Top Chef: Portland - Episode 9: Portland-ia
By Jason Lee
May 29, 2021
We rejoin the chefs in the stunning aftermath of Sara’s elimination. Like the viewers at home, many of the cheftestants believed that Sara was the one to beat—the favorite to take home the title this season. As Kristen and Brooke, among others, demonstrated, elimination does not necessarily mean you’re out of the running, but it sure makes the road ahead a lot harder.
But that’s a story for another time (or maybe another place—namely, Last Chance Kitchen). The story for today is hipster retro. As the cheftestants enter the kitchen, they find it outfitted with old-fashioned (or perhaps, to put it more kindly, vintage) cooking equipment, tools, and appliances. Yes, electric stoves have replaced the gas stoves and hand-crank beaters have replaced the stand mixers. At the front of the kitchen stands Padma, who introduces our first non-All Star guest judges for the season: Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, the stars of Portlandia. “We couldn’t NOT have these stars as part of this season,” Padma notes with a grin. Even better, they’re both huge Top Chef fans.
Cooking for Carrie and Fred, the chefs will need to use the vintage cooking equipment that’s been provided to make a dish featuring hipster ingredients like almond flour, hemp seed oil, and kombucha. They’ll have 30 minutes and the winner will gain an important advantage in the Elimination Challenge.
Showing the limits of nostalgia when rubber meets the road, the chefs have a tough time in this challenge. No one is a fan of the electric stovetops, which are maddeningly uneven in their heat. The blenders and mixers are a far cry from the food processors the chefs are used to. Between this challenge and the one where the chefs had to cook atop tree stumps, there’s been a lot of “roughin’ it” this season.
In the end, Jamie and Chris end up in the bottom. Her dumpling (made with almond milk) with mushrooms and pickled asparagus was too chewy, and his variations on cauliflower with giardiniera was too salty. Shota and Byron skate by in the middle with their green beans with watermelon seed butter and pan-seared stripe bass, respectively.
This leaves Gabe, Maria, and Dawn at the top of the challenge. Gabe made smart use of purple yams, cutting them like a hasselback potato, and pairing them with crispy yam skins with pickled purple cauliflower. Maria made a rich and complex version of tomato soup, adding coconut milk and a cardamom crumble. And Dawn ingeniously used some cast iron molds to do a play on cornbread using semolina paired with a pancetta jam and pear butter. Because of her fresh and innovative take on a comfort food classic, Dawn gets her first win of the season. “I got one!” she exclaims gleefully. Finally, after some close calls, she takes home the prize.
Our Portlandia stars exit stage left and are replaced by our guest judges this episode, Dale and Richard. Those two chefs, along with Tom, Gail, and Padma, have all written or are in the process of writing a cookbook. In that vein, the chefs will have to test their hand at recipe-writing in this week’s Elimination Challenge. They’ll have to write a recipe for a home cook that takes only 90 minutes to complete. To do so, they’re given 30 minutes today to plan their dish and shop (virtually) for ingredients. Then they’ll have 3 hours to cook, test, and write the recipe for their dishes. The next day, they’ll cook and present their dishes to the judges. Dawn, as the Quickfire winner, gets an extra 15 minutes to do so.
The chefs quickly realize what a daunting challenge this is. Byron notes that it can sometimes take years to perfect a dish, and Dawn is worried about making sure she writes down every step in the recipe so the home cook doesn’t get confused. Owning up to her sub-par writing abilities, Maria knows this will be a tough one for her and decides to make something with a relatively straightforward preparation: soup.
Most of the chefs seem to head in a similar comfort-food direction. Shota plans a braised pork belly dish with a turnip puree, and Jamie designs a spin on brioche French toast. As for Chris, he chooses a classic Italian comfort food: gnocchi . . . except that he’s making it with sorghum, a thickening agent that, I assume, few home cooks own or are familiar with.
At some point in the prep and writing period, Tom ambles in and checks in with the chefs. Before he leaves, he ominously advises the chefs to be precise in their recipes as someone “may test them.” If alarm bells weren't already ringing for the chefs, they should be now.
The next day, as the chefs prepare to start cooking their recipes to present to the judges, the identities of the recipe testers become clear: it’s none other than our beloved All-Star cast who’ll be segregated from the cheftestants as they, in parallel, make the same dishes to serve to the judges.
It’s a fascinating exercise. The All Stars are committed to cooking the dishes as written in the recipes. If you don’t say to put oil in the pan when searing pork belly (Shota), the All Star (Melissa) won’t. If you say to put pounds and pounds of meat in a pot at once (Maria), the All Star (Kristen) will. The cheftestants thus quickly realize that any error or oversight in drafting will be replicated by the dedicated All Star. For example, Chris notes that instead of stipulating the amount of sorghum needed by weight (ounces), he did so by volume (cups). This will inevitably lead to differences in the All Stars’ cooking, without any opportunity to adjust as they go.
Gabe’s dish is up first, and Gregory is having a very hard time getting everything completed in time. When the dishes are finally served, they look quite similar in appearance. The judges get steamed black cod with crispy skin and salsa veracruzana, all served in a banana leaf. The judges ask Gregory about his experience making the dish. He admits that the timing was “difficult,” especially requiring a home cook to figure out how to debone black cod.
Luckily, any error is forgiven due to how good the dish tastes. The diners rave about the crispy skin and roasted vegetables, how dynamic the dish feels with its Mediterranean flavors, and, most of all, the amazing sauce. Overall, it was a great recipe made well by both chefs.
Shota is next up, and like Gregory, Kwame is rushing to finish his version of the dish. They present a soy-braised pork belly with turnip puree and pear salad. The only difference between the two is Kwame ws not able to get enough sauce on the dish, as there was too much stock to reduce. Other than that, though, the dish is a hit. The flavors are delicious and the dish is focused. The only quibble the judges have is with Kwame’s difficulties in translating the recipe to real life.
Maria’s soup is next up, and as it’s brought out, the judges start laughing—as always, Maria has served a beautiful dish in the biggest portions possible. Further eliciting laughter is Kristen, who stomps out of the kitchen and demands of Maria, in mock anger, “Girl, the hell with that?!?” The recipe called for 5 pounds of meat to be cooked to serve 6 people and Kristen wants to know if Maria did indeed took 5 pounds of meet. “Yeah!” Maria responds. “Why?” Kristen asks. “Cause I’m Mexican,” Maria answers.
Again, all is forgiven because Maria’s Sonoran pork and bean soup with cilantro, onion, and lime is full of flavor. Her meat and beans are nicely cooked, though Kristen’s are not—an error attributed to vagueness in the recipe. The judges add in a few more jokes about how it’s a nice home recipe that serves 74, but it’s all very affectionate—Maria’s not going anywhere for this soup.
The same may not be true of Chris. His gnocchi recipe lacks details on how the dough should look and its so complicated that Melissa doesn’t really have sufficient time to pan sear the gnocchi before time is up. As she regards the sad dish she’s made, she notes that some of the dough is still raw. “I can’t serve this,” she says. “You have to,” Gregory tells her.
And she does. Chris and Melissa serve up their sorghum gnocchi with green romesco and braised dandelion greens. Rightfully noting that Melissa’s dish is messy and incomplete, Padma asks (somewhat in jest) if there’s anything she wants to say to Chris. “I’m so sorry,” she tells him, “there’s just a lot of components going on there.”
While there are things to like in Chris’s dish—in particular, the dandelion greens draw praise and the diners love his romesco—what should have been a do-able dish failed on both plates, as Chris’s gnocchi are dense and Melissa’s are not cooked through. As above, this error is attributed to Chris. “Melissa’s a strong cook,” Gail notes, “and this recipe failed her.”
Jamie and Gregory put the finishing touches on a seared foie gras with brioche French toast, blueberry compote, and black sesame. Gregory liked the recipe overall and found that a home cook could certainly handle it, but he’s not sure about the flavors. He’s right, as the diners deem it too sweet. In addition, there’s no texture, as the foie gras with French toast with compote is just “soft on soft on squishy.”
Bryon is next and Kwame is having a really tough time finishing up. The recipe was over 3 pages long and required 20 ingredients to make the stock alone. The two chefs present similar looking dishes of striped bass with seafood broth and beans, but it’s highly questionable that a home chef ever could have done what Kwame did.
But beyond the over-complicated nature of the recipe, the end result just isn’t good enough. The dish lacks the big, bold flavors that the judges have come to expect from a Byron dish, and there’s no payoff for the multitude of steps and mountain of ingredients that went into the food. For all that work, the flavors are middling.
Quickfire-winner Dawn is last up, and even apart from the extra 15 minutes she enjoyed today, there’s relatively little drama in her preparations. She and Kristen serve salmon with a buttermilk sauce, Chinese gai lan, and an olive puree. Based on the judges’ comments, it sounds like Dawn delivered on every aspect of the challenge. It feels like a restaurant dish, with bits of unexpected flavors, but made in a way that’s accessible for a home chef. Yet again, Dawn is delivering.
With all that finished the chefs are brought before Judges’ Table. Tom notes that they're all talented chefs, but recipe writing for the home cook requires a different skill set than what they’d been trained to do. This led to a pretty clear split among the chefs’ performances.
First, Maria, Shota, Gabe, and Dawn all did well and land in the top of the challenge. Gabe brought “eye appeal” to his black cod served in a banana leaf, with Richard suggesting that, at a dinner party, the dish would have been the clear-cut crowd favorite. Dale suggests that the dish featured Gabe’s “finest sauce of the season” (and he’s made plenty good ones) and which was “pretty close to perfect.”
Dawn also rocked the house, making smart decisions in the recipe-writing process such that a home cook would be able to take it and make a delicious dish. Beyond the composition part of the challenge, Dawn also executed her dish superbly.
Shota and Maria also did well, though less strongly in the recipe-writing aspect of things. Padma loved Shota’s dish, calling it delicious, and Dale adored his turnip puree, but in terms of the recipe, it needed more clarity and detail. Maria received similar comments, as her soup was homey and delicious, but the recipe made the dish seem harder than it actually was.
With the win seemingly between Gabe and Dawn, he’s able to deny her a double win, as the judges pick Gabe’s dish as the top of the night for its clear point of view and presentation worthy of a cookbook cover.
Which brings us to our bottom three chefs: Jamie, Chris, and Byron. Jamie’s problem was that the dish lacked balance, being overly sweet, and also lacked texture. As with his previous pasta dishes, the judges found fault with Chris’s gnocchi, which were too dense. His recipe also set Melissa up for failure as a chef. Finally, Byron wrote an overly long, overly complicated recipe that required a ton of ingredients, but which offered no payoff for all the work and money spent. Everything combined, Gail noted, “did not give us a simple, flavorful dish.”
Though Jamie and Byron both made mistakes in conception—especially Byron, who made the “criminal” error, in Padma’s eyes, of taking a bunch of great ingredients and making them flavorless—Chris is going home today, not for making a bad recipe, but for making the worst dish. This probably comes to no surprise to any viewer, as Chris seemed destined for elimination from the moment he spoke the words “sorghum gnocchi.”
Still, like so many other eliminated chefs this season, Chris takes heart in the accomplishment of having made it this far in the competition. He learned from his experience on the show and will continue learning more about who he is as a cook.