Top Chef: Portland - Episode 5 - Meet You at the Drive-In
By Jason Lee
May 2, 2021
The Top Chef producers are darn well determined to make sure we learn as many random factoids about Portland this season as possible. Today’s lesson? Porlandians love roses, with half a million rosebushes planted throughout the city. Springboarding off of this, and with “Mother’s Day right around the corner” (a statement that makes me snicker, since this was inevitably filmed last fall), Padma tasks the cheftestants in today’s Quickfire with making a dish that pays tribute to the mother figure in their own life. The twist: each dish must incorporate rose flavor or rosewater in some way.
This should, presumably, be harder for some chefs than others. Avishar hates rose flavors and is hoping to skate by in the middle by making some sort of rose hollandaise sauce. That sounds bizarre to me but I defer to his far-more expert tastes. Shota says that he’s never used roses in his cooking, but presumably he’s had some experience incorporating sakura blossoms into some type of dish at some point, which should provide some marginal advantage.
Meanwhile, two chefs who have been pretty consistently in the top half of the challenges so far are struggling. Sara and Maria add some additional rosewater to their dishes at the last minute, hoping to make the featured flavor stand out just a tad more. Maria’s not so sure this will work out. Desconsolate, she admits to us that she’s not happy with her dish today, calling it “not a Maria dish.”
The dishes range from playing it a bit safe (Jamie’s rose imperial sushi roll with a good kick), to intriguingly incorporating seafood (Gabriel’s cured snapper with hibiscus rose juice), to baking something more casual and homey (Dawn’s fennel and rose fritter with macerated peaches).
Unfortunately, Maria and Sara end up in the bottom with two salad dishes. Maria made an arugula salad that was too heavily dressed with her rose vinaigrette, and Sara’s last-minute sprinkling of rosewater took over her salad of grilled romaine. Nelson joins them in the bottom, but for the opposite reason: his sweet plantains with rice and beans lacked rose flavor.
These chefs were topped by Byron, Chris, and Gabe. Byron’s crab salad with a rose and pistachio aguadulce was a great combination of flavors. The judges marvel at the depth of flavor in Chris’s cornmeal porridge, despite only having 30 minutes. And Gabe perfectly balanced the flavors in his turbot smoked with rosebuds.
Showing fine form after teetering on the edge of elimination two episodes ago, Chris wins immunity yet again plus a “big advantage” in the Elimination Challenge. I wonder if he’d trade that for a cool cash prize.
Richard Blais enters as a guest judge for today’s Elimination Challenge, which combines two highly enjoyable themes from past challenges. Often, Top Chef will have at least one challenge that requires highly trained chefs to cater to the pedestrian masses. Think: the highly entertaining food truck challenge from a few seasons ago. Top Chef also loves to pit chefs against each other in head-to-head challenges, as the show did early in last season’s run.
Today’s Elimination Challenge incorporates both themes against the backdrop of a classic Americana tradition: the drive-in movie theater. The chefs will be divided into two teams, each tasked with preparing six courses for 50 diners sitting in their cars, parked in a makeshift drive-in movie theater. Each dish needs to be inspired by a familiar movie genre: comedy, drama, action, horror, sci-fi, and romance. The respective dish from each team will compete head-to-head, with the winning team gaining one point. If the six head-to-head battles result in a tie, the team with the best dish overall in the night will win the tiebreaker.
Padma provides one key piece of advice (make something that can be eaten easily in a car) before the chefs draw knives and divide into two teams. As the Quickfire winner, Chris gets to choose his team. Eschewing the Yellow team, he goes with the Yellow team, which includes Gabriel, Sara, Nelson, Shota, and Jamie.
The chefs get only 45 minutes to choose their movie genre and brainstorm their dishes. The chefs have quite a hard time riffing off the genres—how exactly is someone supposed to make a dish inspired by comedy?—and some of them seem questionable right off the bat. Chris somehow thinks that ribs equate to drama, and Gabriel is under some bizarre impression that cauliflower tater tots will represent action films on the plate. Meanwhile, the Green team is perplexingly comfortable with the choice of making churros stuffed with chicken liver mousse for their “romance” dish.
After a good night’s rest, the chefs head out to prep their dishes. Maria has a particularly hard job ahead of her. Incensed with her consistent placement in the middle of the group—meaning that she has not received any feedback from the judges, and consequently, has no idea how much they’ve enjoyed her cooking so far in the competition—and starting to doubt herself a little bit, Maria has decided to shoot for the moon. She will make 65 hot dogs from scratch, baking her own bread and making individual sausages by hand. This elicits a hearty “YAAAASSSS GURL” from me. I’m here for this.
Because, at times, 2021 seems to want to live up to its older brother, 2020, and ruin everything, it starts raining at the movie theater. This understandably slows all the chefs down and leads to a frantic speed-cooking and speed-plating in order to get the first two dishes (comedy) ready in time. Both teams manage to do so.
With all the diners seated in their cars in front of a big projection screen, the Top Chef producers have a little fun and play an entertaining short clip, informing the diners of which movie genre is up first. “It’s comedy,” Padma says, deadpanned, before getting absolutely nailed in the face by two pies. It’s absolutely hysterical. Everyone, including Padma on the screen, is cracking up.
That’s good because at least one chef has bombed already. Jamie on the Yellow Team has sticky fried chicken wings with a fish sauce glaze. On the recommendation of her fellow team members, she fried her wings a little less than she normally would have. That was advice that should have gone unheeded, as it has left the wings gummy and, as Tom puts it, rubbery like the chicken that inspired the association with comedy. Beyond that, it’s simply hard to eat a glazed chicken wing in the car without getting sauce all over the place.
Byron gets a much better reception for his chicken dish. Designed to be eaten via skewer, he has a super crispy Korean-style gochujang fried chicken. It’s such a huge hit. The chicken is flavorful and crispy, and the skewer idea was brilliant. To no one’s surprise, Byron earns the Green team a point.
Doing her best Jack Nicholson impression and warning us that even though we might “want the food, [we] can’t handle the food!” Padma lets us know that drama is next. Both dishes seem to have an tenuous connection to the film genre. Chris has a harissa-rubbed rib, but despite his recent successes, it’s bland and, like Jamie’s chicken wing, far too hard to eat in a car. Dawn has a duo of popcorn, one with duck skin and furikake seasoning. Because she has somehow elevated the iconic movie snack into something delicious, she earns the Green team its second point. Meanwhile, Tom ominously notes that Chris is lucky he has immunity.
Dressed in a jumpsuit a la Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Padma warns that action is next up. Gabriel has his oh-so-action-y cauliflower tots with two sauces, while Maria was the human embodiment of constant action in preparing her handmade Sonoran hot dogs. Again, the Green team bests the Yellow team, as the tots are gummy and salty, while the dogs taste like delicious Mexican street food.
This puts the Yellow team in dangerous territory. One more win and the Green team secures its victory. They'll have to hope that the sci-fi genre, introduced by Padma wearing an alien mask, brings better luck.
It’s up to Nelson to try and turn things around with his “Unidentified Dominican Object”—a strange cooking orange disc made of jerk pork, corn, and candied yams. He’ll go up against Avishar’s “s’mores in space,” with burnt marshmallow ice cream and milk chocolate.
You’d think that candied yams would be no match for ice cream and chocolate—and indeed, both Tom and Padma think Avishar nailed his dish and clammer for more—but you’d be wrong. Winning two-thirds of the vote, Nelson prevails in his head-to-head battle and provides the Yellow team with its first point.
Looking like an extra in the Blair Witch Project, swinging a flashlight left and right, Padma tells us that horror is next. And horror is on the plate with Shota’s “cheesy bloody dog,” a blackened corndog with Japanese béchamel and cheddar cheese inside. The diners roundly find the appearance unappetizing. That will go up against Gabe’s Mexican campechana (like a tomato-based ceviche) with oysters, crab, and shrimp.
Both dishes are meh. Shota’s dish is too rich and Padma didn’t enjoy the flavors, while Gabe’s seafood was flat and tasted like a deconstructed bloody mary, but not in a good way. Winning by a “thin margin,” Shota keeps the Yellow team alive, but still down 3 points to 2.
It’ll be up to Sara to try and best the collective dessert from the Green team in the romance challenge, introduced by Padma wondering if her beloved loves her, or loves her not. Sara opines that sharing a milkshake is the epitome of romance, and presents a chocolate and hazelnut milkshake with a strawberry miso whip. The Green team pairs salty with sweet in a churro stuffed with chicken liver mousse and dulce de leech.
As she so often does, Sara excels in the Elimination Challenge with layered flavors. As for the Green team’s dessert, while Padma likes churros with dulce de leche, and churros with chicken liver mousse, she finds that she doesn’t like the three together. It’s like a bad menage a trois.
Completing the incredible comeback, Sara wins her match and the teams are tied, three to three. That means that the team with the best overall dish that night will take home the win. With all the cheftetants brought to Judges’ Table for the first time this season, they learn that the honor goes to Byron’s amazing Korean fried chicken. Not only does that earn him the team win, he gets a $10,000 prize. It’s really stunning how much money Top Chef has doled out this season . . . though given the financial difficulties all chefs have been dealing with during the pandemic, this increased financial assistance is surely welcome.
The judges briefly discuss the dishes by Byron’s teammates. He didn’t win his head-to-head, but Tom tells Avishar that the sci-fi s’more was Tom’s favorite dish of the night. Richard tells Dawn that he would have wanted a jumbo size bucket of her popcorn, and he also makes a point of praising Maria for how much work he took on in making her hot dogs. It’s moving to see Maria finally realize that, yes, the judges recognize what she’s done in this competition so far and, yes, they really do like her food.
Though they could have simply moved onto the Yellow team, who’s on pins and needles wondering who’s going home, the judges take a moment to chide Gabe for his ceviche, pointedly calling him out as having made the worst dish on his team.
But he’s not up for elimination. The Yellow team is, with the exception of Chris, who escapes despite his very bland ribs. “It’s lucky you have immunity,” Tom states, bluntly.
Sara is also safe, as Gail would love to go back to that drive-in for another milkshake. And Richard, who doesn’t eat much sugar, confesses that he finished the entire thing. Nelson similarly gets good news—the judges very much liked the presentation and flavors in his Unidentified Dominican Object.
Thus, elimination will come down to Jamie, Gabriel, and Shota. All three chefs made errors. Indeed, Tom pointedly asks them, “did you really think you cooked your best food today?” Jamie didn’t, as her chicken wings, which were messy to eat and not nearly crispy enough, lacked the bright, bold flavors that the judges have come to expect from her. Shota didn’t, as Gail really didn’t enjoy the texture of his corn dog, and Tom calls the cheesy filling “a horror show.” And Gabe didn’t, as his cauliflower tots were boring, hardly imbued with “action,” and served with clashing sauces.
Lamenting the “complete lack of imagination,” Tom notes that any of these three chefs could justifiably be sent home for their errors today. But today it’s Jamie, who makes it the fourth woman in a row to be eliminated. Jamie smiles through the pain, stating that she has grown a ton by participating in Top Chef. She knows that, even though she was nearly eliminated in the first episode of the season, she persevered. And she’s right—winning a Quickfire and doing fantastically in the following two Elimination Challenges. But her wings let her down today, and she’ll have to look redemption in Last Chance Kitchen.