It's all happening, people.
Portland is finally getting its time in the Top Chef spotlight, and I dunno about you, but I'm feeling downright emotional about it. At a time when our city's restaurant community (like every other's) is feeling beat down and bedraggled, here comes Padma, Tom and Gail to bring glitz and glam to our superlative food scene.
Season 18 of the best reality food show brings in 15 new cheftestants, including two hometown heroes: Sara Hauman, head chef at Soter Vineyards in Carlton, Ore., and Gabriel Pascuzzi, chef-owner at Stacked Sandwiches and Mama Bird.
As we launch into this season, the chefs gather for their first Quickfire with Padma. She's joined by Gregory Gourdet of Kaan and Departure, who after placing high in both Top Chef Boston and All Stars LA, is like when Kirk becomes an ambassador on Star Trek—respected and lauded for his past greatness. Four chefs (including Sara) note they've been nominated for James Beard Awards…and, when asked to call out other accolades, Gabriel proudly announces he won Eater Portland's 2017 Chef of the Year. This earns him a few side-eyes from his co-contestants and a weak "congratulations," from Padma. Ouch, the edit on that.
The Quickfire: The 15 chefs are placed into groups of three, tasked with melding their pre-selected ingredients that they "cannot live without" to create a cohesive dish. This, of course, leads to them having to blend butter, kombu and rice vinegar into something edible. Or, in the case of Gabriel's team, caul fat, Mexican chocolate and Gruyère cheese. Yeesh.
There's immediately some friction, especially between Gabriel and Maria Mazon, chef-owner at BOCA Tacos y Tequila in Tucson. Maria goes for a mole, and asks if Gabriel is "stupid" when he suggests a seafood protein to pair with it. They land on a caul fat-wrapped pork tenderloin with mole and Gruyère gremolata.
Sara's team, with Scotch bonnet peppers, Meyer lemon and salted anchovies (her pick), vibe from the start and make a harissa-rubbed seared halibut, Meyer lemon salsa verde and herb salad.
Wearing pigtails and a Hawaiian shirt for her talking head portions, the producers are setting Sara up to be the easygoing assassin. She notes she doesn't feel like she belongs in the Top Chef kitchen, saying, "I like to chill and cook some food."
While Gabriel's team actually does well despite its potentially discordant ingredient list, Sara's team comes out on top and wins immunity.
The Main Challenge: While they resisted the cliché of putting a bird on it, Top Chef nonetheless decided to have Padma declare that "Portland is obsessed with birds" as the hook to this challenge. If by obsessed they mean avoiding angry crows dive-bombing the Hawthorne Bridge, OK then. Count me obsessed.
Chefs have to pick from among five game birds found in Oregon: duck, turkey, squab, quail and chukar. I have been here my whole life and can't rightly say what a chukar is, but apparently it's a partridge and it lives here. The chefs are asked to put their style on a plate, and they'll be judged blind, so the panel won't know who cooked what.
The top three pick their birds, and the rest crack eggs to find their fowl. Sara grabs a quail, Gabriel draws a squab. The chefs who get turkey are not stoked.
They order from Whole Foods online (pandemmy safe, y'all), then hop in BMWs to pick up their groceries to cook in the kitchen at OMSI. Besides my obvious bias for Portland's chefs, I'm digging the look of Shota Nakajima, chef-owner of Taku in Seattle, and Kiki Louya, a chef, writer and food activist from Detroit.
There's lots of fretting: Chef Avishar Barua decides to make chukar-fried chukar, and says, "This is the last thing I want to make a first impression with." Roscoe Hall, executive chef for Rodney Scott's BBQ in Birmingham, chooses to forgo a smoked approach and make turkey adobo, adding sweet potato dumplings, which he says he never cooks. This will go well…not.
The panel arrives to eat, including my personal fave Melissa King, who won last season's All Stars LA, and perennial Top Cheffer Richard Blais, whose hairstyle resembles something like if Chucky from Child's Play and Johnny Bravo released a wig line together. ("Jesus, that's some hair," Gabriel mumbles when Richard steps out.)
Brilliantly for the home team, both Sara and Gabriel land in the top four, along with Shota and Gabe Earles, from Austin. Sara makes an elaborate glazed quail with charred dates and a grilled eggplant coconut yogurt that I immediately feel like I'd love to eat. (Blais, whose hair at this point in the meal has become a soft cascading ginger wave, notes that there is a strong Pacific Northwest-San Francisco quality to the dish.)
Gabriel goes for a constrained roasted squab with local honey, grilled plums and jus. For anyone who has had the iconic oxtail French dip at Stacked, you know Gabriel can do the hell out of au jus. Gourdet says he loves the simplicity, and that Gabriel's dish is clear and focused.
Sarah, who told the panel that she's convinced she is in the bottom, gets a total surprise when she wins the challenge, blurting out, "I feel really stupid now." That may be, but you look damn good, lady.
Ultimately, Roscoe the BBQ king who gave no BBQ to the judges, is sent home for having a muddled broth and not serving any of his finer qualities. I liked him, and he will now fight it out in Last Chance Kitchen.
Episode MVP: Richard Blais' tidal wave mess of a hairdo. I cannot wait to see how it evolves with the season.
Biggest bummer: It's always hard to be the first voted out, but Roscoe seemed like he would have really funny shit to say about his co-cheftestants.
Other thoughts: In teasers for the upcoming season, we get promises the crew will visit the Tillamook Cheese Factory, Kelly's Brighton Marina for crab fishing, and Akadi PDX. They also get a visit from (ugh) Fred Armisen of Portlandia infamy. They did have to put a bird on it. Goddammit.