If Top Chef were a multicourse meal, we’re fully into the meat of it. Only a few more episodes remain until we find out who is the winner of Top Chef: Portland—no more amuse bouches like Fred and Carrie. We’re here for tears, drama and finding out who is in the final four.
To start, I’ll go ahead and spoil Last Chance Kitchen, which wrapped up last week. Byron was eliminated in the last episode so he went into the kitchen to cook against Sara Hauman of Carlton, Ore.’s Soter Vineyards, our last hope for a local chef to make it to the finals. But it wasn’t to be: Byron bested Sara, only to be told he had to beat two of three remaining cheftestants in a succession of Quickfires to return to the competition.
Byron, who was understandably wrecked physically and emotionally at that point, did not achieve that goal, and no one returns this season.
The Quickfire: The final five—Maria, Shota, Gabe, Jamie and Dawn—walk in to see a large black box with three doors. My first thought is that it contains three eliminated chefs who will join the Quickfire to rejoin the competition in some sort of double Last Chance Kitchen psych-out…but no. It’s actually a replica of a challenge from Top Chef: France, where pairs of chefs enter a completely darkened room to taste a dish and then attempt to re-create it.
The chefs pair off: Shota with Gabe, Maria with Jamie, while Dawn, who has won the most individual challenges, gets to work with All Star judge Brooke Williamson. Don’t sleep on Dawn, y’all! The first chef goes into the box alone to try and identify the components, then gets 15 minutes to get the ball rolling. The next chef steps in to finish it in another 15 minutes, but the first chef isn’t allowed to talk to them at all. Then, they both get five minutes together to enter the box with the lights on, and try to fix mistakes.
Ah, but who makes the mystery dish, you ask? Well, at first, it’s just the back of a head, with a hint of a neck tattoo. As a longtime member of the “I’m probably going to get gout” elite, I immediately clock our guest Quickfire judge. It’s Gabriel Rucker! He of Le Pigeon and Canard and the youngest granddaddy of new wave Portland cooking!
Natch, he’s made a grilled pigeon with roasted carrots, grilled marinated pear, carrot mustard puree and gribiche—a French sauce of emulsified hard-boiled egg yolks and mustard with herbs and julienned hard-boiled egg whites. (Wanna try gribiche? It’s on the menu at St. Jack, served over white asparagus with chicken skin.)
The chefs step into the box, and it’s really entertaining watching them gnaw away at their plates like bats via the glow of night vision. All chefs identify the pigeon, the carrots and the pear. Dawn nails pistachio and mustard, impressing Rucker, while Shota thinks bacon might be involved.
No one gets the gribiche until the end, when Gabe calls it, but in the end it’s Dawn and Brooke who win the day. There’s no money and no advantage for winning this time, but Dawn seems happy to take the ego boost.
Elimination Challenge: After the Quickfire, the final five are promised a night off, but upon returning to the hotel, they’re met by Kristen Kish and Brooke, who provide them letters and mystery care packages from home.
Three of the five chefs cry reading their letters, from family, former co-workers and friends. Then, they open the boxes, which reveal ingredients their loved ones have chosen for them.
And that’s the challenge: Take what’s in the box and make a dish. The chefs don’t have to use all the ingredients, but it has to be strongly influenced by what’s in it. Jamie gets chicken wings—an ingredient that has landed her in the bottom twice—and says she won’t touch them. Maria gets wings, too, and says it’s because they have Monday wings at her house, which has me looking up adult adoption papers for Arizona.
Dawn’s brother sends along her items, including yams, pork belly and pecans, while Gabe’s wife gives him all the fixings for cochinita pibil, a slow-roasted pork specialty from Yucatán. Gabe clocks the recipe but says he wants to instead go with panuchos, a fried masa street food also popular in Yucatán.
The chefs have 2.5 hours to cook at Scholls Valley Lodge in the Tualatin Valley, and the judges settle in at a picturesque table overlooking it all. The fall air looks crisp, and makes me realize that this was probably filmed about the time we’d all normally be enjoying Feast, and I had feels.
Maria is up first, and she’s made grilled wings with miso and ginger marinade, and a bean sprout salad with tequila and cilantro vinaigrette. Gail notes these are refreshing new flavors for Maria to use, but the group pans the salad as watery.
Jamie’s Thit Ko has braised brisket, with caramelized Thai chile jus and pickled cucumber. Jamie didn’t have enough time to braise the tough brisket for hours, so she used a pressure cooker, admitting that trying to use the appliance was taking her attention away from the other elements in her dish. Gregory Gourdet praises the tender meat, but the group as a whole is unhappy with the rice, with Kristen Kish calling it “lame.”
Shota (my predicted winner) makes a box sent by his parents, and cooks miso-marinated wagyu shoulder with a matsutake puree and a compressed persimmon salad. Words like “delicate,” “beautiful,” “umami” and “creamy” get thrown out, and it’s clear Shota’s in the top.
Gabe’s panuchos feature braised pork and pork skin, kale and pickled red onion. It’s praised as high-art street food. Dale Tilde just simply says, “he’s cooking to win.”
Dawn puts out a pork belly with pecan caramel, collards, sweet potato and red eye gravy. Everyone is in love with this one, too: Kwame calls it a “Michelin star cookout,” but Dawn forgot to put gravy on the plates for Gale and Dale. While missing one plate after injuring herself during last week’s challenge meant she was DQ’d, this week, Dawn lands in the top, alongside Shota and Gabe, despite no gravy for two judges. I’m glad, because Dawn could sntach this $100,000 from Shota pretty easily, but this feels so dang arbitrary!
Anyhoo, Gabe wins and that’s cool, but the real drama of the entire episode comes when Maria is asked to pack her knives and go. Jamie starts sobbing and asking the judges to give Maria a second chance, saying she doesn’t want to leave, but she would for Maria.
Maria, meanwhile, is trying to just GTFO, saying, “This sounds like a Mexican telenovela.” There’s a bit of suspense about who is actually going to stay, but ultimately, Maria hugs Jamie and asks her to “let me pack my knives with grace.”
And with that, the contestant who gave the most emotion and truth exits the stage. Maria, I can’t wait to visit Tucson someday.
Episode MVPs: I’m gonna hand it to Maria’s son, who calls chicken “chimkin” and considers himself a wing connoisseur. If I could guarantee I had a kid like that, I’d look into reproduction. Enjoy your rad mom, chimkin king.
Biggest bummer: The Elimination Challenge seemed a little basic for this far into the season. Though it did a good job of jerking some tears from the contestants, I think they could have pushed the final five a bit further.
Richard Blais hair watch: Blais is holding strong with the wave, but I think the more important note is that he’s an influencer. Melissa King’s side shave with a blowback is getting verrrrry gelled and verrrrry high. She, too, may be playing to win.