Top Chef: Portland - Episode 14: And the Winner Is...
By Jason Lee
July 3, 2021
Three chefs. One more challenge. With the title on the line.
Shota, Gabe, and Dawn. I’m not sure anyone would have predicted these three chefs would be our finalists when the season started (though Shota surely would have been on most folks’ list), but based on their performances in the last couple of episodes, it’s clear that they’re deserving of their spots.
Padma and Tom meet our finalists in a vineyard to lay out the parameters of the final challenge, which will surprise no one: make the best four-course progressive meal of your life. Tom advises the three to think about menu progression, be creative in their choices, and to tell a story about why they deserve to be Top Chef. The cheftestants will have the entire day to shop for their ingredients. Tomorrow, they’ll have 6 hours to prep and cook, followed by another 3 hours the day after that to prepare and serve their dishes.
Our chefs will have some help in doing so. Calling in the cavalry, Padma and Tom bring out the chefs who finished fourth through sixth this season: Byron, Maria, and Jamie. The finalists draw knives to decide on the order in which they get to pick their sous chefs, though the best pairings are obvious regardless of order—Dawn picks Jamie (saying they have similar flavor profiles), Shota picks Byron, and Gabe is thrilled to get Maria.
With the instructions received, the finalists huddle with their sous chef to talk over strategy. Gabe knows he wants to make a mole in honor of Susana Trilling, a Mexican chef who mentored him early on. Shota wants to showcase classic Japanese cuisine and flavors—in particular, a Japanese curry in honor of his mom. Dawn aims to highlight pan-African cuisine, most notably with a gumbo that will pay homage to Leah Chase, a highly influential African American chef who inspired a memorable Elimination Challenge in one episode of Top Chef: New Orleans.
The chefs grab what they need at Whole Foods, a specialty food store, a Mexican Mercado (Gabe), a Japanese grocery store (Shota), and a local farm (all three). The next day, they get to work on meal prep. Gabe focuses on his dessert, in addition to cooking a whole pig head for one of his dishes and preparing the bases for his mole. Dawn works on parts of a tartare dish and her gumbo. Working elbow-to-elbow with Jamie, she’s incredibly specific in what she wants. Meanwhile, like Gabe, Shota is working on the base of his dessert, as well as preparing his beef tongue for his Japanese curry dish. His technique for cooking it—which includes roasting it in the oven, turning the heat off, and then leaving the tongue to cook in the remaining residual heat overnight—draws curious looks from the other chefs. To ensure that the cooking continues overnight, Shota has Byron tape warnings over the entire oven door and control panel to prevent anyone from inadvertently opening the oven after they leave.
Tired and hungry, the chefs return to their group house and find the kitchen filled with All Stars in aprons. Dale tells them that, for their final Quickfire, each chef will have to cook against one All Star, head to head, and only the two who win their battle will get to proceed to the finale the next day.
Psych! To the cheftestants’ enormous relief, the All Stars burst into laughter and make clear that, for the one and only time this season, the All Stars will be cooking for them. It’s a wonderful meal, full of warmth and laughter. Having all run through the gauntlet known as Top Chef (many, more than once), everyone at that table recognizes how much the finalists have accomplished and how high the stakes are for the next day. A win can change your life.
Which is why the All Stars also make time to provide whatever helpful advice they can. In one noteworthy (and much needed) moment, Nina (runner up of her season) pulls Dawn aside and encourages her to edit as needed—don’t add that one extra thing without considering whether it’s necessary for the dish or if it’s simply “color.” Lets hope Dawn takes that advice to heart.
The emotions continue to run high the next morning—it’s the last one they’ll spend together and the last one they’ll spend as competitors on Top Chef (unless one or more returns on Top Chef All Stars). But then the chef jackets come on and it’s all business.
The chefs enter the kitchen for a brisk three hours of final prep. Shota and Byron try the beef tongue and it’s perfect. Shota also makes some tweaks to his second dish—instead of being octopus-focused, he thinks it makes more sense to put the emphasis on the vegetables in the dish, as it’ll provide a better progression.
Gabe and Maria are working great together—they just understand each other so well and clearly are on the same page in terms of what Gabe is trying to do with his dishes. Meanwhile, Dawn is getting behind in her prep—she puts a ton of responsibility on Jamie to get a bunch of components done, as the honey bread component in her first dish took longer than expected.
The seconds tick down for the first dish and Dawn and Jamie are frantically trying to get everything on the plate. Their hands are a blur as they move back and forth between components and plates, but despite their best efforts, not every component gets on every plate. In fact, Jamie didn’t quite stop the second time was called, and one of the Top Chef producers tells her she has to pick back up the chicharrones that she had put down.
“I’ve done it again,” Dawn says, devastated. Indeed, it’s now hard to imagine how the judges could give her the title. On the most important challenge of the season (and perhaps her life), Dawn still couldn’t get everything done that she had intended to get done.
The dishes are brought out and the judges immediately notice that folks are missing components on Dawn’s dish. “You’re missing something,” one diner says. “I don’t have it, either,” someone else notes. “This is Dawn’s,” another diner says. “Dawn, nooooo,” Nina exclaims, so disappointed.
The three chefs introduce their first dish. Shota has sashimi three ways, with mackerel, cured salmon, and tuna with soy sauce. Gabe has fried cochinita pibil head cheese with habanero ash emulsion, avocado mousse, and a kumquat sauce. Dawn offers lamb tartare with tomato and celery salad, beef tenderloin puff, and rice honey bread, but notes that not everyone got the puff or bread.
All three dishes are winners, but Shota seems to have the edge. Melissa calls his dish “stunning,” with clear and focused flavors. Gregory says that he delivered on the flavor of the seafood, and Gail chimes in, saying the dish went down amazingly smoothly.
Gabe’s first dish also was successful, with Tom calling it a beautiful first course and Dale saying it was an amazing way to start. The only criticism is that the pibil isn’t crispy enough.
As for Dawn’s dish, it has a ton going for it, but the discussion is mostly about how Dawn didn’t set herself up for success. The consensus is that she didn’t need some of the components, which slowed her down—she would have been fine just having chilis, honey bread, and tartare. Tom points out that none of the components that didn't make it on the plate needed to be cooked “a la minute”—rather, it’s simply a matter of picking them up and putting them on the plate.
Back in the kitchen, Dawn is determined to make a better showing with her second dish and gets everything done comfortably in time. Gabe, too. Shota is the one left scrambling with Byron to get everything on the plate, which they do, but just barely.
For his second course, Shota serves a vegetable-focused dish with sautéed water spinach, sautéed burdock root, a white miso burdock root puree, and octopus karaage. Dawn has a green gumbo with seafood, herb puree, and a rice fritter. Finally, Gabe has a scallop aguiachile with fermented pineapple and roasted scallop oil.
Someone comments, “damn, all these dishes are gorgeous.” They’re delicious, as well. But Padma finds herself going back to Gabe’s dish over and over for the wonderful sauce. Ed loves the dish, too, and Gail complements Gabe’s use of pineapple.
Dawn’s gumbo also is great, but Melissa says that the octopus is a bit undercooked. Nina finds that the seafood doesn’t really connect with the gumbo itself but adores the fritter.
As for Shota’s dish, everyone likes it, but doesn't necessarily love it. Noting that it tastes great, Richard compares it to a “warm salad.” Melissa says it's a bit like a vegetable side dish instead of a second course. Ed notes that it eats a little oily, with Gail jumping in and noting that the octopus is very oily.
Shota has a few issues getting his rice done in time, but other than that, the chefs don’t have any issues plating their third courses. Noting that his mom’s favorite food is Japanese curry, Shota has a beef tongue curry with braised turnips. Dawn has a braised beef cheek with black-eyed peas and buttered turnips. And Gabe offers short rib with a negro mole, charred mushrooms, and pickled persimmons.
The flavors and cooking on Shota’s curry is widely praised, with Ed saying that it makes him “emotional.” But the rice is a little undercooked and Melissa faults the dish for looking a little “family meal-y,” i.e. a meal cooked by one member of the restaurant staff for the entire staff prior to service. One diner suggests it’s because of the plating of the tongue and curry.
Dawn’s beef cheek draws raves, with Brooke saying it’s one her favorites of the evening and calling the black eyed peas “astounding.” Melissa calls the turnips the star of the dish.
As for Gabe, it’s a gorgeous dish with a sauce that’s Gregory’s favorite so far. But Gail faults the charred mushrooms in the dish for bringing and intensely bitter note to things.
It’s clearly a tight race and dessert may decide things. Gabe has a candied delicata squash with cafe Mexicano ice cream, which is a clever take on a traditional Mexican sweet. Dawn serves yam bread pudding with butter pecan anglaise and a purple yam and apple compote. Finally, Shota offers a hoji tea cheesecake with cedar smoked gelato.
Unlike in the previous two rounds, Shota wins the plating competition, and Kwame says, of the three, he’d order Shota’s dessert again. But Gail says that the smokiness of the ice cream overwhelmed the subtle flavors in the cheesecake.
Dale is loves Gabe’s squash and the amazing texture he got in it. Melissa suggests that the dish would easily live on a Michelin star tasting menu in a Mexican restaurant—it’s that good.
As for Dawn’s bread pudding, it’s homey and warm—everything you’d expect from Dawn. That's it’s strength, but also its weakness, as Brooke calls it “a little basic” for the finale of Top Chef.
With the eating done, it’s time to get down to judging. As usual, we go course by course.
Starting with the first course, Richard calls Shota’s dish one of his favorites of the night, and Melissa says that it was a great start. Dawn’s dish was very tasty, but of course, the elephant in the room is the fact that, yet again, Dawn couldn’t get the dish finished in time for service. As for Gabe’s dish, Gail loved the deep and rich flavors, accented with a brith kumquat sauce.
As it was all night, all three dishes were great, but Shota appears to win this round.
He does not in the second course. Melissa compliments Shota’s courage in making a vegetable-forward dish for his second course, but Padma says that it felt a little bit like a side dish. Dawn did really well to elevate something as personal and traditional as a gumbo, and her fritter was “divine,” but as Tom notes, the seafood felt a bit disconnected from the other components. That leaves Gabe’s dish, which Padma says featured some of the best flavors of the night. Melissa compliments his “mind blowing” use of kombucha to make the sauce.
Lets call round two for Gabe.
Gail loved Shota’s curry, calling it “intoxicating” and saying that it came from a “deep place of love.” However, it felt a bit casual, in contrast to his fine-dining first course, and Padma notes that his rice wasn’t cooked through all the way. Gabe’s mole was “mind blowing,” in Richard’s eyes, and Tom admits that it was delicious but faults him for overcooking the mushrooms. Meanwhile, Dawn’s beef cheek dish knocked it out of the park—Melissa calls it “heart and soul in a bowl” and singles out the peas for praise.
So with three rounds done, we have a three-way tie. Dessert, it appears, will decide things.
Richard absolutely loved Shota’s dessert, especially the texture of the cheesecake, which was light and airy. It appears to be his favorite dessert of the bunch. Padma adds that she loved Shota’s use of smokey ice cream, which was so unexpected and paired well with the tea flavors in his cheesecake.
Dawn’s bread pudding was very, very good, with Tom saying it should be on “everyone’s Thanksgiving table” because it felt so authentically of autumn. However, it doesn’t look like the dish will carry her to victory.
Instead, Tom makes it clear that Gabe has his vote . . . and as I’ve noted year after year, Tom’s opinion rules over Judges’ Table. Tom calls Gabe’s dessert a “study in textures,” saying that with every bite, the dessert felt different. Melissa agrees, saying that, “chef to chef,” the dish inspired her. She adds, as she noted during the meal, that the dessert could have belonged on the menu of any Michelin Star restaurant in Mexico City.
With that done, the judges deliberate internally on the winner of the season, and everything they say accords with how it appeared. Shota won the first course, with Gail calling the dish “flawless.” Gabe won the second course, with tons of complexity in his kombucha sauce and brightness in the aguachile. Dawn’s beef cheek wins the third course, with amazing black-eyed peas and a great turnip puree. The question is who won the dessert round, and it seems close between Shota and Gabe, though with Gabe appearing to have the edge due to the complexity of his textures and its modern take on a traditional Mexican sweet.
And indeed, it’s Gabe who wins the title of Top Chef. He’s thrilled and amazed to be named the first Mexican Top Chef, but his joy doesn’t begin to approach Maria’s delight—she beams and yells in Spanish, “I told you, I told you!” The other two finalists congratulate Gabe on his win, but reflect on their own accomplishments, as well they should. Shota says that 2020 was such a rough year for him, having to close his restaurant in Seattle—Top Chef is just what he needed. And Dawn says that she’s proud of her journey and her heart is full.
If my reaction to Gabe’s win is muted, it’s for two reasons. First, it’s a bit of a shame that Shota, the best and arguably most consistent chef over the entire season (including winning the prior two Elimination Challenges), doesn’t win the title. But as Tom has noted, the best NFL team during the season is not necessarily the one that wins the Super Bowl.
Second, as many of you may have seen, last December, two months after the Top Chef finale was filmed in October, Gabe was fired from his Austin restaurant for “repeated violations of the company’s ethics policy as it relates to harassment of women.” Regarding Gabe’s firing, the owner of the restaurant cited “behavior in conflict with our values.”
Gabe’s alleged conduct was not the only thing that marred the finale episode. Edouardo Jordan, an acclaimed Seattle chef, also apparently attended the finale dinner. He has since been accused by 15 women of “sexual misconduct or unwanted touching.” The Top Chef producers allegedly edited out Jordan’s appearance in the finale.
Given the well-reported reckoning that the culinary world has undergone in the past couple of years, with multiple celebrity chefs accused of inexcusable harassment of women, I am personally disappointed that neither Bravo nor the producers of Top Chef acknowledged either of these developments during the finale. Padma and Gregory Gourdet have issued statements on Twitter and Instagram, respectively. Neither Tom or Gail have said anything publicly.