“Welcome to Portland,” host Padma Lakshmi tells 15 chefs in an industrial kitchen space located somewhere in the Portland metro area, “and season 18 of Top Chef!”
That’s right: It only took 18 seasons for a food-centric show that has already filmed in locales such as Kentucky, Boston, and Los Angeles (twice) to make its way up to Portland. For local fans of the hit Bravo reality competition show—and I firmly count myself among them—filming a season in the Rose City makes perfect sense: Our region is known for having a bustling, creative restaurant scene, as well as a bounty of locally grown, caught, brewed, and fermented ingredients. We’re also home to several former Top Chef winners and runner-ups, such as Gregory Gourdet (of Departure and Kann Winter Village), who makes an appearance in the premiere episode that airs tonight.
Top Chef always provides plenty of drama in the form of down-to-the-wire timed cooking challenges, sauce that doesn’t get drizzled onto plates before they’re served, stolen burner spaces, and interpersonal clashes between chefs, many of whom have egos more intense than their ghost pepper relishes. But this season is going to be compounded by the logistical restraints and emotional turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic—and, if you’re a Portland local, by the weird, bittersweet discomfort of seeing your home depicted on the small screen.
Here are five things to watch for in tonight’s Top Chef Portland premiere, and throughout the season.
In addition to guest judges like Gourdet, Portland is also repped by two local chefs, both of whom cook promising fare in the premiere.
There’s Gabriel Pascuzzi, chef and owner of the local eateries Mama Bird and Stacked Sandwich Shop. Pascuzzi cut his teeth working for one of Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio’s restaurants in New York—and he will not let his fellow competitors, or the audience, forget that fact!
Sara Hauman, meanwhile, is the head chef for Soter Vineyards, a fancy winery located about an hour outside of town in Carlton. Hauman has the classic underdog mentality, repeatedly insisting that she just cooks “simple food” and isn’t sure she belongs on Top Chef. But I think she could be a ringer who’s headed for the finale.
If you’re a longtime fan of Top Chef, you know that a mad dash through Whole Foods, grabbing special ingredients for the elimination challenge of the week, plays a pivotal role in most episodes. That sprint through the aisles, usually so full of drama—They ran out of duck, so now I have to pivot to chicken!—is sadly absent from this season, replaced instead by an online shopping sequence because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Other signs the show is trying to be COVID safe, and wanting you to know it’s being COVID safe: Lakshmi references all the tests they’re getting within the first 10 minutes of the show; the Top Chef kitchen is roomier than usual so chefs can space out; and if chefs get too close to each other, they’ll throw a mask on. They’re also staying at the swanky Hotel Monaco in downtown Portland, rather than all piling into one house, as is typical.
Mental health gets some airtime
Part of being an upper-echelon professional chef, Top Chef has taught me over the years, is being able to be “tough.” According to the show, it’s a profession where ego reigns over vulnerability—but that could change this season, also thanks to the pandemic.
In the premier, chefs recount having to furlough the staff at their restaurants, and lament about missing being in the kitchen with other people. One chef uses the word “mental health” when talking about the toll COVID has taken, suggesting that this could be the most emotionally intelligent season of Top Chef yet.
A more inclusive Top Chef?
Top Chef is a product of mainstream American media, which means that it inherently has an inclusion and representation problem. While each season’s cast of cheftestants is usually fairly diverse, the chefs who actually win tend to skew white, straight, and male. (Justice for Nina Compton!)
Food media is currently experiencing its own racial justice reckoning, and there are signs that Top Chef is trying to respond to feedback fans have been giving for years now about its own issues. A diverse panel of past Top Chef winners and runner-ups are helping to judge this season, and the first elimination challenge was judged blindly—meaning the chefs were judged solely on their dishes, not their personas.
We’ll see how effective these tools are in mitigating the show’s flaws as the season progresses.
Good for the brand
As shitty media columnists and our very own mayor like to remind us often, Portland’s brand is supposedly at risk, thanks to a year full of racial justice protests and businesses shuttering due to COVID (because, you know, no other city has also been dealing with those issues).
It’s no secret that a season of Top Chef can be a huge branding opportunity for the host city. Travel Portland, Travel Oregon, and a slew of other state tourism agencies worked with the show’s producers to present Portland and Oregon in the best possible light: Crabbing on the coast, trips through wine country, sweeping cityscapes where the Big Pink gleams, shots of a cheerful, bustling SE Division with a TriMet Route 2 bus in the foreground. There are also lots of brand shots, from a trip to Tillamook Creamery to chefs casually popping cans of Rogue beer while waiting to see who’s eliminated that week.
For anyone who’s lived in Portland during this admittedly very rough year, it’s going to feel weird to see the region’s greatest hits plated up for a national audience to devour. There might even be a knee-jerk reaction to want to protect Portland from the world, or pick apart the bits they get wrong, as we saw with Portlandia and even Shrill. (Reader, I’ll admit it: I wanted to shrivel up and disappear for a moment when Lakshmi declared in the first episode that “Portland is obsessed with birds!”)
But Oregon really does have a lot of offer when it comes to the culinary arts—and if past seasons of Top Chef are any indication, I’m willing to bet that the show did its homework and won’t present the same old played-out stuff. The season will include, for example, a meal honoring the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and an exploration of West African cuisine in Portland.
Even if you live here, you just might learn something by watching.
Top Chef's Portland season premieres on Bravo tonight, April 1, at 8 pm. You can also watch it with Hulu Live TV or YouTube TV, or pay to watch episodes the next day from iTunes, Amazon, or Youtube.