Top Chef: Portland - Episode 13: Shellfishly Delicious
By Jason Lee
June 26, 2021
And then there were three. The penultimate episode this season arrives with Shota feeling a nice boost of confidence after last week’s win, Dawn struggling with the knowledge that she has (yet again) struggled to get all of the components of her dish on the plate, and Gabe anxious about what’s ahead and feeling that he still has plenty left in the tank.
As has happened multiple times in past season, Padma wakes the chefs up with many hours still left to go before the sun rises (she must love this). After asking them to join her downstairs, Padma breaks the news. The good news: it’s the last Quickfire of the season, and today, they’re tasked with making a dish that highlights fresh Oregon clams. The bad news: the chefs will be digging up the clams themselves.
To help them do so, Brooke meets them on the beach. With her advice, the trio dig up a variety of clams, big and small. With their bounty in hand, the chefs head back to the resort to spend the next 30 minutes making a dish for Padma and Brooke. Gabe decides to make a spin on a Sopa de Mariscos, which is a spicy Mexican soup. Dawn is also making a soup but has a hard time shucking the clams, destroying many of their shells in the process. Shota has a clear idea for a dish using butter clams, but like Dawn, is struggling to open the shells and OH GOD HE SLICED HIS HAND.
Shota splashes water on the gash to clean it out as he calls over his shoulder for a medic. Shota continues preparing his dish with his right hand as the medic bandages his left hand . . . it’s awful. But he’s not the only one struggling to finish—Dawn is furiously trying to puree her soup and Gabe is spilling ingredients all over the place as he finalizes things.
In the end, Gabe offers a dish of poached gaper clams and butter clams in a broth. Padma and Brooke love the depth of flavor he was able to develop in 30 minutes. They also praise the simplicity in his dish.
Dawn is next with a clam bisque with an apple and pear salad. The flavors are great, but the soup itself is a bit grainy and Brooke wishes Dawn had included some actual pieces of clam in the soup.
Finally, one-handed Shota serves sake, yuzu butter clams with pickled onions. It looks like a teeny tiny amount of food in a bowl, but maybe he had trouble getting all of the clams chopped up in time. Brooke and Padma compliment Shota on how he showcased different types of claims in different textures and styles, but Brooke notes that his clams are a bit chewy.
In the end, after thirteen episodes, Gabe finally gets his first Quickfire win. He’s thrilled and he should be, as he’s won himself an important advantage in the Elimination Challenge.
Serving as guest judges in the challenge are All-Stars Nina and Kwame. The challenge this week will pay homage to James Beard, an amazing chef and journalist who, as Tom tells it during a pre-recorded bit, contributed greatly to the growth of different ethnic cuisines that have found a home in the American food scene. There is, of course, the James Beard Foundation, which was started in his name by his close friend, Julia Child. There are also the eponymous James Beard Awards, of which Nina (Best Chef: South) and Kwame (Rising Star Chef of the Year) are recipients.
James Beard was born and raised in Oregon, and thus today, the chefs will be cooking with one of his favorite ingredients: Dungeness crab. They’ll have to make both a hot and a cold dish using Dungeness crab. They’ll go out boating with Gregory later that day to catch some. After that, they’ll have $300 to buy ingredients at a local specialty market (Gabe will get $400 since he won the Quickfire). The following day, they’ll have two hours to prepare and serve their cold dish, and then another hour to prepare and serve their hot dish. The top two will make it to the finale.
The scenes on the boat are wild, as it clearly takes a ton of work pulling the crab baskets up onto the boats by hand before the crabs have time to escape. They snack on a few of the crabs they caught as they chat with Gregory, who imparts some helpful advice to each of them (as a finalist himself, he knows what they’re going through).
And then it’s off to shop. Shota spots some beautiful purple daikon and his menu immediately changes to feature the Japanese radish in his hot dish. Dawn decides to do a take on a crab boil and grabs ingredients for that. Meanwhile, Gabe peruses the available flours, thinking about trying to make a crab tortilla.
The next morning, Shota and Gabe enjoy a peaceful stroll on the beach while Dawn gets an early start digging into breakfast. The three chefs are relatively muted—they know how much of an impact their performance today can have on the rest of their careers.
Entering the kitchen, the chefs spot Tom and, as always, alarm bells go off. They smell a twist. But, for a change, Tom is here with words of encouragement. Just not from him. Appearing via video chat is Alice Waters, famed chef of the legendary restaurant, Chez Panisse. Dawn immediately tears up—she’s a huge fan of Alice. Alice shares some memories of James Beard and encourages them to make sure that, whatever they make, the diners are able to “really taste” the ingredient that is “most important”—namely the Dungeness crab.
The chefs, especially Dawn, thank Tom for sharing that message and then get down to business. Dawn and Shota are daunted by the amount of crab they’re going to need to break down for their dishes and start their crabs steaming. Dawn also starts pickling some mushrooms, but before she knows it, she gets behind. Doing crab sushi for his first dish, Shota starts making his two sushi rices, but one of them doesn’t come out quite the way he wants it (the vinegar he bought at the store is stronger than he’d expected). He weighs eliminating one of his sushi from the plate.
Meanwhile, Gabe hums along all the way up until the end of the two hours, when he realizes that he doesn’t have enough time to cool off his broth to make it a cold dish. There’s nothing he can do about it, though. Meanwhile, on either side of him, Dawn rushes to get everything on the plate and Shota nixes one of his sushi rolls. He’s not going to serve something that isn’t right. (Top Chef aspirants, take notice: if it’s not good, leave it off the plate).
While his menu says “sushi two ways,” Shota only presents a crab nigiri with a yuzu kosho aioli. When asked about the second sushi, Shota says that his rice with Ume vinegar didn’t come out right so he omitted the second roll. Luckily for Shota, his first roll is great. Dale loves the immense shellfish aroma on the sushi, deems it “perfect,” and says that the only problem is that he wants more. Kwame doesn’t think it’s acceptable in the semi-finals to promise two types of sushi and only serve one. Today’s guest diner, Naomi Pomeroy, a James Beard Award-winner, chimes in to offer some defense of Shota—it’s hard to make sushi rice and she can forgive the omission of the second sushi roll given how delightful the single bite was.
Gabe is next and offers Dungeness crab with lobster mushrooms, crab stock, and an avocado yogurt. Tom asks why he’s serving a hot soup in a cold dish, and Gabe says he wants the salad components to bring the cold element. Like Shota, this is a hit. Tom loves how the entire dish represents geographically and temporally where they are, between forrest and the ocean in late Fall. Melissa finds the dish confusing as to whether it’s supposed to be cold or hot, but loves the crab. Ed says that he could not love the dish any more than he does, as it’s “delicate and balanced.”
Finally, Dawn has a Dungeness crab salad with cashew soup and pickled oyster mushrooms. Everyone adores the cashew soup, which Richard finds inspiring and Dale finds buttery and a perfect compliment to the crab. Tom wishes, though, that Dawn had stopped there, as the pickled elements are unnecessary given the strength of the soup and crab. Nina agrees that Dawn sometimes has a habit of adding one or two “whimsical” elements that don’t actually contribute to the dish.
Our three cheftestants are back in the kitchen finishing up their hot dishes, and while Shota is having little trouble, Dawn and Gabe are both in the weeds. Dawn, as per usual, has way too many things left to do, including making some smashed potatoes to soak up some amazing broth she’s made. Gabe is trying to finish up his crab tortillas, can’t find a rolling pin, and makes due with a bottle instead to roll out his dough. He seems to be back on track until, while grilling his tortillas, the linen he’d been using to keep his tortillas warm catches on fire and melts onto one of them. With no choice but to throw it away, Gabe is one short for the dining crew.
Meanwhile, having no time left, Dawn splatters her sauce onto her dish in a Jackson Pollack-sque style. While you might correctly say, “well at least she got it on the plate,” she was not able to get her potatoes onto the plate. Count that as FIVE episodes this season in which Dawn hasn’t been to complete her plan in time for service.
As the three dishes are placed before the diners, they whisper amongst themselves, trying to decide if the haphazard application of Dawn’s sauce is intentional or not. They honestly can’t tell. One diner suggests that, of course it’s intentional, because look at how much sauce is covering the edges of the dishes.
On the plate, Dawn has a Pacific-style crab boil with a beer-based broth. Padma asks whether Dawn meant to plate the dish and she did. Dawn clears everything up, saying that she did not. The diners dig into the dish and it’s messy business. Tom uses his teeth to crack open a crab leg, sauce and crab juice is splattering onto the diner’s formal wear . . . and no one minds. The flavors are amazing and everyone agrees that it’s a delicious plate of food. The only flaw is that there’s nothing to mop up the sauce.
Gabe is next with a mole coloradito, with crab in seafood stock plus sunchokes and a crab fat tortilla. Well, all except Melissa, who didn’t get a tortilla. Again, the dish is well received. Tom loves the sauce, which is redolent with crab but also very earthy. The tortilla, too, is well done, with just enough chew. The only dispute is whether Gabe’s use of Jerusalem artichoke overwhelms the crab. Multiple people think it does, but others (most notably Brooke) thinks that it actually brings a different dimension to the dish.
Finally, Shota offers up a braised purple daikon with Dungeness crab salad, soy, sherry vinaigrette, and persimmon. When Shota is on, he’s on, and he’s on today. The dish is a unanimous smash. Richard boggles at how much crab flavor Shota has infused into the daikon, and Melissa marvels and how good the dish is without using butter or chili like the other two chefs did. Nina finds the dish balanced in a way that the other dishes weren’t. Tom can only add, “I love Shota’s dish,” praising how crab-forward it is.
With the eating done, the cheftestants are brought before Judges’ Table to a round of applause. Every dish was great. Shota gets dinged a bit for not pivoting to provide some other crab sushi as he had promised, but Padma calls the one bite of sushi he did serve “spectacular.” And his daikon dish was amazing, as well. Kwame says how impressed he is at how much flavor was in the broth and says Shota nailed everything in that dish. Gail calls it a “showstopper.”
Kwame also loved Gabe’s dish, which he says offered the best version of lobster mushrooms he’s ever had. Tom loves how the dish “told the story of where they were” and singles out his sauce work for praise. As for his hot dish, Gail loved the crab-fat tortilla, though notes that Melissa didn’t get one. Nina notes that the artichoke took over the sauce a bit, but say she didn’t mind, as it brought out the sweetness in the crab.
As for Dawn, her flavors are always rocking. The cashew soup in her cold dish was, to Nina, a “hug of flavor.” Kwame also liked it but said that removing the persimmon and radish she paired with the cashew soup would have improved it. As for her hot dish, Nina recounts how the table was silent as they ate it because it was delicious and soul-satisfying. Gail loved how bold the flavors were, and Kwame says that it offered one of the best bites he’d had all season. The only problem was that there was no starch or bread to soak up the sauce. Nina mentions how she wasn’t able to get the “crown jewel” of the dish (her potatoes) on the plate. This brings such disappointment to the table. Tom tells her, “you are doing a disservice to how talented you are,” and says she needs to “resolve these issues.”
The judges’ discussion makes clear that Gabe had the best cold dish, Shota was sublime in the hot dish, and Dawn wasn’t that far behind. Shota seems safe, but it is hard to imagine the judges sending Gabe home, given how well he did in the cold dish, or Dawn home, given how amazing her hot dish was. Nina notes the difficulty of the judges’ task, saying they’re “all really good dishes.” “That's the problem,” Tom responds.
The Top Chef editors skip over the final part of the judges’ discussion, showing only Padma saying, “well, I think we have our decision.” All of the judges’ are smiling, though. This would seem to suggest that, possibly, no one is going home?
The chefs return to Judges’ Table and Shota is announced as the winner for showing amazing precision and restraint. With his second straight Elimination win, Shota is headed for the finale, potentially as the favorite. The only question is who joins him.
“Dawn,” Padma says, “and Gabe, pack your bags because you’re going to the finale!” Gabe can only stand there, open-mouthed in shock, as Dawn spins around and walks, astonished to the back of the room, before returning, her eyes wide with joy. “We could not decide!” Padma calls to them. Gail adds, “there was no way we could let any of you go after that meal.”
Tom says, “we can’t wait to eat your food in the finale,” though warning them, with a smile, “there will only be one winner in the finale.”
With that, just like last season, we’ll have a three-way finale to decide the title of Top Chef. And it’s going to be a doozy. Watching the last two episodes, I don’t think anyone can deny that these are worthy, deserving, and mind-blowingly strong chefs. Any one of them can win—it will depend on the day. Shota is ready for the immense challenge of besting Dawn and Gabe for a third time, Dawn is ready to bring her all to achieve the goal she’s had all season, and Gabe wants to make history as the first Mexican-American Top Chef.
The three head back to the Stew Room where Gabe pops a bottle of champagne. There’s a lot to celebrate for the three of them. And for one, there’ll be even more to celebrate in a few days.