Last summer, Gabriel Pascuzzi traded one quarantine for another.
As a contestant on the 18th season of the hit Bravo cooking competition Top Chef, the chef and owner of Stacked Sandwiches and Mama Bird was forced to live in a bubble scenario for eight weeks with 13 other chefs from around the country—and since this season was filmed in Portland, that meant being sequestered away practically within walking distance of his own home.
"It drove me nuts," he says. "I was literally driving by my own apartment every day, just being like, 'I live 10 minutes from this stupid hotel. Why can't I go home and sleep in my own bed?'"
Pascuzzi was joined by Sara Hauman, formerly the executive chef at Arden, now running the kitchen at Soter Vineyards in Carlton, in representing Oregon in one of the strangest iterations of the series yet—one that had to contend not just with a pandemic but nightly social justice protests and, later, historic wildfires.
The first episode premiered last week, and both have already stood out from the pack: Hauman came out on top in the main challenge, wowing the judges (which include Departure chef and show alum Gregory Gourdet) with a grilled quail dressed in an eggplant coconut yogurt, while Pascuzzi's attempts to take the lead in a group challenge chafed against a Tucson taqueria owner.
WW spoke to both contestants prior to the season's debut about the challenges of taking part in Top Chef's "pandemic season," the pressure of competing in their hometown, and whether reality cooking shows are good for the food scene at large.
WW: When it was announced the show was filming in Portland, the reaction seemed to be, "Great, we finally get a Top Chef season, and it's during a time when the food scene is being destroyed." Was it bittersweet for you as contestants participating in the show's "pandemic season"?
Sara Hauman: Of course, the selfish side of me was like, "I love traveling. I want to explore a new city! I'm stuck in my house, but now I'm stuck in Portland!" The other part is that downtown doesn't look pretty. So many restaurants have shuttered. There's lots of places with boarded-up windows, and it doesn't look as beautiful as it usually does. It was mostly just not having people be able to see Portland in the light that it should have.
Gabriel Pascuzzi: There are two ways I look at it. One is that coming out of a pandemic, anything promoting Portland is going to help Portland. Then the other was, yes, it's a pandemic. Not only did it add extra stress to actually competing on the show and extra hoops you had to jump through, but usually on Top Chef, they go around to local restaurants and you get to see a lot of the city. They did a good job of getting around Oregon, but there just weren't places open that we got to visit.
There wasn't just the pandemic to contend with but also the protests and then the wildfires. How did those things permeate the show?
Hauman: We were very much in a tight, tight bubble. With the wildfires, for instance, we were not allowed outside whatsoever. Same with the protests—if there was word that a protest would be out, we would have a curfew and so would the whole production crew.
Is there added pressure being the hometown representatives for the season?
Pascuzzi: I didn't feel that. The one thing I realized once I got on the show was, "Oh shit, I'm not gonna be able to use all these ingredients I'm used to because they're going to hold them for challenges." So the hard part was waiting for these ingredients to come that I know are here, that I know are in season, and just having to, like, cook with other stuff.
Hauman: I'm super type A. I'm a super-perfectionist. I don't think being in Portland put any more pressure on me than I would already put on myself. I am super-stoked to be able to represent Portland and to bring a different style of food than I think a lot of people are expecting, which is nice. And I think even more, I'm super-excited to advocate for being a chef in wine country. Once you step out of that restaurant scene, there's a lot of talk that goes on, like, "Oh, you retired" or "Maybe you can't hack it in a restaurant situation." And that is not the case at all. It's super-important to me that people know, just because you decide to work in a small town, that doesn't make you any less of a chef.
What was the biggest challenge for you personally?
Pascuzzi: I put a bunch of pressure on myself—and I think probably some of the other chefs did, too—because there was just so much unknown, and it was like, "I have to do good on Top Chef so hopefully my restaurants will be OK." You don't want to waste your time there. The longer I got there, I got a little more comfortable, and I felt more in the groove. But definitely for the first couple [episodes], I was probably cooking a little tight, a little tense.
Hauman: The biggest challenge for me was me. I'm incredibly self-deprecating. I've never really been super-confident in my abilities as a chef, and I think in the last handful of years, it's really gotten in my way. I just had a breaking point when I was at Arden, and I just didn't want to be at restaurants anymore. Normal guests would walk in the door, and I could just feel their judgy eyes. I kind of came out of this whole thing having a little bit more kindness toward myself and a lot more confidence, not only in cooking but in life in general.
Are you prepared for the increased attention?
Hauman: I'm still very naive and unconvinced about all the things that are happening right now. I don't watch normal TV, so it's hard for me to even fathom how many people will be watching me. I don't know that I would say that I'm ready. I'm definitely taking it in stride.
Pascuzzi: Gregory Gourdet is a good buddy of mine, and I told him, "I really value my anonymity. I don't want to be a celebrity." The point of going on here is, I enjoy competition and obviously to hopefully increase people coming to the restaurant. But he was like, "Oh no, it's fine. Maybe during the season, people see you and want to talk to you when you're at a restaurant, but beyond that, I do whatever I want, and nobody ever bugs me." And I was like, "OK, cool."
Are cooking competition shows like this good for the restaurant and food world?
Hauman: For a long time I would watch the show and be like, "Why would anyone want to be on that show? They obviously set you up for failure." At the end of the day, it's entertainment, and I think what I personally got from it is so much more than I went in thinking that I was going to get from it.
Pascuzzi: Some of them aren't, but it's universally recognized that Top Chef is the best reality cooking show. I mean, they're great for the industry. It's boosted chef salaries, it's boosted restaurant notoriety, it's created a fervor for people to come to restaurants. Before, we were just kind of in the shadows—the grunts that somehow made magical food appear, and there's a very select few who had a platform. It gives people who aren't uber-famous chefs the ability to have a small platform within their communities.
WATCH: Top Chef Portland airs 8 pm Thursdays on Bravo.