After three weeks spent largely in empty hotels and halls, broken up by last week’s tour of some of the city’s best West African and Caribbean restaurants, “Top Chef’s” first Portland season finally took advantage of Oregon’s natural beauty Thursday, with cheftestants heading to the northern flank of Mount Hood to cook a savory dish made with fresh-picked fruit.
Episiode 4 marked more strong performances for the show’s two Portland-area chefs, with Soter Vineyard chef Sara Hauman and Mama Bird owner Gabriel Pascuzzi performing well in the Quickfire and Elimination challenges, respectively. It also featured more awkward product placement, though at least this week’s Campbell’s soup-inspired dishes were more interesting than last week’s Talenti-backed desserts.
Read on to find out what happened in “Top Chef” Episode 4, but be warned: Much as this week’s chefs had to dodge bees while cooking outdoors, anyone wishing to avoid spoilers should pause here.
Quickfire challenge: Look, this is a judgement free zone. So if you found yourself glopping a can of cream of mushroom soup into some tater-topped casserole early in the pandemic … well, we get it. And when host and judge Padma Lakshmi talks about the importance of keeping “our pantries very well stocked” before revealing a cabinet filled with more red-and-white Cambell’s soup cans than an Andy Warhol retrospective, it almost makes sense.
After the requisite Willamette River bridge drone shots, the 12 remaining chefs get to work creating a dish that evokes a food memory, only elevated. “Take us back to that special place, not just classic casseroles and pot pies,” Lakshmi says. The prize for the winner: A cool $10,000. Inexpensive R&D for the Campbell Soup Company is just a byproduct.
“One of the first meals that I made in the pandemic was a cream of mushroom soup, stroganoff-y thing,” Hauman says, designing a “grandma-chic” dish around smoked mushrooms and, impressively for a 30-minute challenge, some scratch-made German spätzle. Pascuzzi, who claims that “in Oregon, they’re always eating chanterelles, chanterelles on anything, everything, all things,” turns to memories of foraging with his father as he prepares his own grilled beef with roasted delicata squash and chanterelles in a miso-madeira pan sauce.
Avishar Barua, a Columbus, Ohio-born chef with Bangladeshi roots, details the famous back story of chicken tikka masala, an Indian fusion dish most likely created in London by a South Asian chef combining tandoori chicken with a can of Cambell’s tomato soup. Barua’s version adds another layer of fusion, riffing on CTM and shrimp toast for his “Chicken Toast Masala.”
Shota Nakajima, one of this season’s most accomplished chefs, has a misstep with his broken mushroom chawan mushi, a Japanese custard, though he downplays the mistake well before the judge’s table. Nelson German’s cod is “hammered,” Lakshmi says. And in a sign of things to come, Kiki Louya’s Swiss chard is undercooked. On the plus side, Gabe Erales had a hit with his own Mexican-influenced fish, while Hauman’s mushroom stroganoff drew praise from Lakshmi, who says she “loved that you made your own spätzle in 30 minutes,” and from guest judge Dale Talde, who says it “reminded me of Thanksgiving dinner with my mother.” In the end, the grilled cheese panzanella with tomato vinaigrette from New Hampshire chef Chris Viaud, who had struggled early on with two bottom-3 finishes in Elimination challenges already, won the judges over (and $10,000 along the way).
“Now let’s move on to something that will definitely throw you for a loop,” Lakshmi says, delivering a line that could launch a thousand eye rolls. Lakshmi explains that Oregon’s fruit loop “is a 30-mile scenic route through the Hood River Valley” (“and I’m not talking about the cereal,” Lakshmi adds). When the show filmed here last fall, orchards were filled with “peaches, apples and a variety of pears,” Lakshmi tells us. Instead of ordering online from Whole Foods, chefs will pick their fruit directly from the trees, then cook a savory dish with no vegetables.
The chefs head east in a four-car convoy of red BMWs to Mt View Orchard, a picturesque fruit farm between Hood River and Mount Hood. “Now I understand why people want to live in Oregon,” Louya says, marveling at the views. And boy are those views picturesque, particularly the shots of a sun-dappled Mount Hood that almost look like painted backdrops from an old Hollywood movie.
Chefs arrive, jog out to the orchards, pick fruit, then return to their stations where they have to deal with a breeze and the occasional bee. Pascuzzi, who has been given the “Big Ego” edit by the show’s producers, gets the “Homer Simpson” treatment this week.
“Ow, son of a! I got stung by a bee,” Pascuzzi exclaims, dancing and dodging away from the invisible (to us) insects. ”Come on, bro, you already got me once today!”
He manages to soldier on, and continues his so-far successful strategy of keeping things simple, topping three nicely shucked kumamoto oysters with a trio of fruit-based mignonettes. Hauman, meanwhile, decides to craft an attractive dish from shrimp, quinoa and little curls of apple that might look familiar to fans of her work at the Pearl District’s Arden.
Head judge Tom Colicchio chats with his former employee Pascuzzi, then warns Louya that her counter-top fryer might not have enough juice to deep fry her wings, suggesting grilling them instead. That’s what we call foreshadowing, kids.
After presenting her dish, which Hauman describes as “lightly grilled shrimp, with quinoa, apples, plums and peaches…some different sauces in there.”
“What’s your purple sauce?” asks Gregory Gourdet, the former Top Chef contestant and owner of the upcoming Portland Haitian restaurant Kann. who is serving as a recurring guest judge this season.
“Roasted plums, sesame oil, peanut butter and, of course, yogurt,” Hauman says, noting an ingredient that has appeared in several of her dishes so far.
“Peanut butter?” Gourdet says with a smile.
Guest judge Melissa King argues Hauman’s dish had too much going on sauce-wise. Back outside, Hauman wonders aloud whether Gourdet’s question “was a good thing or a bad thing.” In the end, Hauman’s dish lands in the middle of the pack.
Pascuzzi’s oysters, meanwhile, represent the Portland chefs third top-3 finish so far, with Colicchio crediting the dish’s success to the “attention to detail.” Viaud’s seared scallop with peach butter, smoked and seared plums, pickled pink pearl apples and grapes also draws praise. Between the Quickfire and Elimination challenges, Episode 4 has been a nice turn around for the New Hampshire chef. The best dish of the night goes to Erales, who transformed gently smoked and glazed plums into the centerpiece of a dish with a mole-inspired gravy of fruit juice, chicken and pork. Even Nakajima, whose cold salmon nanban with sour apple sauce and duck fat crumbles had some successful elements, acknowledged that Erales’ dish was better.
When will these chefs learn their lesson — never cook risotto on “Top Chef!” Unless you’re a true master of the form, there’s rarely enough time to cook it well, and the judges love nothing more than picking bad versions apart.
Barua absorbs this commandment in real time, following up his bland rice from Episode 1 with a risotto that A) failed to incorporate much fruit, B) had too much bacon flavor and C) was somehow undercooked and mushy at once. German has another misfire, overwhelming scallops with a rich, heavy Béarnaise. But it was Louya’s apple-glazed chicken wings, which arrived half raw, that had her packing her knives.
“Undercooked chicken, you can’t get past it,” Colicchio says. “We’ll see you in Last Chance Kitchen.”
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— Michael Russell, email@example.com, @tdmrussell