Top Chef is back, baby! That’s right, while you were holed up in your RV eating lukewarm Chef Boyardee during this quarantine (haven’t checked the stats on the Uproxx readership, I assume that’s our demo) Top Chef was deep in Super Secret Food Contest Bubble. And all so they could bring you this full season of Top Chef programming. God bless you, you beautiful Bravo bastards, some of us really needed this. I assume spending all that time together drove them slowly insane, and that Tom and Padma are feuding like the Oasis brothers now.
Anyway, the rub is that Top Chef is in Portland (Oregon) this season, with an all-star cast of past contestants doing the judging. That’s right, we’ve got Melissa King, we’ve got Gregory Gourdet, we’ve got Amar Santana, we’ve got Dale Talde, we’ve got Kwame Onwuachi (who paints his fingernails now), and even though no one called him, Richard Blais just showed up and wouldn’t leave so I guess we have him too.
My God, have you seen Richard Blais’s hair lately?
It looks like my man walked into the barbershop and said “Give me the Happy Gilmore Caddy.”
As a curly-haired man, I think straight-haired men having hair this big is cultural appropriation. If you never had a manager tell you your hair poofing out on the sides was “unprofessional,” or had your football coach nickname you “Poodle,” or had friends wonder if you had a vitamin deficiency growing up, you don’t get to wear your hair that big. My culture is not a costume, Richard Blais.
In any case, this season was filmed in the middle of a pandemic while restaurants were getting massacred, and if you were wondering whether they’d mention this elephant in the room, don’t worry, Top Chef‘s got you covered. In fact, someone actually cries in the first minute of the show, which I believe is a new Top Chef record. This show is not here to make friends. Padma also mentions that if she got tested anymore often, she’d have to live with a Q-Tip permanently up her nose. Whatever, Padma could turn that into a trend.
In the quickfire, the contestants split into teams of three. They’d all been asked to bring their can’t-live-without-it ingredient to the kitchen, and the challenge was to incorporate all three of the chefs’ ingredients into a single dish, Chopped style. (Sorry to cheapen Top Chef by mentioning Chopped. If this were Chopped, one of the ingredients would be “a leftover frozen burrito” and Scott Conant would spend 15 minutes bitching about onions). A couple of the contestants chose as their secret ingredient “butter” or “rice vinegar,” which… makes them seem like morons? Did you really think the Top Chef kitchen wouldn’t have butter? I’m fairly certain the producers sandbagged them somehow but I’m Monday Morning Quarterbacking this until further notice.
Then, in the elimination challenge, the contestants had to choose from a series of local birds. Ah yes, Portland, land of birds — that stereotype we all know and recognize. Hey, I guess it was either this or a challenge where you have to put Fruit Loops on donuts (that’s right, Portland, I know your tricks). With their birds chosen by random draw, the contestants had to cook duck, squab, turkey, or chukar — the last of which is apparently a species of partridge. Not a single contestant did a play on “partridge in a pear tree.” Come on, guys, think of the puns!
Anyway, none of the contestants actually said “I’m not here to make friends,” and we’re still waiting for the first tearful confessional in which one promises “from here on out, I’m just gonna cook my food.” Our heroes, underdogs, annoying chefs, and villains are still in the embryonic stage after one episode. But that’s part of the fun.
Alternate Episode Titles:
A Tale Of Two Gabriels
Chukar? I Hardly Know ‘Ar!
15. (Eliminated) Roscoe Hall
Aka: Specs. The Professor. Molasses (he talks slow, you see).
Harshest review of dish: “This is a bowl full of fear.” -Tom Colicchio
Roscoe was my early favorite among the contestants, on account of he’s one of the lowest-energy reality TV contestants I’ve ever seen. The man looks shockingly well-put-together for a chef and talks slower than a Xanny rapper (sorry, I don’t know enough Xanny rap to work that into a nickname). Which all made a little more sense when Roscoe revealed that he was an artist who cooked his way through grad school. He then went from cooking California cuisine at Chez Panisse in Berkeley to becoming a pit boss with whole hog master Rodney Scott (check him Scott on Chef’s Table: BBQ on Netflix).
The man has layers! Unfortunately, Roscoe’s duck adobo apparently did not — unless you count the layer of grease on top of the broth. Which meant Roscoe (great name, btw) had to serve bad broth to Melissa King, who famously tended the “family broth” from the time she was in first or second grade. Tough draw. And so it was, my favorite contestant got kicked off on the very first show. Goddammit.
Roscoe did choose rice vinegar as his desert island ingredient though, so maybe he deserved it.
14. Jamie Tran
Aka: Splat. Police Academy.
Jamie talks in sound effects, hence all the nicknames. Isn’t that quirky?! I’m not sure how much screen time this odd personal idiosyncrasy can possibly sustain, but based on her performance in the first episode it may not have to sustain much. Jamie was paired with Dawn and Gabe in the quickfire and made a big boner (*BONER OF THE EPISODE theme song*) when she… get this… put sauce on the skin side of her fish! (*comedic trombone*)
Dawn was heated. For a second I thought it might come to blows. Wouldn’t be the first sauce-inspired fisticuffs on this show.
In the elimination round, Jamie maced the entire kitchen with her chili paste, which would’ve been a lot cooler if her resulting dish had actually looked spicy. Instead, she made turkey, with curry couscous, and a giant piece of broccoli. Maybe it’s the 6-year-old in me, but that looked gross as hell. What’s the sound effect for that?
13. Avishar Barua
Aka: Milhouse. Chillhouse. American Pie.
Harshest critique of dish: “You expect a ton of flavor from this dish and it’s just not there.”
Laidback Bengali-Ohioan dude Avishar brought his “mom’s apple chutney” for a special ingredient, which sounds like a setup for a scene in a remake of American Pie. Which would fit — Avishar is shockingly easy to picture on a DVD cover next to some chutney with a dick-shaped hole in it.
Another early favorite of mine, wholesomely chilled out Avishar also almost went home when he served chukar-fried chukar (finally, a play on words) with jhol and pulao. Unfortunately, his curry was bland and his rice undercooked, which are both capital offenses in Padmaland. I don’t know how he’s still on the show, but I’m cautiously happy about it.
12. Chris Viaud
Aka: Butter. Stretch.
Yes, Chris was the chef who chose butter as his special ingredient. Butter. Come on, man. Then his team landed in the bottom of the quickfire when their scallops poached in kombu butter “didn’t have enough butter flavor.” Things are not looking good for Chris.
11. Byron Gomez
Harshest critique: “I’m searching for the Thai grilled flavor and I’m not getting it.”
So far, all I really know about Byron is that he’s from Costa Rica and that he sort of reminds me of Manolo from Scarface. He cooked a sweet Thai-style squab with jicama salad and a sweet potato cake — which sounds good, but apparently wasn’t. His special ingredient was “mushroom powder,” which as far as I know is a drug, not a food. Learn something new every day, I guess.
First ju get the mushroom, then ju get the powder.
10. Dawn Burrell
Aka: Hothead. ‘Sheed. Legs.
Fun Fact: Dawn used to be an Olympic long jumper (hence the nickname “Legs”). Her brother also set the world record for the 100-meters twice.
Biggest Boner: Forgetting to plate the stew in her stew dish.
Dawn is an ex-athlete who cooks angry, which I both respect and identity with. I thought she was about to draw Top Chef‘s first technical foul (I nicknamed her ‘Sheed, after NBA technical king Rasheed Wallace) when she saw Jamie put sauce on her crispy fish skin and almost lost her damn mind. Dawn was then “in her feelings,” as the kids say, for almost the entire episode on account of she didn’t plate the stew component of her stew dish in time. That she was in the bottom in the quickfire but didn’t make the bottom three in the elimination challenge makes her a conundrum in these rankings.
Is getting a stew-less stew past the judges a grand achievement or an unforced error? I think it’s both. Seems like she has the talent if she can get her head right. Don’t cook angry, Dawn!
9. Sasha Grumman
AKA: Carm. Gritty.
The Sicilian-American, Italian-trained chef Sasha Grumman chose Meyer lemons as her special ingredient and won immunity (along with Sara and Kiki) in the quickfire challenge with some harissa halibut. She then half-assed her way through the elimination challenge with a heavy sauce and some too-dense polenta (hence the nickname Gritty; which has a double meaning since she also has similar hair color to Gritty the mascot — maybe it was meant to be). I respect it because, (and as a Mancini I think I’m allowed to say this) not working too hard when you don’t have to is the Italian-American way.
I’m also nicknaming her Carm after Carmela Soprano on the grounds of Sicilianness and earring size.
8. Shota Nakajima
Asinine critique of the week: “This eats really well.”
Japenese-trained Shota and his sweet chinstrap beard was the only other contestant besides Jamie to have a personality quirk identified: his Beavis-and-Butthead-esque laugh. Shota landed in the bottom of the quickfire but rose to the top three in the elimination on the strength of his braised, then rested, then braised and rested again soy-flavored duck. I’ve never seen that before and don’t understand how it works but it looked good as hell.
7. Maria Mazon
Aka: Gas Can.
Notable critique: “Whooo, spicy.”
Chef Maria loves tacos, her special ingredient was Mexican chocolate, and she somehow made a mole in 30 minutes during the elimination round (in which her team finished second). Pretty impressive. She then made enchiladas in the elimination round that didn’t seem to make much of an impression beyond spice, even though they looked and sounded bomb as hell.
I’m naming her “Gas Can” on account of she has a gas can tattoo on her arm. Look, not every nickname is going to be super creative, okay?
6. Brittany Anderson
Aka: St. Pauli. Hot Chocolate. Stifler’s Mom.
Self-Applied Description Of Cooking Style: “Modern Alpine.”
Notable Quote: “Since quarantine started I taught myself how to tattoo.”
Critique of Dish: “It’s like sweet on sweet.”
I’m nicknaming Brittany St. Pauli on account of she looks like the girl on the St. Pauli Girl bottle. And Hot Chocolate on account of she looks like the girl on the Swiss Miss hot chocolate packets. Plus, I figured naming an Aryan woman Hot Chocolate is kind of like calling a fat guy Tiny. So that’s a little taste of my process over here.
Anyway, I believe Brittany is Top Chef‘s first fondue specialist. Her desert island ingredient was gruyere and she ended up having to make a cheese gremolata. That sounds incredibly strange and her team still finished in the top two. That would’ve been good for top five in these rankings, but the judges didn’t seem wowed by her “chukar with sweet potato pureé and red grape ravigote.” I don’t know what all those words mean but it sounded good to me.
5. Gabe Erales
AKA: The Other Gabe. Canelo. Fozzy. The Foz.
Self-Described Cooking Style: “I want to highlight the different aspects of Mexican cuisine that go against the stereotypes.”
Gabe has clearly been named “Gabe” to distinguish him from the show’s other Gabe, who is going by “Gabriel.” I really wish they’d just called them “Gabe E.” and “Gabe P.”, elementary school-style. Anyway, I appreciated that the editors juxtaposed Gabe’s mission statement, “I want to make the kind of Mexican food that you probably haven’t heard of” directly with Maria saying “I love to make tacos.” Personally, I love both stereotypical and non-stereotypical Mexican food, so I’m glad I’m not the one who has to choose.
Gabe landed in the bottom with Dawn and Jamie but then made the top four with his “chintesle-glazed duck with figs, charred onions, and pasilla mixe.” Again, I don’t know what almost any of those words mean but it looked really good.
4. Nelson German
Aka: Papa Bear. Mofongo. Tostones.
Papa Bear made a surf and turf mofongo in the quickfire and a Caribbean-brased chukar with black beans and tostones in the elimination round, receiving solid-if-unspectacular reviews for both. One judge said of Nelson “he’s putting his culture on a plate” which is both high praise on Top Chef and a reason to finish your drink if you’re playing the Top Chef drinking game.
Papa Bear didn’t earn any superlatives from the judges just yet but he’s a leader in the clubhouse for “knowing your brand.”
3. Kiki Louya
Aka: Aunt Sassy. Peppers.
Kiki didn’t get much screen time this episode but she seems generally bubbly and gregarious. Definitely not a “not here to make friends” type. She seems like she actually is there to make friends. Her special ingredient was scotch bonnet peppers and she was on the winning team in the quickfire. She didn’t make the top in the elimination round but the only real critique she received of her moambe quail was that the judges “wanted more sauce,” to which Padma added “and more quail.”
So… bigger portions, is it? I can get behind that. That’s generally my biggest criticism of food. This is good, but couldn’t there be more? Make more food, Kiki!
2. Gabriel Pascuzzi
AKA: Gabe P. Chad. Patriarchy. Patriuzzi. Mr. Mackie.
Notable Quote: “I used to work for Tom Colicchio.”
Even if he didn’t appear to be the only white male competitor, Gabe P. immediately distinguished himself as an early villain contender when he name-dropped Tom Colicchio (who he used to work for) to justify why he knew how to plate his dish. “Uh, I think I know how to plate, okay? I used to work for Tom Colicchio.”
He even pronounced it with italics. Tom Colicchio. You could sense the emphasis in his voice.
Gabe P. also trims his beard too close to his jawline in the manner of Donald Trump Jr./Derek Carr/Mr. Mackie from South Park. Total villain move. Still, he was one of only two chefs to land on the top side of both challenges, and the judges loved his “roasted squab with local honey, onion petals, grilled plums and jus,” so has to be considered an early favorite. The petals are the most underrated part of the onion, I always say.
1. Sara Hauman
AKA: Tails. Manic Pixie Cream Sauce. Baller Sauce.
Notable Quotes: “I do not do technology well.” “I make baller sauces.”
Notable Critique: “It’s like a flavor explosion in every bite.”
Chef Sara is a Portland local and I like to imagine that she embodies all those classically Pacific Northwestern traits: being faux outdoorsy, non-committal, falsely humble, dressing like a kindergartner, and generally seeming like the kind of person who humblebrags that they don’t watch TV (sorry, Sara, I only went extra hard here because my editor is from Portland).
Anyway, Tom said her dish “clearly came from a confident chef” which turned out to be the biggest whiff ever when Sara spent the entire show acting flustered and self-critical. Or so it would seem, if you didn’t know it was all an act! They’re all fake humble up there, I tell ya! Oregon: Land Of The Phonies!
Sara had immunity from a quickfire win and won the elimination challenge anyway, so it’d be impossible to deny her the top spot here.
Until next week!
Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.