He who smelt it, dealt it
Welcome to Top Chef, Not Top Scallop, the world’s greatest Top Chef recap blog. This is a review of Top Chef: Portland, episode 6. My name is Randall Colburn and I am going to make fun of Richard Blais a lot. Read last week’s recap here and my latest LCK recap here.
Imagine watching this season of Top Chef after only watching its earliest seasons. This is a franchise that was constructed upon white linen, and its early settings — New York, L.A., Las Vegas, Chicago — made it easy to highlight anointed chefs and the $80 plates they dished up at their Michelin-starred restaurants. The series has evolved with food trends, slowly embracing farm-to-table and rustic fare and building entire challenges around the taste-altering gels and foams of nerds like Nathan Myhrvold and Wylie Dufresne. What the series has mostly refused to reckon with, however, is the origins of the food its chefs are tasked with elevating — the impact of immigrant and indigenous communities on the evolution of American flavors. There will always be a place for the Daniel Bouluds, Hubert Kellers, and Dominique Crenns on Top Chef, but, as the series has ventured out of America’s major metropolises, so, too, has it shined a light on the unheralded innovators of whatever the hell it is “American cuisine” actually is. (This is clearly a topic that’s important to Padma, as her Hulu show, Taste The Nation, is built around that very question. I reviewed it for The A.V. Club last year.)
A few weeks ago, Top Chef shined a light on small business owners specializing in Pan-African cuisine, which has only surfaced on Top Chef in recent seasons, and this week they allow the tribal members and leaders of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation to showcase their harvest. When you see dishes like fufu and ingredients like duck potatoes, it serves as a reminder of how often we saw halibut and scallops cooked over and over again in those early seasons. Top Chef’s always been good about showing how food is interwoven with identity, but only in recent years has it really been able to interrogate food’s relationship to culture. As such, these episodes have been emotional. “Because you cooked our food, our food knows who you are now,” says one of the Umatilla elders. “You’ve honored us today.” That’s a perspective I’ve never heard articulated in such a way. You don’t get that from Eric Ripert or Hugh Acheson after they eat some tagliatelle.
Tom is the guest judge for the Quickfire, which features a great challenge and a stupid gimmick. Because mushrooms are abundant in Oregon, the chefs are given a bounty of chanterelles, truffles, and king boletes and tasked with making a shroom-forward dish. And, because Portland is nicknamed Stumptown, they must do so atop on a fake tree stump. This is some Gordon Ramsey/Cutthroat Kitchen shit. If I wanted challenges like this, I’d turn on Guy’s Grocery Games.
Blais strolling into creative to pitch the stump idea:
The chefs are also (soft of?) encouraged to incorporate Better Than Bouillon cubes. If they want, I guess?
When Tom says he’s got some Better Than Bouillon cubes you can use:
When he says Better Than Bouillon will give the winner $10,000:
There’s some drama over the crowded fryers and a lack of space in the wood fire oven, especially with Dawn and Gabriel. (Gabriel, nobody’s favorite cheftestant, sinks some shrooms in Sara’s basket and she adorably attempts to curse them with an oily taste.) It’s much ado about nothing, though, as they both end up on top, her for some wood fire roasted mushrooms with a chili tarragon vinaigrette and him for a seared foie with white chanterelle, oyster mushrooms, and herbs. (Gabe, too, is celebrated, presumably for working that bouillon into his mushroom tortilla.)
It’s Gabriel’s that wins, however, with Tom lauding its on-point seasoning and “pop of acid.” Gabriel, the bouillon bucks are yours, young man. We hope you enjoy being part of the Better Than Bouillon family of products.
On the bottom is Nelson and Chris, who buried their mushrooms in crab and crust, respectively, and Byron, who Tom says needs to “check his salt.”
Also: lol at the panic in Padma’s eyes when she realizes she shouldn’t have eaten Maria’s cabbage bowl like a wrap.
A unique type of terror, that. Especially when people are looking at you. And they always are. (Love Padma’s Gloria Steinem sunnies.)
Dale is the featured judge of the elimination challenge. After drawing knives, the chefs find themselves with five game proteins and five breeds of local fish. It’s a surf and turf challenge, and, after teaming up in ways that best complement their product, they’ll learn about some of the region’s “first foods” from indigenous locals and incorporate those into the dish.
Here’s how things shake out:
Gabriel/Nelson: Steelhead trout and antelope
Sara/Shota: Smelt and rabbit
Byron/Maria: Salmon and elk
Chris/Avishar: Sturgeon and deer
Dawn/Gabe — Catfish and bison
Some pairings are more natural than others, and the stakes are extra high as the chefs are staring down a double elimination. Maria, speaking to the difficulty of the challenge and the pressure of the axe, says it’s like “walking barefoot on Legos, sitting on a cactus with an elephant on your shoulders.” All of that sounds painful, yes, but have you ever walked while also sitting? Squat walks are hell, man.
The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation consist of three tribes, per its website, the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla. And, as they note in the episode, the tribes signed a treaty with the U.S. government in 1855 that reserves their right to fish, hunt, and gather on unclaimed lands. At Cascade Locks, the chefs get introduced to some of their ingredients, which include a number of roots and berries, as well as duck potatoes, which they say was just harvested on this land for the first time in more than 100 years. (More on duck potatoes here.)
It becomes pretty clear once they begin cooking that Gabriel and Nelson are doomed. Nelson’s knees have been bothering him since the Fruit Loop challenge, and Gabriel doesn’t seem all that keen to unite their dishes in any innovative way. Surf and turf, in his words, is about the individual components being good on their own. If that’s the case, then the dish as a whole will be good. Maybe so, but that’s not the approach the rest of the chefs are taking. Sara and Shota (#TeamTiny) are unified in their belief that the smelt will serve to elevate the rabbit, while Chris discusses using mushrooms as a bridge between he and Avishar’s seared sturgeon and venison croquette.
“There was just no real point of view on the plate,” Gail says of their dish at judge’s table. “It was as if they were being really polite to each other.” (Gabriel? Polite?!)
Similarly, #TeamTiny’s infectious enthusiasm (Sara calls the dish “kinda weird but super cool”) made it hard to imagine anyone else coming out on top. Their concept, after all, is weird — Sara crusted the rabbit loin in smelt, then Shota went nuts on the rest of the fish by melting, smoking, crunching, and pickling it.
Me when someone says “smelt five ways”:
Creativity is obviously what the judges were looking for, and that makes sense when you’re working with such humble ingredients. Gabe, for example, chose to eschew the tried and true method of frying catfish by cooking it like you would eel — leaving the skin on so it gets super crispy.
Let’s look at the winners:
Gabe and Dawn’s bison tenderloin with catfish and pumpkin seed mole
Kwame: “Crispy-skinned catfish, huh?”
Amar: “That mole brought the proteins together into one bite.”
Tom: “There’s a nice earthiness to it, too, from the seeds.”
Kwame: “The cooking technique on the catfish is brilliant. This is a chef who knows how to balance flavors.”
Padma: Both proteins were delicious, were cooked perfectly.
Tom: “I thought the fruit on the bison, working with the mole, was a great combination.”
Sara and Shota’s smoked smelt-crusted rabbit loin with smoked smelt kabocha squash puree and pickled smelt
Sara: “We wanted to keep it super simple and highlight the two surf and turf dishes. That’s it.”
Dale: “You’re lying. It was not a simple dish. There was so much technique behind that.”
Gail: “The color is sort of jarring. I keep thinking it’s mustard.”
Tom: “I’m loving this dish. In a million years would you ever think, ‘I’m gonna coat a rabbit loin in smelt.’”
Gail: “You did something very unusual, actually. Because, when we spoke to our guests, they say that they usually just fry it. So seeing you take the smelt and use it on the rabbit, like the smelt was the seasoning, connected with them as well.”
Tom: “Being able to execute that was just amazing to watch. It really was.”
(Do Top Chef fans ship? Because, if they do, I imagine they’re shipping Sara and Shota right about now.)
And here’s the losers, which is only true in the technical sense since, as Tom pointed out, nobody biffed it on this challenge.
Byron and Maria’s elk with green mole, duck potato puree, and smoked salmon
Dale: “When I heard elk and salmon, I thought that’s one of the harder combinations. So I thought they did this very well.”
Gail: “You clearly took to heart the things you were taught yesterday.”
Tom: “That smoked salmon was a great component to tie it together.”
Gail: “I thought this was a beautiful start. I wish it had a little more green mole. It kind of gets lost in the rest of the dish.”
Chris and Avishar’s grilled sturgeon with venison and duck potato croquette, mushroom puree, pickled chanterelles, and sturgeon caviar
Gregory: “Chris’ croquette, the breading is really light. The duck potato made this filling really creamy.”
Gail: “I’m not sure if I would’ve gone for grilling the sturgeon. It’s a little dry on the outside.”
Dale: “I think a sauce would’ve helped tie this together.”
Tom: “Definitely more sauce.”
Gabriel and Nelson’s crispy skin steelhead trout with antelope, chanterelles, and berries
Tom: “I liked the bitterness of the dandelion green and I thought the puree was really flavorful, but the steelhead was cooked too hard. You’ve gotta be gentle with it.”
Padma: “[The dandelion green] gave you something different than an animal product.”
Tom: “In an attempt to crisp up the skin, the albumins on the side of the fish were coming out.”
Padma: “I thought the trout was really overcooked, too.”
Gail: “I wish I’d gotten more of the berries.”
Dale: “Gabriel and Nelson’s antelope might’ve been the best piece of cooked meat, but it might be negated by poorly cooked steelhead.”
Gabriel and Nelson are axed, but they go straight from the judge’s table to Last Chance Kitchen, with the winner returning next week. If Gabriel doesn’t return, he received the perfect send-off from Maria: “Gabriel, you;’re a perfect, lovely asshole that I love.”
- LOVED Maria chiding Byron for being a “rule follower when it comes to cooking.” Always love when this show ventures into the technique vs. soul argument that tends to arise between those who went to culinary school and those who didn’t.
- Chris does have a calming voice, doesn’t he? Avishar didn’t come here to make friends, but Chris’ calming voice has soothed his stony heart.
- Sara is a “fish lady” who especially loves “small fish” and her dream is to open a “boutique cannery.” She is the best.
- I just want to say that I love the chefs are always the ones driving whenever they go anywhere in the BMWs or whatever. Been the case throughout the whole series. Never change. I love to watch chefs drive.
- New Tom hat alert:
- Next time on Top Chef: Jose Andres swings by (virtually) and the ecstatic response to the Last Chance Kitchen winner makes me think it isn’t Gabriel.