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“Top Chef: Portland,” Episode 8 Recap: War Games

Due to COVID, there are definitely changes to the usual, bustling, build-a-whole-new-restaurant-from-scratch part, but it still manages to deliver high drama and heartbreak.


This is why we’re watching Top Chef, baybee. This is one of the most iconic challenges in reality TV!

Due to COVID, there are definitely changes to the usual, bustling, build-a-whole-new-restaurant-from-scratch part, but Episode 8 still manages to deliver high drama and heartbreak.

Let’s move on from the amuse bouche to the main course, eh?

Elimination Challenge: There’s no time for a Quickfire this week—we’re down to Restaurant Wars business. The chefs roll into the Redd on Salmon Building and are greeted by Padma, former contestant Kristen Kish and two-time Top Chef fave (and local) Gregory Gourdet.

The chefs will be hosting a seven-course chef’s table tasting menu for all of the season’s All-Star judges. Noting that Portland was named following a coin toss, Padma says the teams will be chosen “Portland style,” or by coin flip. We get Jamie, Shota, Maria and Byron on one team, and Sara (our remaining Portland representative), Dawn, Chris and Gabe on the other. Shota says he thinks the other team has more skill, but his is the “party team.”

Both teams seem to work fairly well in establishing courses and a theme: Jamie, Shota, Maria and Byron choose a kaiseki (a traditional multicourse Japanese dinner) and name it Kokoson, a blend of the Japanese and Spanish words for heart.

Sara, Dawn, Gabe and Chris decide on a seafood schtick, and they name it Penny, in honor of the coin toss. I’m already worried, as Portland has a cursed record with high-end seafood restaurants.

They’re off to shop in person, heading to the Portland Mercado, Uwajimaya, Flying Fish Co., Laurelhurst Market and (duh) Whole Foods. A few chefs also head to The Side Yard Farm, where they pull their ingredients from the ground. (”I know her!” I kept saying, once again, seeing these awesome spots get a B-roll montage.)

Now, sometimes Top Chef’s editors do a good job of making us think that one team is doing well, only to pull the switcheroo at the judge’s table, but this edit establishes that team Penny is not doing so hot from the jump.

While Kokoson nails the plan for Maria and Byron to act as chef’s table hosts as well as cook, Penny decides on a no-plan plan for who is going to make sure Padma, Tom and Co. get their Pelligrino topped off. Additionally, several of Dawn’s teammates note she isn’t doing a good job of communicating what she’s actually cooking, making their discussion about cohesion difficult.

The new format makes flatware and decoration easy, but there’s an added challenge that the chefs are being watched by the whole judge’s panel.

Up first is Kokoson, and I’ll put all of the dishes here for the real nerds:

  1. Shota and Maria make a Japanese eggplant with sesame mole and ham furikake. The judges love this. I now only want to try ham furikake before I die.
  2. Byron and Jamie serve a sockeye salmon crudo with rocoto curry sauce. The judges think it’s pretty OK, but maybe too spicy for a second course.
  3. Maria makes a lengua sando with a clarified dipping broth. Tom calls it fun, like foreplay should be. I am normally very adverse to making “food = sex” comparisons, but I’m here for a glimpse into Colicchio’s sheets.
  4. Shota crafts a lotus root and shiso tempura with rockfish ume paste. Judges again dig it.
  5. Jamie, who says she gets nervous being watched while she cooks, still pulls out an acceptable short rib with puffed rice. This is also when the judges take special time to acknowledge Maria for being so hospitable and warm.
  6. This one’s a team effort, a hot pot with shrimp machaca and seafood broth. This one was the best blending of the team’s Asian and Hispanic backgrounds, and was served family style with dancing bonito flakes on top. It’s lauded as a bowlful of flavor, and I can’t help but be beat over the head with the melting pot symbolism of it all.
  7. Jamie and Byron make a steamed tres leche cake with pineapple compote. It is well received.

After being dazzled by Kokoson, the judges hike to the other side of the building to see what Penny has cooked up. They’re given points for palo santo-scented warm towels, and a special non-alcoholic drink for Gregory, but it falls apart from there.

Gabe trots out an amuse bouche that’s huge, on a stale-tasting tortilla with chewy raw oyster. The courses are as follows:

  1. Dawn, who vaguely says for most of the day she’s making crab and caviar, pulls it together as a warm crab salad with a johnnycake. It’s beloved, especially after the weirdo tostada.
  2. Sara makes a halibut with ajo blanco (a white sauce primarily made of bread, garlic and almonds) with confit green tomatoes and fresh red cherry tomatoes. As one judge sees her plate with a white sauce, he says he hopes it’s yogurt, and I guess maybe it should have been, because they hate this one. “This dish is like a Grateful Dead concert: It needs acid,” quips Tom, going full dad joke.
  3. Dawn is back with a scallop with tasso ham and a Creole XO sauce. Melissa King says she’s jealous she didn’t come up with it. It’s about here where the judges really start to clock that it’s super awkward up in this chef’s table—none of them are coming to visit, and they’re all very tense as they work.
  4. Sara serves a salmon skin with pak choi. It is…fine, though a few of the judges ask where the whole piece of fish went.
  5. Chris is up next with a shrimp-filled pasta with tomato broth. Chris, who got dinged for bad pasta in a previous episode, doesn’t redeem himself. The judges are starting to realize there’s no real thought to the coursing, and they’re getting mad. GG says: “It’s like they came up with a concept and said, ‘We’re just going to make our own dish.’”
  6. Gabe makes a charred octopus with mole verde. Kish says it’s too bitter. Dawn and Sara debate going over to talk to the judges, but say it’s too awkward. King says she feels uncomfortable even being there.
  7. Chris makes a kelp ice cream with hazelnuts, cocoa nib and meringue. It’s the best dish they make, and Dale Tilde orders a second bowl, despite this being the 14th course he’s eaten that night. I appreciate this about him.

It’s clear who is in the bottom: Tom notes they went to a seafood-themed restaurant and didn’t get served a good piece of fish.

Following the critique, it’s also clear that Gabe and Sara are in the hot seat. The judges haaaated that halibut, and Gabe’s bizarre amuse bouche was also not a favorite. In the end though, they send Sara home. (I disagree! Dawn didn’t keep the team filled in on the fact her dish would be warm, which made Sara’s raw dish seem out of order! Gabe didn’t even make a second real course but still didn’t help with the hosting duties!)

Maria wins for team Kokoson, and is praised for her homey approach and her awesome plates. It’s so good to see Maria, who literally cooks with her heart on her sleeve, win with Kokoson, a restaurant named for heart.

Episode MVP: Maria truly deserved the victory, and I’ve been waiting to see it. But I think Shota’s kaiseki experience and cool head was what low-key kept that group on track.

Biggest bummer: Duh. Bring back Sara, you cowards!

Richard Blais hair watch: It’s well coiffed in a formal swoop, but Blais’ hair is truly outshined by GG’s shiny silk gold shirt and chains. I am a magpie and it’s all I could look at, besides the food.

Other thoughts: Next week promises a visit from Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein of Portlandia infamy. Between having no local chefs left and these two on, can I skip an episode?