I watch a lot of TV. And in many shows, the penultimate episode is the one to watch. It’s got the “when Jamie and Cersei die in a collapsing castle” energy—The “this is really the end, but there’s one more episode” energy.
Not here, folks. In the second-to-last episode of Top Chef: Portland (now at sea!), it’s kinda-good vibes only. We’re just waiting for next week’s finale.
The Quickfire: The episode starts out with Dawn still smarting over the fact that she’s struggled from day one with getting all of her components on every plate.
But there’s no time to ruminate, because at 5 am, Padma comes a-knockin’ at the doors of the chefs’ rooms at the Surfsand Inn in Cannon Beach. It’s a clam call: Dawn, Gabe and Shota are headed to Netarts Bay to go clamming with All Stars winner Brooke Williamson.
Brooke tells them about the huge variety of clams that live in these here flats, and they get to digging. I, too, go clamming at Netarts. In fact, I recently showed someone my Oregon shellfish license instead of my vaccination card. NBD.
They all get arm deep in the mucky sand, and bring their harvest home to cook a dish that features their clammy catch. The chefs are cooking on the patio of their rooms at the hotel, aided by a pantry set up out there, too. (Note: They’re using Morton’s Salt instead of Jacobsen’s, which is also harvested in Netarts Bay, and I really feel like sponsorship money talks.)
Shota cuts open his hand, and he’s chopping clams one-handed as a medic bandages him up. Dawn says she hasn’t learned clam anatomy. Gabe? He’s cool.
And sure enough, Gabe wins his first Quickfire with a “Sopa de Mariscos” of poached gaper clams and butter clams in the broth. He’s praised for getting a depth of flavor in such a short time. And that’s the last Quickfire of the season, people.
Elimination Challenge: For the penultimate Elimination Challenge, Top Chef alumni Nina Compton and Kwame Onwuachi arrive to stand in the rain and tell the chefs that this week is a salute to Portland native and food world titan James Beard. Specifically, they’ll all be headed to Kelly’s Brighton Marina to catch Dungeness crab and serve two dishes—one hot, one cold—that feature Beard’s favorite crustacean.
They’ll catch the crabs, then head to Astoria Co-op to shop—Dawn and Shota get $300, while Gabe gets $400 for winning the Quickfire—before heading home to Cannon Beach. Doing the math, they’re going a half-hour south to catch crabs, driving a full hour-plus north to get to the store, then almost 40 minutes back south to the inn. Hope those BMWs got extended mileage on their leases.
At Kelly’s the chefs are joined by none other than Portland food mayor Gregory Gourdet, and they motor off to catch their bounty. They’re having great luck. It’s unclear exactly which month this was, but it’s fully fall, and those fellas are in season. As GG shows off a crab, it clamps onto his finger, hard. This reminds me of a time when I was pinched while crabbing as a child, and my grizzly step-aunt, cigarette in mouth, ripped off the offending crab’s leg while it was still alive, saying, “Now you know which one you’ll eat.” I think about this a lot.
Back in Cannon Beach for the night, Gabe and Shota enjoy a nice sunset stroll near Haystack Rock, and then all three of them talk about being friends forever. Aw.
The next day, the chefs have two hours to prep their dishes and serve their cold dish, then one more hour to finish up their hot crab dish. Alice Waters, she of Chez Panisse in Oakland fame, Zooms in to talk about her memories of James Beard and reminds them to focus on the crab.
In the first round, Shota promised crab nigiri two ways, but his ume rice doesn’t come out and he’s forced to just put one nigiri on the plate. He throws a spoon and is the maddest I’ve ever seen him. But it’s a good-looking piece of sushi: crab with yuzu kosho that he lightly flamed. Naomi Pomeroy, PDX legend, joins this panel, and she says she forgives that it’s just one bite because it’s so good.
Dawn puts up a Dungeness crab salad with cashew soup and pickled oyster mushrooms. The judges ding the garnish for taking away from the overall execution. Gabe serves Dungeness crab and lobster mushrooms, with crab stock and avocado yogurt. The judges are a bit miffed the broth is still warm for this cold round, but they love how much it expresses fall in the PNW.
For the hot course, Shota is back in control of his game, while both Gabe and Dawn are battling the clock. Gabe, who is making crab fat tortillas (yes please), accidentally melts the napkin he’s using to keep them warm onto one of them, so he’s down a tortilla. Dawn, who is making a twist on a crab boil, is so excited to serve her potatoes with the crab, but then forgets to put the tubers on the plate at all. Her plates are also super splattered with the broth, as she didn’t have time to wipe the edges.
Gabe serves his “Mole Coloradito” crab in seafood stock with sunchokes and the aforementioned crab fat tortilla. The judges are immediately divided about the sunchokes: Some find them too bitter, others think they were perfect.
Shota puts up a braised purple daikon with Dungeness crab salad, soy and sherry vinaigrette and persimmon. Shota says it’s a play on the braised daikon you can grab at any Japanese 7-Eleven. The judges go gaga for its restraint. It’s super balanced even without using a ton of acid or fat, they say.
Dawn puts down her un-potatoed plates, convinced she’s going to go home. Instead, the judges are acting like that scene in Spirited Away when Chihiro’s parents eat the enchanted food and turn into pigs—specifically, kind of unhinged. They’re dabbing sauce off one another’s faces, licking their fingers down to the second knuckle, and Tom bites into the body of a Dungeness crab without taking the meat out of the shell. Readers, I am screaming. This is not Maryland soft-shell territory, sir!
So in the end, they’re all up at the judge’s table and Shota is the clear winner, despite serving just one piece of sushi in the first course. And even though Gabe and Dawn didn’t finish their plates fully either, the whole happy fam is headed to next week’s finale! Can’t wait.
Episode MVPs: Dawn, for not slapping that celebratory bottle of Argyle champers out of Gabe’s hand when he shook it and then sprayed her first. Dawn did not indicate she wanted to be sprayed, and she is also not a boat waiting to be christened. #godawn #beatgabe
Biggest bummer: Honestly? Only good vibes on this episode. No bummers, though I’m still processing Tom’s method of eating crab.
Richard Blais hair watch: Richard’s vermillion crest was no match for the mighty Pacific leering through the picture windows behind him. It fell into a softened crest, with part of it cascading down the right side of his head in submission.