You win some, you lose some.
This week contained a high for one of our two local chefs on this season of Top Chef: Portland and, for the other, a real low point. I won’t say more up front, just in case you wandered onto this recap before watching the episode—although, like, that’s on you.
Tonight’s episode was a celebration of Oregon’s natural bounty, with a mushroom Quickfire, and a surf-and-turf elimination challenge that featured first foods from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Let’s see how the chefs, including Sara Hauman of Soter Vineyards and Gabriel Pascuzzi of Stacked Sandwiches and Mama Bird, fared.
The Quickfire: The studio has been transformed into an indoor woods, complete with an overflowing display of gorgeous mushrooms. Padma comes out with Tom, who rarely judges Quickfires, but who says he loves mushrooms and wants to see what the chefs can do. Padma tells the contestants not to be nervous Tom is there, because he’s a “real fungi.” The commitment to this mom joke is another entry into Padma’s Emmy for-your-consideration clip packet.
Because this is Stumptown, the chefs are given freshly hewn stumps as their only prep station to create their mushroom-forward Quickfires. The ways Top Chef has managed to work in Every. Single. Portland. Cliché. Ever is no longer annoying but impressive. At this point, I’m demanding a free-pile challenge.
Chris, who is tall, winds up chopping on his knees. Another chef waves away a spider that made it onto set.
Gabriel talks about foraging for mushrooms with his father as a child, and makes a seared foie gras with golden chanterelles (his dad’s fave), oyster mushrooms and figs. Sara goes for a chicken of the woods schnitzel that is nicely crispy.
I’m personally a little sad no one made a lobster mushroom lobster roll, but Gabriel is in the top with Dawn and Gabe. He wins, grabbing $10,000—but no immunity.
Elimination Challenge: For the elimination challenge, chefs draw knives and half get a game meat, the other fish. They’re off to Cascade Locks to meet with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, but first they must pair up to create a surf-and-turf combo to serve the judges and guests from the tribes.
Sara and Shota combine their smelt and rabbit. Gabriel and Nelson have steelhead trout and antelope. Maria and Byron go for elk and salmon. Avishar and Chris have deer and sturgeon, and Dawn and Gabe are using bison and catfish.
The big news: It’s a double elimination. The pair with the worst dish will be nixed.
At Cascade Locks, two gorgeously dressed women from the tribes share the story of their first foods, and provide the chefs with additional ingredients the tribe harvested, including duck potato and elderberry. “Go out there with the happiest heart,” one tells them. “Our foods see us, they hear us.”
The chefs also join the sisters who own Brigham Fish Market in Cascade Locks, getting to go down onto the native-owned fishing docks in the Columbia. I am intensely jealous.
Getting into the cooking, Sara shares that she’s a “fish lady” who hopes to own a boutique cannery, and Shota shares their plan to use smelt five ways. “Smelt glaze, smelt crunchies, apple salad with smelt pickle, smelt inside the sesame dressing, smoked smelt,” he says, channeling Bubba from Forrest Gump. “I love smelt.”
There’s all sorts of technique being tossed around by the chefs: a cold smoked salmon with hot smoked elk, and catfish being grilled like unagi. Nelson, who tweaked his knee during the orchard challenge, notes that his pain levels are getting pretty high.
As he and Gabriel are down to the wire, Nelson’s moving slowly, and Gabriel notices that their steelhead is overcooked. He tries to fry up more, but the skin isn’t crisping, and the pair are forced to plate up the overdone fish. Maria capitulates when Byron says they shouldn’t put more green mole on their dish although she thinks it needs it.
Nelson and Gabriel serve up their crispy skin steelhead and antelope with chanterelles and berries, and immediately get clocked for the hammered fish. Tom keeps going on about the albumin in the fish (that white stuff on steelhead and salmon) pushing out the sides. Ick. Maria and Byron are told they needed more mole on the plate.
Sara and Shota draw rapturous praise for serving a smoked smelt crusted rabbit loin, with a smoked smelt and kabocha squash puree and pickled smelt. “I’m loving it,” Tom says, adding that never in a million years has a chef said, “I’m going to coat a rabbit loin in smelt.”
At the judge’s table, Sara and Shota are in the top with Dawn and Gabe who made unagi-style grilled catfish and bison. Gail notes that the preparation on the smelt, which is usually just served fried, also connected with the guests from the tribes, and they win the day.
Tom notes that this is the best food all around this season so far, and the pair going home will have done so making a good dish. The remaining three pairs are all in the bottom, and it’s Gabriel and Nelson who are sent packing thanks to that overcooked steelhead.
The pair return to the waiting chefs, and Maria tells Gabriel that he is a “perfect, lovely asshole, who I really do love.” This is the kind of petty that I am here for.
Cut to a talking head interview, where Gabriel says he doesn’t think he should be going home and he’ll take out as many chefs as need be in Last Chance Kitchen in order to come back.
AND THEN: Tom appears and says that Gabriel and Nelson will be doing a Last Chance Kitchen right meow to get one of them back into the rotation. And that’s the end. Too bad we don’t have any local stereotypes about cliffhangers, amirite?
Episode MVP: The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla. Their welcome prayer to start the meal, their gracious teaching of the chefs about first foods, and sense of humor were all welcome actual reality on reality TV.
Biggest bummer: I wish there was more flexibility in the eliminations. Like, just spring a double elimination on them when two people actually make go-home-worthy dishes.
Richard Blais hair watch: Again, it is very tall, and this time aggressively gelled. Like, it’s got ridges. Perhaps this is some form of tribute to the rocky walls of the Gorge?