The “Top Chef” season based in Portland continued Thursday with an episode that combined an awkwardly obvious product-placement Quickfire challenge, and a far more serious-minded look at food from the African diaspora, with visits to Portland-area restaurants and food carts specializing in cuisine with roots in West Africa, Jamaica, Haiti and Guyana.
Despite the tonal swerve from fairly silly to substantial, the episode highlighted the wide-ranging impact of Pan African cuisine, its resonance with several of this season’s chefs, and the fact that this cooking doesn’t always receive the kind of attention it merits.
Here are highlights from Episode 3 of “Top Chef” Season 18. Spoilers are coming up, so if you haven’t watched yet, and want to be surprised, you know what to do.
Quickfire challenge: Along with making risotto in a limited amount of time, dessert challenges are notoriously tricky territory for “Top Chef” competitors. This week, host and judge Padma Lakshmi and guest judge, “Top Chef” veteran Carrie Baird, asked the remaining 13 chefs to prepare desserts that featured at least three layers of flavor. That detail was inspired by Talenti Gelato, a brand specializing in frozen desserts with lots of – you guessed it – layers.
The clunky product placement of it all was followed by the chefs trying to whip up something that could win them both immunity in the elimination challenge, and a very tasty $10,000 prize.
With 45 minutes to work, we saw some of the chefs taking chances, including Sara Hauman, the other Portland-area chef competing this season, who made cream puffs with grilled strawberries.
Avishar Barua, proclaiming himself “Avishar the Science Guy,” brought out what looked like liquid nitrogen, as he was engulfed in a mighty puff of vapor.
Chris Viaud prepared something he called “The Ore-GONE Trail,” achieving the distinction of being the first contestant this season to mispronounce the state. Chris told Padma and Carrie that his dessert consisted of hazelnut cake with a smoked chanterelle pastry cream – a detail that prompted what was apparently intended to be a comically abrupt pause in the edit, featuring Padma making a noncommittal “mmm” sound, and Carrie saying, “cool” – a pinot noir and blueberry puree and candied hazelnuts.
When it came time to judge, Padma and Carrie complimented Sara’s macha-dusted cream puff with grilled strawberries and miso whipped cream. Although, judging from the photo shown onscreen, the green macha dust made the dish look like a clump of moss with pale red goo at the bottom. This wasn’t the first example of a “beauty” shot of food making the dish look kind of gross. Is that a theme this season?
Anyway, Sara, who has so far stood out both for her impressive cooking and her self-deprecating attitude, characteristically deflected Carrie’s praise of her cream puffs. “I rushed,” Sara said, a bit abashedly.
The winner was Avishar, whose Buckeye Bonbon, a frozen treat with brown butter and liquid graham cracker, impressed Padma and Carrie and made Avishar proud to have made his version of a signature dish from his home state of Ohio.
The elimination challenge: With that Talenti nonsense out of the way, it was time for the real heart of the episode. Padma introduced Portland-based chef Gregory Gourdet, and Kwame Onwuachi, who are both among the “Top Chef” veterans acting as diners and rotating judges during the season, which was filmed during the pandemic.
Padma jokingly commented on the two’s sartorial splendor – Gregory in an animal-print jacket, and Kwame in a stylish gray overcoat – by saying, “Well, well, well, I’m so glad you dressed up for me.”
She then went on to say, “More and more, the Portland food scene is being influenced by a wide range of cuisines, and many are part of the African diaspora.”
Kwame said, “I have a vast background. I am Jamaican, Nigerian, Trinidadian and Creole from Louisiana.” People were taken, he went on, from West Africa, and “spread all across the globe. So, you can’t talk about American food without talking about West African food.”
Gourdet, who has tapped into his own Haitian roots with his Kann Winter Village and a long-planned Haitian brick-and-mortar restaurant, said, “With the fight for equality in America, it’s helped bring attention to some of the amazing Pan African restaurants right here in our town.”
Padma then told the chefs that Gregory and Kwame would take them on a tour of “some of the most exciting restaurants in downtown” (downtown? They didn’t stay in downtown, but whatever) to sample dishes that should inspire them in the elimination challenge, which would be served at Lovely Rita, the restaurant in downtown’s Hoxton Hotel.
Kwame took his group of chefs to Akadi, a restaurant specializing in West African food, where chef/owner Fatou Ouattra served beef suya, cassava couscous and fish with onion and tomato relish. Kwame talked about a “mother sauce” of West Africa, a red stew made with garlic, ginger, tomatoes and red peppers.
Brittanny Anderson, whose focus is German-inspired food, said, “Wow, that’s spicy,” after tasting a mouthful of food at Akadi.
Kwame encouraged the chefs to take influence from the food they were tasting, and make it their own. “But get inspired by this, ‘cause this inspired a world.”
Gregory took his group to Yaad Style Jamaican Cuisine, where chef/owner Curtis Mazelin served curried goat, and a chicken dish. Gregory talked about how complex Jamaican food is, and how it has many cultural influences, including Ghana and West Africa. “And then when the British came over, they brought Indian flavor through the indentured servants, so that’s how we get Jamaican curries.”
Other stops included Bake on the Run, a food cart featuring Guyanese food; Portland Mercado, and Mathilde’s Kitchen, where Gregory discussed Haitian food, and how it’s “extremely unfussy,” but has a lot of flavor.
Several of the chefs spoke about how the Pan African food reminded them of dishes from their own culture, particularly Kiki Louya, whose father was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and who spoke about wanting to be on “Top Chef” to shed light on “what it means to be an African American woman in this industry.”
When it came time to present their dishes, some chefs fared well, and others ran into problems. Gabriel made Oregon lamb shoulder braised in his version of a red stew, with goat cheese and olive oil mashed potatoes and potato chips dusted with suya spice.
Head judge Tom Colicchio said, “I like Gabriel’s dish, but these designer mashed potatoes – I’m kinda over it.”
“Especially when I got the mouthful of goat cheese, my mouth was taken over for a second,” Kwame said.
Richard Blais, another of the “Top Chef” veterans acting as diners and guest judges this season, said, “I’ll say what everyone’s thinking – this dish is too white.”
Sara made coconut rice porridge, a jerk-spiced gravy, salt cod in the style of “pork floss” with peanuts and some pikliz.
Padma said Sara’s was “a dish I’d order again and again.”
Judges’ Table: The top three dishes were prepared by Dawn Burrell, Shota Nakajima and Jamie Tran. The ultimate winner was Dawn, who made curried goat, crispy roti with fondant potatoes and a green pepper sauce the judges practically drooled over.
“I was really moved” by the challenge, Dawn said. “I can’t feel more in touch with the food that we’re making now.”
“It’s a long time coming,” Padma said.
Longtime “Top Chef” viewers might have guessed early on that this wasn’t going to be a good week for Brittanny. In the Quickfire, she included a cookie that she didn’t make herself, which is one of those “Top Chef” no-nos.
Brittanny’s elimination challenge dish of pickled mackerel with allspice fritter, red stew coconut sauce and charred cucumbers left the judges thinking it was bland. She said she wasn’t really tolerant of spicy food. Gregory said the dish didn’t have to be spicy, and Padma followed that by saying, “it needed to be flavorful.”
“It almost seems like you’re not letting yourself cook,” Tom said. “That’s 100 percent true,” Brittanny agreed. When Tom asked her what she loved about cooking and encouraged her to tell them her story, she said, “Maybe I’m here and I’m kind of learning that I don’t know,” adding that she cooks a lot from her head, but not her heart.
“You’ve gotta get out of your head,” Tom said.
To the surprise of no one, Padma told Brittanny to pack her knives and go.
More of our coverage:
‘Top Chef’ Portland premieres with plenty of air time for local chefs, and lots of fowl play
‘Top Chef’ returns with a Portland-based season, celebrating food after a tough year for restaurants
‘Top Chef’ is back, and the new season is based in Portland
Portland’s Gregory Gourdet says being on ‘Top Chef’ helps us ‘remember what restaurant culture used to be like’
In Hulu’s timely ‘Taste the Nation,’ Padma Lakshmi explores how immigrants helped create American cuisine
— Kristi Turnquist