It’s the top four, and after a final Quickfire in Portland, it’s goodbye to the city and hello to the Oregon Coast for the final few episodes of Top Chef: Portland.
Only Gabe, Jamie, Shota and Dawn remain, and I want to call out that this is probably the most diverse cast of chefs—and finalists―in Top Chef history. Each one killed it this season, and I’m so happy to see some of my early favorites, namely Shota and Dawn, make it to the end.
The Quickfire: Gregory Gourdet joins Padma in the kitchen, where she calls him the “Culinary Mayor of Portland.” (How about GG for real mayor?) In turn, GG introduces local icon Vitaly Paley, he of Paley’s Place and the pandemic-busted Headwaters and Imperial, where former Top Chef contestant Doug Adams worked when he was picked for the show.
The theme for the Quickfire is the Oregon Trail, the arduous four- to six-month journey from Missouri to the Willamette Valley, and also the Xennial 8-bit computer game where someone always dies of dysentery. (I often put the name of my second-grade nemesis as a member of my wagon party, and then quietly rejoiced when she perished…which was, upon reflection, kind of psychotic.) The chefs are presented with items that the pioneers would have had in their wagons, and in 30 minutes, with no access to the pantry, they must create a modern twist on a trail dish.
The biggest challenges the chefs face in this Quickfire are a lack of cooking oil besides lard, no acid beyond citric acid, and no fresh veggies. Dawn boils dried herring with grains to make a “trail ride” porridge that the judges say is too fishy, and Shota grinds down jerky to cure fresh salmon, which seemed tasty in theory but Paley says is too dry in practice.
Jaime and Gabe are on top, and Jamie’s dish of a pan-seared salmon with walnut pepper sauce wins. She gets an extra 30 minutes to cook during the Elimination Challenge, and also, as she says, a “boost of confidence” that she needed after last week’s emotional elimination, where she tried to sacrifice herself for Maria.
Elimination Challenge: Time to pile into matching red BMW—don’t forget that sponsorship!—and drive to Tillamook, where they’re set to tour the facility, taste our cheese finery, and make a dish featuring cheddar in five different ways.
As they pull up, Shota notes a “fresh smell of umami.” As someone who has been to Tillamook countless times, all I can think is, “That’s the smell of fresh cow shit, Shota.”
We learn Tillamook Cheese fun facts, such as that it produces 160,000 pounds of cheese per day, and that there’s no difference between white and orange cheddars, except that the latter has annatto, a natural dye, added.
Jamie and Shota are put on their heels for this challenge, as Asian cuisine famously does not feature cheese. Shota decides to integrate it into dashi broth, while Jamie decides to just go full fish-out-of-water by making sea bass and cheddar sauce.
Dawn is taking her inspiration from a Philly cheesesteak and starts some ribeye in a sous vide with whey. Gabe is making a play on apples and cheddar. I have made myself physically ill from eating too many cheese curds in one sitting, so I am excited to see him deep fry some, breaded in masa.
Gabe says he’s excited at the idea of becoming the first Mexican American winner of Top Chef, while Dawn talks about feeling like her talents were discounted as a Black woman coming up, and she hopes her win would allow her to help others like her achieve their dreams.
As the end nears, Jamie helps both Shota and Dawn plate their dishes as both cut it super close to the buzzer. Shota is up first, and he makes a tofu cheddar manju—a typically sweet Japanese dumpling—with cheddar dashi, smoked cheddar oil, cheddar tofu miso and a cheddar tuile. Padma says she’s never had anything like it, a sentiment that several others on the panel also share. As someone who has been a food critic for seven years, I can say this is the highest praise: It gets hard to find foods that are both good to eat and new and exciting.
Gabe prays to the cheese gods of Tillamook for success with his cheddar oil braised apples with white cheddar foam, cheese curds, apple bacon cheddar sauce, and a cheese and apple chip. The judges are uniformly wowed by his technique, but say the apple stole the show.
Dawn puts up a cheese oil-braised rib-eye and cheddar gougères with an extra sharp reserve cheddar foam, soubise sauce and a hot cheddar sauce poured over the top. Judge Brooke Williamson doesn’t get a gougères, continuing Dawn’s streak of failing to get all of her elements on the plate. “How do you miss another fucking ingredient on a plate again?” laments Dale Tilde. Others clock the sauce as grainy, but Ed Lee chugs it, saying he loves Dawn’s cooking.
Jamie’s fish and cheese dish…happens. She notes that in helping others, she didn’t get to thin her sauce with broth, and puts up a sea bass with crispy cheddar, cheddar spaetzle, spiced cheese sauce, cheese broth bok choy and pickled cheese curds. The judges say the dish reminds them of why fish and cheese aren’t often paired together.
At the judges deliberation, it’s clearly between Dawn and Jamie to go, and Ed Lee throws down for Dawn, calling her food a “hug.” Shota claims the win and $10,000 from Tillamook—which is approximately my lifetime spending on their cheeses—and is praised for going out of his comfort zone in a big way.
In the end, Jamie is sent home, and her sound effects and finger guns are no more. We’re down to the final three, who are set to go crabbing and clamming next week in what’s likely the penultimate episode of Top Chef: Portland.
Episode MVP: Liam Wustenberg, who has the job title of “Technical Cheese Manager” at Tillamook. It sounds both so scientific and, at the same time, like, it’s a qualifier? Like, technically, he’s the assistant to the regional cheese manager.
Biggest bummer: That there’s only two more episodes left! These recaps are so fun to write! I never told my editor, but I’d have done this for free.
Richard Blais hair watch: It is orange, like the cheese. Richard, if we do not add annatto to your hair gel, is your hair white?