a beautiful day to be out side . . . unless you’re cooking. Between the flowering plants that surround the chefs and the sweet fruit at every station, swarms of bees start arriving like ants at a picnic. There fortunately appears to be only one instance of a stinging.
Things get even more complicated as the wind starts to kick up, but the chefs soldier on. Maria curses the lack of chiles in the pantry (I guess they count as vegetables, not spices or seasonings?) and has to do with smoked paprika and red pepper flakes. Meanwhile, two chefs are diving into dangerous territory. Proving that this season will indeed harken back to the show’s early seasons, with some appearance of scallops at every challenge (insert eye roll), both Chris and Nelson have chosen to incorporate this infamous protein into their dishes. At another station, Avishar is trying his hand at a dish that has doomed many a chef on this show: risotto. Always trying to do some play on words (see “chicken toast masala” above), Avishar dubs this an “Ohiotto” in honor of his home state of Ohio.
Avishar is the first chef up and serves his Ohiotto to the table of judges and all-stars. As in past years, it’s not a hit. Having perplexingly used sushi rice instead of the traditional Arborio rice for his risotto, the rice is somehow both too al dente and mushy. Worse yet, the cheddar cheese Avishar has (for some reason) concealed underneath the rice is gloppy and makes for a confusing welt of flavors. Kwame is confused and Tom wonders where the fruit is.
Avishar’s failure is made all the more apparent by his service alongside Gabe, who has smoked and glazed plums, an orchard fruit jus, pork, and chicken. Once Gabe’s back is turned, Amar picks up his plate and literally licks up all of the jus, declaring that it's the best thing he’s had so far this season. Tom marvels at the creativity of pairing gravy with fruit.
Chris and Shota are next. Chris has a seared scallop with peach butter, smoked and seared plums, and pickled pink pearl apples. Shota follows that up with a cold dish of salmon, sour apple sauce, duck fat crumbles, and a plum salad. Tom notes that both chefs smartly incorporated fruit into their dishes (it’s always a good start when you’ve addressed the central aspect of the challenge). Richard understandably wants to know if this is the same Chris who failed so miserably at making Haitian food in the last episode, as this scallop is great. Kwame says Chris knocked it out o the park and loves how he smoked his fruit. As for Shota, his salmon is too dry but the crumble and fruit are both wonderful. Melissa suggests that he didn’t even need the salmon on the plate.
Gabriel is next with Jamie. He has a trio of oysters, each highlighting a different fruit (apple, peach, and plum). Jamie has a pepper pear sauce with grilled pork, polenta, and poached pear with pickled grapes. Gail calls Gabriel’s oysters “enchanting” and beautifully presented. She finds Jamie’s dish, however, “dated” and dislikes how the grits get weighed down by the cheese. Dale is more direct: the dish is “a little boring.”
Sara and Bryon attempt bring their signature lightness and freshness to the next two dishes. Sarah serves lightly grilled shrimp with quinoa, apples, plums, and peaches, and Byron has ravioli filled with tarragon, apple, and pear alongside an apple and Pino noir reduction. Sara’s dish is a rare mishit from her, as there are too many sauces for Melissa’s liking and too much dill for Carrie’s taste. As for Byron’s pasta, Amar calls it a deconstructed cheese plate that’s “fun to eat.”
Kiki has been struggling every episode, and she hopes to get on track today with apple-glazed fried chicken with grilled an pickled peaches atop creamy polenta. Nelson is also hoping for a turnaround with a seared scallop with apple béarnaise, an apple shallot relish, and sautéed pears.
The diners are supremely disappointed in both dishes. The chicken in Kiki’s dish is raw for almost every diner around the table—a massive faux pas. Tom notes that, with only a small tabletop frier to use, it’s possible this dish was simply not possible given the constraints the chefs had to work with. As for Nelson’s dish, Carrie calls it “herbs on herbs on herbs” and calling it “flat.” Gail adds that it’s a scallop drowning in garnishes that don’t go together—especially the rosemary, which was overpowering.
Lest the judges end on a sour note, Dawn and Maria are able to turn the tide. Dawn has a caramelized-apple risotto with herbs, apple-glazed duck, and a Macintosh apple olive oil puree. The puree is roundly praised, with Richard saying that, with this one dish, he’ll come away from the challenge having learned something new. Maria ends things with an albondigas secas braised in grape juice and red wine. Maria has not yet been in the top or bottom of any Elimination Challenge, meaning that she has not yet received any feedback from the judges. It’s a shame because they seem to really like her food, and today is no exception, with the diners calling her dish “soulful and savory.”
Alas, Maria is (yet again) not in the top or the bottom of this challenge. After an hour-long car ride back to Portland—leaving the chefs in agony, not knowing if they did well or poorly—Padma calls Kiki, Gabriel, Chris, Gabe, Nelson, and Avishar to Judges’ Table.
The chefs in the top of the challenge are Gabriel, Chris, and Gabe. Gabriel did so darn well in creating three distinct flavor profiles with his oysters—all of which were different, fresh, and bright. Tom says he was able to pull off the dish because of his attention to detail. Chris is loving being in the top, as opposed to his dour appearance in the last Elimination Challenge. Padma loved his smoked grapes, which were packed with flavor. Tom found the dish really well-balanced and calls it “spectacular.” As for Gabe, he showcased the fruits as the centerpiece of his dish, incorporating flavors that reminded Tom of the end of summer and start of fall. Gail says that the dish was yet another example of an excellent “Gabe sauce” and one that she “need[s] to eat again.”
With his focus on the fruits and celebration of their flavors, Gabe is today’s winner, meaning that for the fourth straight episode, we’ve had our fourth new winner. I’ve said it already but I’ll say it again: this season, it’s anyone’s game.
But maybe not Avishar’s, Kiki’s, or Nelson’s, as one of them will be eliminated. In Avishar’s dish, Padma could only taste bacon and uncooked rice, leading Melissa to note that all the bright flavors of his fruit were lost. Nelson’s bernaise sauce was so heavy and cheese that it coated every ingredient, overwhelming the dish and, in Gail’s view, resulting in a loss of integrity of the fruit that was supposed to be the focus.
But neither of those chefs made as grievous an error as Kiki, who served raw chicken to almost every diner at the table. Though Melissa suggests that, if the chicken had been cooked through, Kiki would have landed somewhere in the middle of the group, the undercooked chicken is not something that the judging panel (or perhaps just Tom, which automatically dooms a chef at Judges Table) can get past.
Kiki is going home and she’s mortified that it’s because she served raw chicken, which she says she has never done before in her life. Still, she’s proud of herself for giving her all during every challenge in which she competed. She’ll need that gusto and grit to get her through Last Chance Kitchen.