Looking (and Cooking) Back on the Latest Season of 'Top Chef'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday June 29, 2021

(l to r) This season's 'Top Chef' finalists: Shota Nakajima, Gabe Erales and Dawn Burrell.
(l to r) This season's 'Top Chef' finalists: Shota Nakajima, Gabe Erales and Dawn Burrell.  (Source:@bravotopchef/Instagram)

As Season 18 of "Top Chef" approaches its moment of truth, a look back on the season's highs, lows, and culinary challenges proves revealing; Food and Wine assembled a veritable tasting plate of tips and tricks culled from the current season's kitchen adventures.

Season 18 brought the show to Portland, Oregon, where the hopefuls put their prowess on palatable display, using local ingredients to their best effect, including Tillamook cheddar in one of the mouthwatering episodes. There was also a growing LGBTQ presence on the judges' panel, with Gregory Gourdet, Melissa King and Kristen Kish joining the ranks.

Week by week, the chefs were whittled down to a formidable trio: Dawn Burrell, Gabe Erales, and Shota Nakajima. After braving seafood challenges, all three, remarkably, survived and are headed to the Willamette Valley for the July 1 season finale.

Food and Wine took a quick survey of what insights viewers at home might try in their own kitchens, quickly zeroing in on the comfort food quality of Campbell's canned soup as a foundation for getting culinarily creative. That Tillamook cheddar episode proved a fruitful talking point, too, as the publication noted how successfully the contestants adapted Massimo Bottura's proof of principle for using parmesan in not just a leading role for a recipe but in several ancillary capacities, as well.

For those seeking a fresh and flavorful pop, Food and Wine noted, the current season had a quick and easy solution: "It's not a bad idea to have some citric acid in your kitchen, since it can do everything from add a 'burst of sour flavor' to homemade gummies to decreasing the pH in when making canned tomato passata," the magazine summarized.

And for those locked into thinking that a meal's starring role — that prima donna, protein — has to be derived from meat or at least be a literal protein source, think again: As Food and Wine recalled, one contestant this season gave apples the place of pride, while one entire challenge presented the contestants with the puzzle of how to make sure mushrooms could conquer if put into the spotlight.

The season saw a popular out chef, Maria Mazon, of Tucson, eliminated in Episode 11 — a bitter garnish indeed, given that Mazon had shined so brightly in the season's eighth episode, winning a "Restaurant Wars" challenge and heading up a victorious team of four contestants.

But that course in disappointment came with a side dish of class when fellow contestant Jamie Tran, a Las Vegas restaurateur, offered to fall on her own kitchen implement and accept being cut in her place. The judges didn't go for it, but it was a touching offer all the same.

One challenge focused on creating a recipe that All Star veterans of the show would test — including popular out chefs Kristen Kish and Melissa King, each of whom has been kept busy elsewhere of late. King, for instance, went on Ellen recently to give the talk show host a lesson in vegan ramen, nicely paired with — wait for it — mango margaritas.


As for Kish — featured recently in a Facebook Live interview here at EDGE — it was barely two months ago that she married Bianca Dusic in an intimate backyard ceremony.


Speaking of Top Chef vets, another All Star — openly gay Portland restaurateur Gregory Gourdet — spilled some tea in the name of a good cause: He wrote an essay for Today last month in which he detailed his journey into, and then through, addiction. Embracing sobriety meant feeding his body with more than food, Gourdet wrote; he got into a gym, established a fitness routine... and, yes, recalibrated his eating habits. He also took on a more significant writing challenge, publishing a new cookbook, "Everyone's Table," touted as "the ultimate guide to cooking globally inspired dishes free of gluten, dairy, soy, legumes, and grains that are so delicious you won't notice the difference."

Elsewhere in the "Top Chef" universe, Kim Nguyen — the first non-binary contestant in the franchise — very nearly took top honors in the just-completed ninth season of "Top Chef Canada." The Vancouver sous chef lost out to Toronto's Erica Karbelnik, but they served up a delectable portion of representation for a hungry audience.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.