Top Chef: Portland - Episode 11: Blind Ambitions
By Jason Lee
June 13, 2021
Our five remaining cheftestants arrive in the Top Chef Kitchen to find Padma standing in front of a huge black box (more like a shed with three doors in the front). This understandably draws some curious looks and more than a few questions from the chefs, but first, Padma needs an update: what happened in Last Chance Kitchen?
For those of you (like Padma) who haven’t been following Bravo’s online series, the chefs explain that Byron, as the winner of Last Chance Kitchen, was given an opportunity to earn his way back into the competition. To do so, he had to beat two out of three of the remaining chefs in a series of head-to-head battles using ingredients that the chefs picked out. Byron came close, but being mentally and physically exhausted after beating Sara in the Last Chance Kitchen finale, losing to Gabe, and beating Maria, he was unable to get that final win against Jamie. With a 1-and-2 record, Byron was sent home for good, and no more chefs will be joining the competition.
Which leaves the issue of the big black box. Padma notes that Top Chef has spawned spin-off shows around the world, and each of them have developed their own grueling Quickfires. Today, the chefs will partake in a beloved Quickfire from Top Chef: France: the black box challenge. The chefs will work in pairs to recreate a dish made by a five-star guest chef. One chef will be given 15 minutes to enter the black box, sample the dish in total darkness, and start recreating it. When that time is up, the chef’s partner will have the same 15 minutes to sample the dish (in darkness) and continue the cooking process. Finally, after that time is up, both chefs will have 5 minutes to run inside the black box and, with the lights on, view and sample the dish and then rush to correct any errors in the replica they’ve prepared.
Since the chefs will be working in pairs, we need another chef to act as a partner for one of our five finalists. Padma thus calls in Brooke Williamson, winner of Top Chef Seattle and a notoriously strong Quickfire competitor. The person paired with Brooke will be the remaining cheftestant who has won the most individual challenges . . . and that’s Dawn! Meanwhile, Shota pairs up with Gabe and Jamie pairs up with Maria.
The pairs decide that Brooke, Shota, and Jamie will go first in the challenge. When the timer goes off, the three of them rush into the black box and start sampling a dish by Gabriel Rucker, owner Le Pigeon, which is comprised of squab, roasted carrots, grilled pears, pistachios, and a Gribiche sauce, which is made using hard boiled eggs.
For the most part, the chefs accurately identify the components of the dish (though Shota veers off wildly thinking that there’s some other protein, like bacon, paired with the squab). Knowing that it will take a while to prepare the carrot puree, Brooke gets those ingredients cooking. Jamie starts slicing carrots for Maria and pickles some pears for the dish. Eschewing all cooking, Shota instead decides to prepare a mise en place of all the components so that Gabe can just dive into cooking everything.
When time runs out, Dawn, Gabe, and Maria rush into the black box and, like their partners, begin identifying the various components. They then make a beeline to their stations to start working on the dish. With no communication allowed with their partners, some hilarity ensues. Dawn doesn’t notice that Brooke already has some carrots cooking down and starts slicing a new batch. Then, even when Dawn sees the carrots already on the stove, she expresses hesitation about whether those were prepared by Brooke or someone else.
Meanwhile, Maria is having a serious brain fart and can’t remember how to butcher a squab. Gabe spots the beef Shota took out of the fridge, but having not tasted any beef while in the black box, he sets it aside. Meanwhile, having successfully butchered her bird, Maria starts to make a curry sauce for the squab. Jamie squirms in discomfort on the sidelines.
Finally, the last 5 minutes arrive and the chefs book it into the black box to check out the dish with the lights on. They mentally check whether or not they’ve prepared all of the components. Shota and Gabe realize they’re missing a carrot puree and immediately get to work on that. Meanwhile, Maria is wondering if there’s some sort of cheese in the dish (there’s not).
If I haven’t already made clear, this was an incredibly fun challenge—one that I hope Top Chef: USA continues to do. Brooke and Dawn, unsurprisingly, did fantastic and made a very taste version of Chef Rucker’s dish. Shota and Gabe came close, doing a good job of replicating the flavors of the original dish. Maria and Jamie did the least well—their curried squab (which Maria calls “a sad plate”) tastes good but is furthest from the original dish.
All of this is to say that Brooke and Dawn did the best in recreating the components, textures, acids, and base elements of the original dish. Though they don’t take home any extra money, they each get another impressive notch in the belt. For Dawn, it’s her third Quickfire win in a row. For Brooke, well, it’s not every day that you win Top Chef and then, years later, get yet another Quickfire win.
With that done, Padma notes that the five remaining chefs are “officially entering the home stretch.” Promising that the chefs will get the night they’ve all been waiting for, Padma tells them that they’ll be getting the night off. Cheers like you’ve never heard erupt from within the Top Chef Kitchen. It’s clear how draining this competition has been, and the chefs are so eager to get a little break.
The chefs head back to their hotel and find, to their shock and dismay, Brooke and Kristen waiting for them with five big boxes. The chefs smell a trap, despite the promise of a night off.
Thankfully, the chefs will not be cooking tonight. The boxes contain care packages prepared by their family and friends, and they come with a personal note to the chef. Maria reads aloud a note from her son and is crying within the first 10 seconds. Same with Jamie, who reads a letter from her friends and coworkers. Dawn has the most emotional reaction of them all, reading a note from her brother and thinking about her mother, who is recovering from a stroke. The letters to the men are a bit more reserved—the message from Shota’s mom reflects typical Asian emotional restraint and Gabe’s letter from his wife and kids is wonderful, but he’s still wondering if there might need to be some cooking after all this.
He’s not wrong to suspect. Brooke says that she’s happy to have been able to share in this moment with the chefs . . . “BUT,” Kristen warns, “this is Top Chef, after all.” Inviting the chefs to open their boxes, Kristen explains that they contain ingredients selected by the chefs’ family and friends. The chefs will have to make a dish using these ingredients the next day. They don’t necessarily have to use all of the ingredients, but Kristen encourages them to use as many as they can and to find inspiration from their care package.
After a night sans cooking (but lots of planning), the chefs enter the kitchen the next day for a 2.5 hour sprint to service. Maria smiles at the octopus selected by her son but decides to instead cook the chicken wings in her care package. The only difficult element are the beansprouts, which is an ingredient her wife loves, but don’t really fit in the dish Maria has developed.
Meanwhile, Jamie is trying to figure out what to do with all the Jewish ingredients her friends and coworkers have put into her care package. Having done multiple chicken wing dishes already, Jamie decides against doing another one and chooses to make a brisket dish . . . in 2.5 hours. This requires her to use the pressure cooker, a tool she’s not at all familiar with. Thankfully, Maria has and helps Jamie get her brisket cooking.
For his part, Shota decides to make a dish inspired by his dad, with wagyu beef and persimmons—his father’s favorite fruit. Shota also decides to take a risk and do something never done in Japanese cuisine: make a puree from some beautiful matsutake mushrooms.
Gabe and Dawn are also taking inspiration from their family. Gabe wants to take conchinita pibil, traditional street food in Yucatan Mexico, and transform it into something a little more high end. As for Dawn, her brother sent a bunch of ingredients that they would typically use to make a holiday meal. Dawn wants to honor her family in this challenge.
The judges and All Stars arrive and Maria is the first chef up to serve. She knows her wings are delicious but is unsure about the accompanying salad. “Maria,” she says, giving herself a pep talk, “just walk away,” meaning, end the indecision and trust what you’ve made. She presents grilled chicken wings with miso and ginger with a beansprout salad with a tequila cilantro vinaigrette. Gail finds the dish refreshing, and Padma likes the marinade. Tom does, too, but notes that the flavor in the dish hasn’t been cooked into the wings—rather, it sits on top of the protein. Kwame wishes there were some acid in the salad. The problem, Brooke says, is that the vinaigrette is watered down by the beansprouts.
Jamie is next and she’s under the gun. She spent so much time trying to figure out the pressure cooker, getting the right texture in the brisket, that she didn’t really focus much on the rest of her dish. With just a few minutes left, she has to ask for Dawn’s help to plate. Finally, she’s able to present a Vietnamese Thit Kho brisket, caramelized Thai chili jus, and pickled cucumber. The brisket came out perfectly but the rice on which it sits is under seasoned and, as Kristen describes it, “just there.” Richard doesn’t find that the dish has a point of view. Tom notes that, if he’d eaten this dish at a Vietnamese restaurant, he’d fine it “perfectly fine,” but he questions whether this is impressive enough with only five chefs left in the competition.
Thinking of his father, Shota brings out a marinated wagyu beef shoulder, matsutake puree, and persimmon salad. Kristen dubs it visually stunning, and Brooke praises Shota’s use of persimmon. Gregory marvels at all the umami in the dish, and Ed says that the dish offers the “perfect bite,” with everything delicate and elegant.
Taking a risk, Gabe serves his transformed version of Mexican street food with a panuchos featuring braised pork, kale, and pickled red onion. Dale is effusive in his praise for the dish. Declaring it to be Gabe’s “best dish of the season,” he calls it “lights out” and specifically calls out the delicious kale. Melissa thinks that Gabe showed where “home” is for him. Tom takes it one step further, saying that Gabe achieved something that they don’t see very often on the show—a chef taking a dish from their culture, dressing it up, but without losing the soul of the original dish.
Last up is Dawn, who is a bit behind in her plating. Though wishing she had time to make her dish a bit prettier, she offers pork belly with a pecan caramel, collard greens, sweet potato, and a red eye gravy. As diners murmur about how good the gravy is, Dale and Gail pipe up, saying they didn’t get any. Padma and Brooke are shocked—the gravy is so delicious that it’s a travesty that some diners didn’t get any. But that doesn’t seem to be putting Dawn in any danger—Melissa loves how Dawn is trying to modernize southern cooking, and Kwame calls it a “Michelin star cookout.” “Dawn for President,” he says, savoring the flavors in her dish.
It’s clear that Shota, Gabe, and Dawn are in the top of the challenge, and sure enough, Padma makes it official, calling them a “cut above” the other two. Brooke loved Shota’s use of persimmons, saying it was her favorite bite of the day. Kristen calls his dish “inspired,” especially the matsutake puree. Gail agrees, saying that his dish showed the diners who Shota is as a cook.
Gabe draws similarly high praise. Padma calls the dish “stunning,” as he was able to take a beloved street food dish and turn it into high art. Tom admits that he’s not familiar with the original dish but thought Gabe’s version tasted great. He also says that the dish showed that Gabe is cooking at a high level of confidence right now and has things to say.
Not to be left out, Padma tells Dawn that she adored her dish. Gail notes, though, that she and Dale didn’t get any of the red eye gravy—news that shocks Dawn. But again, it’s not a huge mistake—it’s just the “only thing that wasn’t fantastic about the dish.” Kristen chimes in, saying that of all the dishes today, it’s the only one where the first bite felt balanced.
The winner in the challenge is the chef who was able to combine technique, creativity, and not lose heart: Gabe. He’s grateful for the win and say that he felt like his grandmother was there with him the entire time.
That leaves just the difficult part left. Tom tells Maria and Jamie that both dishes were delicious but they’re in the bottom for some critical decisions they made. Padma loved Maria’s wings, as the sauce was delicious and had great tang and heat. However, the salad was “watery,” and didn’t feel seasoned or dressed. Gail suggests that maybe Maria erred in using the beansprouts in the salad—that she got caught up in her emotional attachment to the ingredient.
Maria agrees and starts crying. “This is all mental right now,” Tom says. “Maybe you feel like your time is up.”
“No,” Maria disagrees, “I’m intimidated, scared shitless.”
With her voice cracking with emotion, Kristen tries to offer Maria some encouragement. “My self worth was why I got kicked off” during Restaurant Wars in her season, Kristen says. “Once you realize you’re good enough to be here, everything will come together for you.”
Turning to Jamie, Padma asks how she usually cooks her ingredients. Jamie says that her family usually just throws everything into a pot, covers it, and then eats it. “I wish I’d been able to taste the dish cooked like that,” Padma says. Brooke didn’t find the rice to do much for the dish and says that it felt like Jamie was “holding back.” Gail agrees, “we weren’t getting the full Jamie.” Padma is even harsher, saying it felt like Jamie was “checked out.” Her eyes on the floor, Jamie admits in a small voice, “I’m missing home.” Tom and Padma express their understanding of what all the chefs are going through right now.
Everyone in the room knows that both chefs are capable of doing more than what they showed today. Tom notes that, when people sign up for Top Chef, they rarely understand the crucible they’ll be asked to endure. They’ll “get tested in ways they never thought” and find out what makes them cook. Today, though, he notes, one chef hit the wall.
And that’s Maria. Padma asks her to pack her knives and go.
But then, something happens that has never happened on this show before. Something that will stick with me for a long, long time. Something I’m going to remember in all future seasons.
Jamie interrupts and tells the judges that Maria has something more to give. “I think she should stay.”
With tears in her eyes, Maria protests her friend’s kind gesture. “Don’t, Jamie,” she says.
But Jamie is undeterred. “She definitely deserves a second chance.” With fire in her eyes, Jamie continues on. “She needs this for her confidence. I have my confidence. I’ve grown so much. Give her a second chance.” Looking over at Maria, Jamie says, “you deserve this. Take this second chance.”
Kristen and Brooke have tears in their eyes, but Padma wants an answer from Jamie as to what she’s asking the judges to do. “Do you want to quit?” she asks.
“I don’t want to quit,” Jamie responds, “but I will quit for her.”
“Please don’t,” Maria says. “I will not allow it. You also have a lot to give.” She embraces Jamie in a tearful hug, then comments, “this sounds like a Mexican telenovela,” eliciting warm laughter from the judges.
Padma notes the “beautiful friendship” the two have, but says that this is “what the game is.”
Before Jamie can respond, Maria jumps in. “I’m in love with the game. Gail, Tom, and Padma, you gave me, a girl from Sonora, a chance and taught me so much.”
“You taught yourself,” Tom tells her, “and you have a lot of talent.” Turning to Jamie, he says, “you’re not going to like yourself if you do this.”
Again, refusing to let Jamie intercede, Maria tells the judging panel, “guys, it’s been an honor.”
“The honor was ours,” Gail says.
Then, with a final “gracias,” Maria exits the room, with her arm around Jamie’s shoulders and nary a dry eye to be seen.
“I want you to stay,” Jamie says to her as they walk out.
“I know,” she responds.
Entering the stew room, Maria is asked, “you’re leaving, chef?” Maria says, “Yes, I’m leaving.” Then, gesturing to Jamie, she says, “this asshole tried to quit on me,” turning the tears in the room into laughter. Facing Jamie, Maria tells her, “you have the kindest soul.”
This whole sequence is, without a doubt, the most beautiful and emotional thing I’ve ever seen in my many years watching Top Chef. I can’t put into words how touching the whole thing was, and how much respect and admiration I felt watching Maria and Jamie. Regardless of how the vote comes down, they’re my fan favorites from this season.
A season that will, sadly, continue on without Maria. But it’s also a season that has given Maria a ton of confidence and self-esteem. “I am a chef,” she says in closing, “I am a top five chef from Top Chef: Portland, season 18.” Yes, you’re that, and so much more.