Top Chef: Portland - Episode 12: The Cheesier the Better
By Jason Lee
June 24, 2021
This week’s episode kicks off in the aftermath of the emotional elimination of Maria. Jamie confesses to the other remaining chefs that she feels like Maria “deserves another chance,” and that she herself “got one already.” Dawn, being the lovely person she is, takes Jamie aside and tells her, “you have to stop giving up your place, cause you deserve your place just like I do, just like Gabe does, just like Shota does.” Jamie nods. Message received. It’s a beautiful moment and one that showcases how amazing this season’s cast is.
The moment is briefly interrupted by Padma walking into the Stew Room. The chefs’ hackles are immediately up—is there another challenge that’s starting now? Nope. Padma is simply here to tell them that tomorrow will feature the last Quickfire in the Top Chef Kitchen, and that afterwards, they’ll be leaving Portland for the pacific coast.
When the chefs walk into the kitchen the next morning, it’s decorated with wagons and cast iron skillets. “Rodeo?” I think to myself but Gabe correctly guesses that this is an Oregon Trail-themed Quickfire. Well done, sir.
Always ready with a pun, Padma tells them to “saddle up" for the last few legs of this journey. To accompany this portion of that leg is Vitaly Paley, an award-winning chef and pioneer of the Portland food scene. He’ll help Padma and Gregory judge the dishes during this Quickfire, which will task the chefs with creating a modern dish using only the ingredients that people traveling the Oregon Trail would have had.
Accordingly, the pantry is off limits. All the chefs will have at their disposal are those ingredients that Oregon settlers had to work with. Shota thinks longingly of the soy sauce and miso that he can’t use, while Dawn and Jamie wish for some type of fresh citrus. Meanwhile, Gabe is aiming for the win. He’s been close many times in past Quickfires, but he hasn’t yet gotten that “W.”
After 30 minutes are up, Jamie is first with her dish. She offers a pan-seared salmon with a walnut pepper sauce. Gregory wants to know the identity of the acid he’s tasting, and Jamie tells him that she used some cranberries and lemon oil. Vitaly asks about the crispy bits on top, and they’re fried parsnips. It’s clear that there’s a lot to like, here.
Shota pureed some beef jerky to cure some salmon, which the pairs with a parsnip and apricot puree. It’s an interesting approach.
Dawn offers a “trail ride” porridge with lots of fun toppings, including fire-roasted curry squash and a hazelnut bacon relish. Padma notes that 30 minutes is not a lot of time to cook that type of squash, and Dawn notes that it helps to have a woodfire oven.
Finally, Gabe offers each person a whole “campfire trout” with an “Oregon Trail salsa macha” on top. It looks absolutely gorgeous.
After the eating is done, Padma gets straight down to business. Shota and Dawn land in the bottom of the challenge, as Shota’s fish ate a little dry and Dawn’s porridge was too fishy overall. But Jamie and Gabe get props for their creative and modern dishes. Gabe brought a lot of technique to his dish and smartly used lard and citrus acid to create contrast. As for Jamie, she cooked her salmon beautifully and incorporated a lot of wonderful textural components.
Ever the bridesmaid, Gabe loses out on this Quickfire to Jamie. Teasing Jamie for her quirky personality, Padma mimics Jamie’s typical celebration dance by doing a little “pew pew” motion as if she’s shooting off two guns in glee. Jamie laughs and is happy to engage in her own encore of the dance.
With that, Vitaly exits stage left and our two guest judges for today’s challenge, Dale and Ed Lee, enter stage right, wheeling in a big flat screen television. Apparently, they have a special message about today’s challenge. It’s from Massimo Bottura, a three-star Michelin chef who, in 2016, saw his restaurant honored as the best in the world. Massimo reminisces about one of his most famous dishes in which he used parmigiano reggiano in five different ways. He recalls how some people thought that he was ruining the cheese, but now, 20 years later, it’s been declared the plate of the decade (don’t ask me which decade).
For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs will have to do their best to follow in Massimo’s footsteps, but with a decidedly more American cheese: Tillamook cheddar. Like Massimo, they’ll have to find a way to incorporate the ingredient in five different ways. But unlike Massimo, they’ll only have a day to conceptualize their dish.
To aid the chefs in that endeavor, Tillamook invites them to come tour their Tillamook Creamery, where they get up close and personal with Tillamook’s cheese-making process. They sample the different products, marveling at the different flavors that emerge through the aging process. It’s a slightly less awesome experience than the tour of Parma, Italy that Bryan, Kevin, Melissa, and Stephanie got to experience on the second season of Top Chef: All Stars.
Having tasted everything and had a night to contemplate their creations, each of our four finalists start in on making four very different dishes. Shota is struggling with figuring out how to incorporate cheese into his cooking. While Japan, as a nation, loves cheese (just Google “Arirang Hotdog” if you’re interested in the latest cheese trend), it’s not an ingredient in high-end Japanese cooking, which is subtle and restrained—two words that are not necessarily associated with cheese. Shota eventually settles on making some sort of cheese/dashi broth.
For his part, Gabe is trying to figure out how to make sure that cheese is the star of his dish. He decides to pair cheddar with its frequent dance partner, the humble apple. He’s got some interesting ideas about “activating the pectin” in the apples so he can roast them without them falling apart. In terms of flavors, even though Mexican cuisine doesn’t use a lot of cheddar, Tex Mex does, and Gabe is interested in heading in that direction.
Dawn is also heading in a more casual direction with her dish. She intends to make a high-end dish that uses as its starting point the flavors of the glorious Philly cheesesteak. Even though she’ll be incorporating some complex techniques, like cooking rib eye steak via sous vide with cheese curds, the essence of the dish will harken back to remembered flavors from her hometown.
Finally, Jamie—who has an extra 30 minutes to cook by virtue of having won the Quickfire—is violating a cardinal cooking rule by combining cheese and fish. She knows that cheese can be a heavy ingredient and so she wants to pair it with something lighter like sea bass. It’s a questionable choice, especially since it seems so far from the classic, homey Vietnamese flavors that Jamie does so well.
Eventually, Tom wanders into the kitchen—a rare occurrence this season. He quizzes Dawn on how she’ll be using the cheddar in five ways in her dish, expresses skepticism about the lack of mole and chili in Gabe’s description of his dish, is pleased by Shota stepping outside of his comfort zone in his dish, and arches one eyebrow in surprise when hearing that Jamie plans to combine cheddar (in five ways!) and sea bass. Though Tom may enjoy implanting second thoughts in his chefs’ minds, there’s no time for that this episode.
Before we know it, the All Star cast show up, including Nina Compton, the controversial runner-up in Top Chef: New Orleans (for my money, she should have beaten Nicholas Elmi in the finale). Setting the scene for tonight’s dishes, Tom notes that success in the challenge depends as much on the chefs’ respective thought processes as the actual cooking of their dishes.
Shota is first up and, for the first time this season, he’s behind in his plating. He asks Jamie for assistance and she gamely assists. With her help, he presents a tofu cheddar manju with cheddar dashi, smoked cheddar oil, cheddar tofu miso, and a cheddar tuile. After a bite, Padma lets out an involuntary, “wow,” further noting that she’s never had anything like this and expressing her appreciation for the textures in the dish. Calling the dish “delicious,” Gregory agrees, saying, “I love this.” Tom appreciates the sheer inventiveness of the dish, noting that “you could give this challenge to a hundred chefs and you’ll never get this dish.” Though further praise is almost unnecessary at this point, Nina calls it “beautiful” and “delicate,” and Melissa praises Shota’s originality.
Gabe is next with his second gorgeous dish of the episode, eliciting an “ooh la la,” from Gregory as the plate is put in front of him. The dish has apples roasted in cheddar oil, a white cheddar foam, masa-fried cheese curds, an apple bacon cheddar sauce, and a cheese and apple chip. Gail is awed by Gabe’s mastery of his techniques and Brooke is blown away by the roasted apple. Gregory notes that Gabe was brilliant in how he manipulated the various cheeses but says that, like Brooke, the apple components were his favorite. Dale suggests that this dish shows why Gabe is in the final four.
As we’ve seen multiple times this season, Dawn is a bit overwhelmed by everything she still has to do and asks Jamie for help. At this point, one has to wonder whether Jamie will have enough time to finish her own dish, despite the extra 30 minutes that she won during the Quickfire. With Jamie’s enormous help, Dawn serves a cheese oil-basted steak, cheese salte, cheddar gougere, a cheese foam, a soubise, and a cheddar sauce. It looks a little bit like a cheese tasting plate, and among the various components, the gougere is a huge hit . . . that is, it’s a huge hit among all those who got gougere on their plate (Brooke didn’t get it and she pouts a bit, noting how much everyone seems to adore it). As a whole, though, Dawn’s dish doesn’t stand up to Shota and Gabe’s. Richard suggests that the dish doesn’t taste as good as a classic Philly cheesesteak and Nina notes that the range of techniques used doesn’t compare to what Shota and Gabe displayed. Ed doesn’t care. He acknowledges that that gougere was a bit grainy but is happy to drink the sauce that’s leftover from his dish.
Alone in the kitchen and having spent much of her time helping her fellow cheftetants, Jamie is behind. Among other things, she didn’t have time to thin out her sauce with broth she had made. However, without anyone else’s help, she’s able to finish her pan-seared sea bass with crispy cheddar, cheddar spaetzle, spiced cheese sauce, cheese broth bok choy, and pickled cheese curds.
It’s clear right away that there are some big highs but also some questionable lows in the dish. Gregory loves the crispy cheddar bits that Jamie incorporated, and Kwame loves how “bold” and “out of her comfort zone” the dish was. He says it was good and he’d eat it again. Tom, though, doesn’t think the sea bass (though cooked perfectly) needed to be on the plate, and Ed doesn't think Jamie’s sauce makes sense.
With dining finished, it seems clear that either Shota or Gabe is taking home the win. All four chefs are brought to Judges’ Table, and Padma notes that one dish stood out above the rest. That dish is Shota’s. Ed says that, after a few bites, the cheddar felt like it belonged in the dish, which was “incredible to think about” given how traditionally Japanese the food was. Gail loved that Shota went out on a limb in incorporating the cheddar into his food, and Tom says he simply “nailed it.”
That leaves two more spots for the penultimate episode. Padma assures the three remaining chefs that “everything was so good,” and that even though one person will be going home, he or she should do so “knowing there still was great food on that plate.”
It certainly doesn’t sound like that person will be Gabe. He showed a ton of technique, which allowed him to present very distinct treatments of the cheddar. The main problem with his dish was that it was not cheese-forward—indeed, the best thing about the dish was Gabe’s cooking of the apples.
Tom also wishes that Dawn had done more with her cheese. She presented the cheddar in five ways, but “three were sauces.” The challenge thus was a “missed opportunity to do something more creative.” Worse yet, one person at the table didn’t get the best part of the dish (the gougere), which Ed says was the “best bite of food all night” for him.
As for Jamie, she nailed the cooking of the sea bass, but the dish overall wasn’t cheesy enough. All the less cheese-focused parts of the dish (the spaetzle, crispy bits, the fish, etc.) were great, but the components that were supposed to be cheese-heavy (like her sauce) was more nutty than cheesy.
So while Gabe’s dish was a bit out of balance and Dawn yet again missed a component on one of her plates, Jamie had the bigger error in terms of composition (pairing cheese with fish) and execution (not having a cheese-forward sauce). And for that reason, she’s following Maria in packing her knives and exiting the kitchen.
Luckily, having already been eliminated once, Jamie isn’t phrased by being eliminated again. She’s essentially been playing with house money since she fought her way back into the kitchen, and her sunny disposition doesn’t diminish simply because she got out-cooked in this challenge (and indeed, she just came off a win in the Quickfire).
Jamie thanks the judges for the opportunity to cook for all of them, and Tom says that it’s been an “absolute pleasure” eating her food and getting to know her as the “zany and crazy” person she is. Tom tells her to “never change,” and Gail advises her to “embrace the wacky.” Even more meaningful, Padma says that she can’t wait to taste Jamie’s food in her own kitchen—perhaps an acknowledgment that Jamie is at her best when she’s cooking the Vietnamese she loves and grew up eating.
After she bids her fellow chefs farewell, she says she’ll see them next time they’re in Vegas. I know that I’ll make a point of visiting her restaurant next time I’m in the city, as well.