Top Chef: Portland - Episode 6 - Stumptown, U.S.A.
By Jason Lee
May 13, 2021
As some Top Chef fans may know, the show is produced by a company named Magical Elves. I wondered whether this episode’s Quickfire might be an ode to those hard working Magical Elves, or maybe it would be sponsored by the Keebler Company (tasking the chefs with making some type of dish out of Chips Deluxe), because the entire Top Chef Kitchen is filled with tree stumps. It looks perfect for some sort of elf-themed Quickfire.
Padma, standing next to Tom (in a rare Quickfire appearance), quickly makes clear that elven food is not on the menu. Rather, the chefs will work with one of Tom’s favorite ingredients: mushrooms. Indeed, Tom describes eating a mushroom as coming “as close as possible to eating earth.” Yum?
The cheftestants will have access to mushrooms from seven different regions in Oregon, including Portland, which apparently has the nickname of “Stump Town.” In honor of that, the assorted stumps will serve as the chefs’ only prep surface. They’ll have 30 minutes to make, atop those stumps, a mushroom-forward dish. Though immunity is not available for this challenge, a cool $10,000 bounty is.
Somehow, despite the wide variety of mushroom varieties, the chefs’ cluster together around two cooking vestibules: the woodfire oven and the deep fryer. Quick chefs are able to get their ingredients roasting and frying. Slower chefs, like Dawn, have to anxiously wait their turn, hoping that they’ll be able to get everything complete in time.
After 30 minutes are up, Padma and Tom dig into their cornucopia of mushroom dishes. There’s a mushroom katsu from Shota, a lobster mushroom lettuce wrap from Maria, a “chicken of the wood” mushroom schnitzel from Sara . . . as someone who loves mushrooms, it all look amazing.
But not all of them taste great. Chris did a take on chicken fingers with “chicken of the wood” mushrooms, but they’re a little undercooked. Nelson paired chanterelle and oyster mushrooms with sautéed crab, but the seafood overwhelmed the flavor of the fungi. Byron tried his hand at confit and grilled mushrooms over bulgar, but the dish is just too salty.
With those dishes out of the way, the three finalists for the $10,000 are Gabriel, Dawn, and Gabe. Gabriel served seared foie gras with fried chanterelle and oyster mushrooms, along with figs and pickled shallots. He gets props for his adept cooking of the mushrooms, balanced seasoning, and pop of acid with the shallots. Dawn also cooked her wood fire-roasted mushrooms and brought welcome creaminess with a tarragon mascarpone. Finally, Gabe was ingenious in integrating mushrooms into a handmade tortilla (I’m sensing a theme this season), which was turned into a great chanterelle mushroom taco that had nice heat.
It’s close, but Gabriel cooked his mushrooms the best and brought out the most mushroom flavor. Accordingly, he’ll walk out of the kitchen $10,000 richer.
But before that happens, Dale Talde enters to explain this week’s Elimination Challenge. Oregon has been home to over 60 tribes of indigenous people. The cheftestants’ task this week will be to honor those people by making dishes featuring ingredients important to those indigenous cuisines.
Some of those ingredients will be assigned. The chefs draw knives, each of which has the name of either a fish or a game animal. Our chefs catch on quickly—it’s going to be a surf-and-turf challenge. Making things a little easier, the chefs are allowed to converse and find a fish or game animal that will pair well with their own ingredient. This happens with minimal drama. The only slight moment of discomfort occurs when it becomes apparent that no one wants to pair up with Gabriel, who has earned a reputation for being (how do I put this nicely?) slightly overbearing in team challenges. In the end, he pairs up with Nelson.
Gabriel will have to hope that he has strong chemistry with Nelson because the bottom pair will go home. That’s right—it’s our first double elimination challenge.
I said it a few episodes ago, when the chefs got to go on a whirlwind food tour exploring the cuisines of the African diaspora, but the best Top Challenges are those that shine a spotlight on an under appreciated cuisine and give the chefs a once-in-a-lifetime experience of becoming immersed in that cuisine by experts. That happens here, as the chefs meet with two indigenous chefs who introduce our cast to the important ingredients and food traditions of indigenous tribes who lived in the area now known as Oregon. The chefs soak it all in, seemingly recognizing that these types of experiences (and not necessarily the title of “Top Chef” or the $125,000) are the real prizes on this show.
The indigenous chefs offer up baskets of hand-harvested ingredients, and our cheftestants get down to work. Shota and Sara plan to take an interesting spin on surf and turf by finding multiple ways to use the surf ingredient (smelt) to accentuate the turf ingredient (rabbit). Gabe and Dawn appear to work well together, agreeing on a pumpkin seed mole that will bring both of their proteins together. Meanwhile, potential trouble is brewing with Byron and Maria, as Byron decides on a restrained application of Maria’s mole verde. She disagrees but is willing to “[take] one for the team.” That can sometimes spell doom in a team challenge.
We’ll know soon if that's the case here. The judges dig in, along with some indigenous tribal elders, to a plate of green mole, elk and duck potato puree, smoked salmon, and a berry sauce. It’s a hit. The indigenous diners appreciate how many of their traditional ingredients have been incorporated into the dish. The judges are similarly impressed. Gail declares it a “beautiful start” that “honors the culture.” Her only complaint is that the green mole got lost. Tom notes that the pair set a high level for the other chefs to meet.
Avishar and Chris are next up, and they have a playful take on fish and chips: seared sturgeon with a venison croquette. Again, the dish is delicious. The breading on the croquette is light and the venison flavor comes through. Gail’s only complaint is that, because the venison was grilled, it’s a bit dry. Carrie doesn’t disagree, but points out how clever Avishar and Chris have been by focusing not on the game protein, but rather, the fish protein with the game protein used as an accoutrement—the opposite of what one might expect. That might have played better with Tom if there’d been more sauce.
Dawn and Gabe have a bison tenderloin with catfish and pumpkin seed mole. It’s presented as a classic surf and turf, but it excels because the mole (as intended) brought the two proteins together. Tom loves the earthiness of the dish, and Kwame is impressed by the cooking of the catfish, which is great.
Nelson and Gabriel are set to follow, but they're having issues in the kitchen. In an effort to get the trout skin nice and crispy, Nelson has taken it too far on a few of them, which are now overcooked. Gabriel jumps into micro-management mode, taking over and trying to cook some of the reserved pieces of trout. Despite Gabriel’s efforts, which include barking orders at Nelson, there’s not enough time and they’re forced to serve their dish of crispy-skin steelhead trout, antelope, chanterelles, and berries to the diners. Padma likes the dish, noting that it brought a different sensibility than the prior dishes. Tom likes the bitter components and the puree, but immediately notices that his trout has been on too harsh of a heat. Padma agrees, calling her fish overcooked.
Finally, Sara and Shota serve a smoked smelt-crusted rabbit loin, smoked smelt and kabocha squash puree, and pickled smelt. Everyone adores the rabbit, with Tom marveling at the ingenuity of taking the surf ingredient and using it to coat the turf ingredient. Gail is amazed at how much is going on in the dish, and yet, how it all works together. The indigenous diners are even more impressed—they usually just bread and fry smelt, so they can’t believe how Shota has transformed the ingredient to go with Sara’s rabbit.
With service done, all ten chefs are brought to Judges Table. Tom compliments every one of them, noting that the food, across the board, was very good. As he noted before the dinner ended, it’s the best of the season so far. However, two dishes stood out among the rest.
One was the dish from Gabe and Dawn, who cooked their proteins perfectly. Gail loved how the sauce worked in the dish and how all of the components “sang.” Tom agrees, noting that, through the mole, the catfish and bison went perfectly together.
The second dish came from Sara and Shota. Though the two chefs suggest that they were trying to do something simple, Dale disagrees—there was nothing simple about what they did, and it took a ton of technique to accomplish successfully. Gail found the dish wonderfully unusual. Tom puts it more directly, telling them that no chef has ever said, “I want to make a dish with rabbit and smelt,” and yet, it was executed amazingly.
Because they took their ingredients to another level, Sara and Shota are today’s winners. That makes them the first Elimination Challenge winners to repeat so far this season. It’s pretty easy to imagine the two of them together in the finale.
There are three pairs of diners up for elimination, but Padma assures them that none of them should feel bad about what they made. All three dishes were delicious, and one pair will be eliminated for having made a good dish. This is an incredible bummer. After multiple Elimination Challenges in a row where a reasonable case could have been made for sending home each chef in the bottom, here, we’ll have TWO chefs go home for a good dish. Just brutal.
The diners and judges appreciated that Avishar and Chris used duck potatoes in their dish. The only slight missteps were that (per Gail) the dish really could have benefitted from some sort of sauce, and (per Tom) the sturgeon could have used more seasoning.
For Gabriel and Nelson the obvious problem was that the trout was overcooked. Gail also suggests that incorporating a larger amount of berries could have rounded out the flavors of the dish.
Finally, for Byron and Maria, the dish was well conceived but the mole was missing.
For the judges, it’s a “toss-up” between Avishar and Chris, on the one hand, and Gabriel and Nelson, on the other. Though the “whisper” of a sauce on Avishar and Chris’s plate simply wasn’t enough to tie the two proteins together, in the end, Nelson’s overcooking of the trout was the biggest error of the day. And for that reason, Gabriel and Nelson are going home.
Or are they? Before the two chefs can say their goodbyes, Tom enters the Stew Room. It’s not over. Rather, the Elimination Challenge is over, but Last Chance Kitchen is starting immediately. Our two eliminated chefs will battle against the reining Last Chance Kitchen winner, with the victorious chef returning to the competition.
Who will it be? You’ll have to wait and find out next week.