My fingers are sore from jotting down the approximately eleventy billion dishes cooked in this episode, my tummy is hungry for some Ota Tofu, and my heart is ready to find out who wins this season of Top Chef: Portland.
We’re down to the final six, who had an immense amount of cooking to do this episode, thanks to both a Quickfire and a tournament-style Elimination Challenge. With just a precious few episodes of Portland’s time in the Top Chef spotlight left, let’s make it count.
The Quickfire: Who wants $10,000 from Chipotle?! (Meeeeee! I spent so much time and caloric intake there in college!) It’s a rare appearance from the judges trio—Padma, Gail and Tom—joined by Richard “The Hair” Blais.
In the studio there are oodles of fresh ingredients used in Chipotle burritos, and Maria, who never misses an opportunity to tell us that she cooks Mexican food and it is delicious, is stoked.
The contestants draw knives, with two chefs cooking for either Padma, Tom or Gail. To determine the winner, Blais will pick his favorite of the three winners.
Gabe and Jamie are cooking for Gail, who wants something smoky and charred. Byron and Dawn draw Tom, who wants a tangy and crunchy dish, while Maria and Shota are tasked with making a spicy and tart plate for Padma.
Shota is all like, “I am screwed, I am completely in Maria’s forte,” and sets about blackening peppers over flame. Meanwhile, Byron, who says he has the “pedigree” to win this challenge, sets his pork fully aflame by forgetting he put it on the grill.
At the judges’ table, Shota and Maria are up first, and Padma is surprised to find Shota’s pork loin with spicy avocado puree is “scalp-tingling spicy,” and Maria is even more surprised to find she loses to him. Oooooooof.
Dawn also pulls a W, since Gabe carbonized his protein, and Gabe takes the favor of Tom. Blais proclaims Dawn’s wood-fired pork loin with crispy fried onions and potato and avocado puree the winner of that sweet burrito cash.
Elimination Challenge: I’m so excited! We get a tour of Ota Tofu, the oldest operating tofu maker in the country, located right here in Southeast Portland. Top Chef: Texas contestant Ed Lee joins as a judge, and we’re set for a tournament of tofu, with three head-to-head brackets of all things soybean.
The losers in each bracket will cook in the next, going from six to three to a final two. Since the chefs don’t know if they’ll win, they have to plan and prep for the possibility of each round.
There’s not much time for exposition, or for the chefs to prepare. They’re given two and a half hours the night before, and will have 30 minutes before each round to pull their plates together.
In the first round, the chefs are asked to draw knives and pair off to compete against each other. Dawn and Gabe draw knives telling them they’ll work with firm tofu, while Byron and Jamie are making dishes with extra firm tofu. And in a twist of the knife, Maria and Shota are repeating their Quickfire duel while making medium tofu dishes. Those headed to the second round must cook with fried tofu, and the final two will make a dessert out of silken tofu.
Now Maria is the one who’s rattled: Tofu is Shota’s wheelhouse, not hers. He “uses tofu like I use lime and chile,” she notes. Dawn is also feeling confident, as she cooked at Uchi and Uchiko in Austin. (Humblebrag: I just ate at Uchi last week and it is very good.)
As they prep, Shota is putting all of his soybeans in one basket, making a first-round dish he hopes is good enough to keep him out of the following rounds, while Gabe, who is less confident, is splitting his efforts between all three tofu dishes.
On game day, the judges panel and cooking stations are set up in the Portland Japanese Garden, and honey, our city is showing the fuck off. It’s a perfect sunny day, the mountain is out, and the garden is looking glorious.
Maria’s tofu tamales aren’t cooking, so she unwraps them and throws them in a wok. She and Shota serve first, with her soy-braised tofu tamales with masa and soybeans going up against his soy-braised tofu, soy milk with uba, shira ae and tofu crumbles. The 10-member panel votes for their favorite, and it’s...a tie. Is this Maria’s chance to Freaky Friday and take out Shota in his culinary playground after he beat her in the Chipotle Quickfire?
The judges retreat behind closed Shoji doors to deliberate. Tom is on the side of Shota, and they emerge to declare him the victor.
Up next are Gabe and Dawn, who also tie. Ultimately, Gabe’s marinated and braised firm tofu triumphs over Dawn’s West Indian-style brown stew tofu. Again, Tom is on Gabe’s side, and I can’t help but feel like Gregory Gourdet, Kristen Kish and Kwame all standing on Dawn’s side means hers was the better of the two.
Finally, Jamie makes Vietnamese bánh xèo (turmeric crepes) with sauteed extra firm tofu and herbs, blowing Byron’s dish away nine votes to one. Ed Lee notes that he could eat a dozen of them, and I want to as well.
In the fried tofu round, it’s Dawn, Byron and Maria. As Dawn mandolins some radishes for her Buffalo fried tofu, she slices her finger, bleeding into some of her plates. Byron and Maria rally to help her finish, but she ican only put up nine plates, and Padma says she’s disqualified. That’s bullshit in this case, I think. Maria wins, so it’s Byron and Dawn in the dessert final.
Dawn is improvising, while Byron seems to have more of a plan. Still, the two prepped nearly the same ingredients the night before, and they make nearly identical soft tofu bowls, using mango and okara (soy pulp), and a crunchy element. (Her: a sesame okara crumble. Him: granola.)
As the judges deliberate, the group gathers by a waterfall and offer tearful, kind words to each other and talk about how much they’ll miss everyone. Excellent use of waterfall as a visual metaphor for the waterworks, Bravo producers.
Blais calls Dawn’s dessert a “textural wonderland” (which really is too much John Mayer vibes for my taste), and she wins. Byron is off to Last Chance Kitchen.
Episode MVPs: Maria and Byron for stepping in to help Dawn when she injured herself. The queens in my true fave reality show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, often say, “This isn’t RuPaul’s best friend’s race.” But darn it if this li’l competition isn’t a bit of a love fest (especially now that Gabriel is gone).
Biggest bummer: Completely disqualifying Dawn for slicing her finger and missing one out of 10 plates was stupid. Ed Lee tried to raise his paddle for her in protest, and I think if she had managed to still get the most votes while down a plate, she should have been a contender.
Richard Blais hair watch: Of course, this week I can’t not reference Hokusai’s famous The Great Wave woodblock, especially since The Weird History Podcast host Joe Streckert so aptly put it to me on Twitter: “I would not be surprised if a tiny yet majestic surfer were to appear on Richard Blais’ hair, riding that righteous wave.” It’s not a haiku, Joe, but it’s still poetry.