Top Chef: Portland - Episode 7: Feeding the Frontlines
By Jason Lee
May 20, 2021
When we last saw our cast of cheftestants, Gabriel and Nelson were leaving the Stew Room following a double elimination. Led by Tom, their destination is Last Chance Kitchen to see if one of them would be able to fight their way back into the competition.
With a new morning dawning and our chefs back in the Last Chance Kitchen, the question on everyone’s minds is: which cheftestant will be coming back? Shota is hoping to see Jamie, Byron predicts Sasha, and Maria doesn’t care who it is, so long as it’s not Gabriel.
And it isn’t. Returning to join the competition is everyone’s favorite pixie sprite of a chef—one who communicates through sound effects (imagine someone finding a way to speak the Wingdings font out loud) and who seems to build a stronger and stronger case each week for winning Fan Favorite. Jamie is back! She enters the kitchen with a beaming smile on her face and the entire kitchen erupts in joyous applause. There appears to be genuine happiness that Jamie is the one who has fought her way back. Byron envelopes her in a bearhug, and behind him, Dawn looks absolutely thrilled. Padma comments that she doesn’t think she’s ever seen a cast of chefs so happy that a former competitor has returned.
Apropos with a Last Chance Kitchen victor back in the mix, the theme of today’s Quickfire is second chances. The chefs are asked to take a “second chance” on a dish that they might have messed up in the past—either in their childhood, their culinary career, or even in a past Top Chef challenge. To make their dishes, the chefs will have to use ingredients from the “Second Chance Marketplace,” which is filled with overlooked, imperfect produce that sometimes gets discarded or wasted.
The chefs will have 30 minutes. The winner gets immunity—the last immunity of the season.
I’m kind of surprised by how many chefs choose to remake dishes that they messed up as young adults or in the early part of the culinary careers. I would have expected to see more reworkings of dishes that went wrong on the show, but then again, maybe that’d be too much to expected in 30 minutes.
After the cooking is done and the judging has finished, it’s Jamie and Sara who skate by in the middle for their turkey karaage and spoon bread with shrimp gravy, respectively. Landing in the bottom is Maria, who had a great idea to make a shrimp cake but which lacked shrimp flavor. Joining her is Byron (his mutton tartare was good in concept but gamey in execution) and Avishar (with his dry turkey chop complicated by too many sauces).
Fighting for the last immunity of the season is Dawn, with a fantastic peanut sauce atop a fire-roasted tuna collar, as well as Shota, with a perfectly cooked soy-braised fish head, and Gabe, who introduced complex flavors into his carrots with burnt bread mole. The winning chef is the one who used imperfect ingredients to make a perfect dish, and that ends up being Shota. What a time to come out on top of the Quickfire.
Providing the backdrop for this week’s Elimination Challenge, the famed, amazing, inspiring chef Jose Andres is here to talk to the chefs via live video feed. His organization, World Central Kitchen, works to help provide meals to those working on the front lines in global catastrophes. And just in case you hadn't noticed, we’re kind of in one right now. For months, World Central Kitchen has been providing food to frontline workers—firefighters, hospital workers, etc. And today and tomorrow, our cheftestants will help out.
They’ll each have to make 65 portions of a meal packaged in to-go containers that will be served to employees at three different hospitals. The food will have to travel well and taste good, even when reheated. The judges will sample the meals on a patio adjoining the Top Chef Kitchen. Our All Stars will hand deliver the meals to the hospital workers.
The chefs dive into their prep, knowing that they’ll only have two hours the next day—and at least part of that time will be spent packaging the meals. They unload huge boxes of produce, giant bags of grains, grab armfuls of vacuum-sealed meats, and get to work. Most chefs gravitate to the comfort food of their respective ethnic cuisines, with curries, soups, and tamales all underway. Meanwhile, Shota deals with a bad case of writer’s block, not seeing the ingredients he wanted in the pantry and generally feeling a lack of inspiration.
The final ten minutes of prep is insanity incarnate. Jamie almost drops an entire half-sheet tray when taking it out of the oven, and Maria frantically works to finish her tasks for today while stressing about how much there’s left to get done the next day. The clock finally winds down and the chefs wrap up.
The next day, things seem even more chaotic, if that’s even possible. There’s simply no free space on the stove top—Avishar himself takes up multiple burners, with two enormous stockpots simmering away—and so Maria has to cook handmade tortillas in the wood fire oven. Sara is also using the ovens to make her flatbreads, which are turning out to be not so flat (rather, her pitas are puffing up like floured whoopee cushions). Meanwhile, Jamie can’t find any available oven space and so she has to deep fry her eggplant instead of roasting it.
Jamie, Sara, and Shota are first up to serve their food to the judges and have their dishes get sent out to a local hospital. Jamie has a kimchi tofu soup with bulgogi-braised pork, eggplant, and steamed rice. The flavor of the soup is delicious, Tom loves her eggplant, which is flavorful and cooked perfectly, and Gail notes how smartly the dish is conceived so that it can be eaten in parts or altogether.
Sara has a lentil falafel, carrot and pumpkin seed hummus, tomato salad, and handmade flabread. The pita is delicious and her yogurt sauce—yes, nary a challenge goes by without Sara making some sort of sauce with yogurt—is exceptional, as usual. Gail loves her sesame crusting on the falafel, and Tom notes that no one eating Sara’s vegetarian meal would feel like meat was missing.
While Jamie and Sara knocked it out of the park, the same is not true for Shota. He has a miso-braised drumstick with sweet potatoes, cauliflower pickles, and Napa cabbage. The chicken has nice color on it and the cabbage is good, but Gail can’t get past the soggy chicken skin on the wing. While not a “bad” dish, it’s certainly far from what Shota has shown he can do during this competition.
Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, chaos reigns. Every chef is chipping in to make sure the next three chefs—Maria, most of all—are able to get their dishes packed up in time. Luckily for everyone, they’re successful. Maria goes first in serving a “puerco verde,” with pork in grilled tomatillo salsa with a cabbage and avocado slaw, corn salsa, and a homemade tortilla. Everything sounds at first like it’s going well for Maria—Padma finds the dish “really tasty” and Gail loves the char on the tomatillo, but once the chefs try out her homemade tortilla, they find the the underside is still raw. That one’s going to sting.
Avishar serves a Bengali-style beef curry with chana cauliflower and basmati rice. Though his rice has been cooked properly, Tom notes that the stew is “broken” and he can’t taste any of the ingredients. Gail says that the problem is flavor—or the lack thereof. Missing is any heat or spice.
Last in this group is Byron, who has a “pollo a la brasa”—a Peruvian-style grilled chicken, ahi amarillo potatoes, and vegetable corn salad. It’s a great dish. There’s good char on the chicken, the glaze works, and the dish is well-seasoned.
Again, back in the kitchen, it’s a madhouse as the final three chefs try to get everything done and packed up in time. It takes a village (as every chef is pitching in) and they barely finish up in time. Chris is first with a grilled chicken breast with sweet potato gratin and charred cauliflower with leeks and Brussels sprouts. Padma asks what he used to season his chicken, and Chris says that peppers, parley, and habanero went into the dish. “Habanero?” Padma asks, incredulous. It’s more for the flavor and less for the heat, Chris suggests.
Well, it seems like the diners can taste neither. Chris did a good job in cooking the chicken—it’s been done as well as one can cook chicken breast, Tom suggests—but there’s an utter lack of seasoning. Even the gratin, Carrie comments, is undercooked.
Gabe is next with an achiote chicken with black bean sauce, a sweet corn tamale, and green beans. Tom says that the dish has a ton of flavor, but notes that the chicken is dry. Gail finds there to be too many competing flavors and expresses a desire for greater focus in the dish.
Our final dish of the day comes from Dawn, and it’s a tamarind-braised top sirloin with coconut rice grits and a maple, red onion-braised cabbage wedge. Though the food looks a little grey sitting in the food container, the flavors sing. Gail says that Dawn’s sirloin is “super flavorful”—something that doesn't surprise Kwame, and he finds that her food never lacks for seasoning.
All of the chefs are brought to Judges’ Table and are treated to a heartwarming, very emotional video filled with messages from the hospital administrators who received the meals. It’s a wonderful moment and goes to show that, as Jose Andres said, one meal can make a difference.
And the three who made the biggest difference today are Sara, Dawn, and Jamie. Sara did a great job with her fresh pita bread, which tasted “anything but store-bought.” Tom loves how “you didn’t miss the meat,” despite the dish being vegetarian, and calls it a well-intentioned and well-executed dish. Jamie brought wonderful heat to her soup, her eggplant was great, and overall, there was just a lot of “Jamie” in the food. In particular, Padma praises Jamie for seasoning her broth beautifully. Finally, Tom compliments Dawn on how well she developed the flavors in her dish, with a sauce that was “really wonderful.” Kwame chimes in, noting that Dawn has a deft hand in seasoning her food.
But there’s only one winner, and it's the chef who “put their soul into their food.” In case it isn’t clear, Jamie (our comeback kid!) wins the day. What a turnaround for her. Hopefully she can keep it going and continue making delicious food.
As for the chefs in the bottom, today it’s Avishar, Chris, and Maria (although Tom makes a point to tell Shota that he would have been in the bottom had he not had immunity).
Padma starts off by telling Maria, “we don’t have to tell you where you went wrong, right?” Maria nods, saying that the pork wasn’t good. The judges look surprised—they tell her they liked the pork, her use of tomatillos, and her corn. Padma even thinks she had the best stew of the day. The problem was the undercooked tortillas. “If it weren’t for the tortillas,” Padma says, “you wouldn’t be standing there.”
Chris tells the judges he wanted to try and make something homey and comforting. “Screw that,” Padma basically says. She wants to see him get “down and dirty with flavor.” That’s because there wasn’t any. Kwame says that he couldn’t taste any of the ingredients Chris says he used to season his chicken. Gail declares that “everything just needed salt.” Ouch. Way to rub some salt in the wound.
Finally, Gail tells Avishar that he got his rice right, but Padma chimes in by telling him that there was an “utter lack of flavor” in his dish. Kwame asks about the spices he used to season his meat. After Avishar lists off a bunch of spices, Kwame suggests that if Avishar had browned his mean, the spices might have adhered better to the protein. Tom agrees that failing to sear the beef was Avishar’s downfall—with some sort of sear, the flavor of the beef was “bloody.”
And that is the flaw that decides today’s elimination. Though Chris and Avishar both lacked for seasoning and salt, Chris cooked his protein properly and Avishar bad a made call when he cooked his. Tom gives Avishar the obligatory pep talk about how he still has Last Chance Kitchen ahead of him, but Avishar is more content to reflect on his accomplishments in the competition. He knows he gave 100% in everything he did.
As Avishar trundles off to Last Chance Kitchen, everyone (us and the chefs) knows what’s about to happen. With eight chefs remaining, it’s time for Restaurant Wars. Buckle up.