Bravo’s long-running culinary reality series Top Chef returns, this time taking 15 chefs to Portland, Oregon. Jamie Tran, the chef and co-owner of The Black Sheep, the Eater 38 restaurant in the southwest where Tran melds her Vietnamese upbringing with French techniques, competes on the show with a goal of winning $250,000. Tran already made her mark in Las Vegas with The Black Sheep, which won an Eater Award for Restaurant of the Year.
This season of Top Chef looks very different, filmed during the coronavirus pandemic with a larger kitchen, ingredients ordered online in advance and picked up curbside, and constant testing for COVID-19. The show filmed from early September to late October, keeping contestants in a bubble in a Portland hotel with testing every other day for the cast and crew of 150. Host Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons return to the judges’ tables, with a rotating judging and dining panel that includes Top Chef veterans such as Richard Blais, Carrie Baird, Nina Compton, Tiffany Derry, Melissa King, Kristen Kish, Edward Lee, Kwame Onwuachi, Amar Santana, Dale Talde, Brooke Williamson, and Portland chef Gregory Gourdet.
Missed out on the first two episodes of Top Chef: Portland? Check out this recap of the episode’s biggest moments, with commentary from Tran about her role in the show.
Those first moments on the show
The show starts with Lakshmi introducing the contestants and judges. “I didn’t know any of the other chefs,” Tran says in an interview with Eater Vegas after the episode aired. “It was so nerve wracking. It definitely felt like it was the first day of school in the kitchen with everyone.”
The show moves fast into the first Quickfire Challenge that asked chefs to make a dish using their favorite ingredient, which in Tran’s case, was fish sauce. “People have ketchup in their refrigerator,” she says in an interview. “We have fish sauce at home the same way so it’s used in everything… this definitely reminds me of my mom …It’s a Southeast Asian must have.”
Tran’s Quickfire Challenge did not go well
Tran teamed up with contestant Dawn Burrell, who had smoked trout roe, and Gabe Erales, who chose masa. “They took a little bit more of a leadership role, but in my kitchen, I’m the boss,” Tran says on the show. “It’s me on a plate.”
Tran says she became friends with Burrell and Erales, and they joke about how they each cooked one piece of fish for the challenge. “Dawn is one of the closest people to me on the show, so it definitely didn’t deter me from getting to know them,” she says in an interview.
The team ended up in the bottom four.
And the Elimination Challenge went even worse
The contestants worked with fowl found in Oregon, and Tran ended up with turkey. The goal was to learn about the chefs through their food, presented blind to the judges. ‘I overcooked my crap. [I] taste a little bit of my turkey. I didn’t like the texture,” Tran says on the show. She made a lemongrass turkey with yellow curry couscous and sautéed rapini and plum sauce, which the judges thought had too many competing flavors on the dish. “There was such strong flavor in the other components of your dish that they clash with each other,” judge Tom Colicchio said on the show. “Think about a piece of music and it’s not all played at the same volume, background and sort of playing and it’s kind of the same thing with putting together a dish so all these other flavors just drowned out the turkey.”
Tran again landed in the bottom four, but was not eliminated.
Tran fared much better on Episode Two
The Quickfire Challenge had the contestants making breakfast fare for the judges in a diner setting. Tran chose shrimp and grits. “I have anxiety with competitions. I don’t know why. I just needed to remind myself of my passion of food,” Trans said on the show. Tran says she dumped an entire bag of grits in the sauce pan to cook. “Who the hell are you cooking for, an army?” she says she thought in the moment.
Her creamy polenta with sharp cheddar, Cajun gochujang shrimp, and jalapeño won, giving her immunity for the Elimination Challenge.
Tran breathed a little easier during the Elimination Challenge
With immunity in hand, the Elimination Challenge brought Tran and Kiki Louya to cook a coffee and beer dish after already picking ingredients. “She’s definitely somebody on the show that helped me with my nerves,” Tran says in an interview.
Competing against people who become a friend certainly has its challenges. At one point while Tran and Louya cook, she tells Louya to blame her for any faults in a dish so Louya isn’t eliminated. “I wasn’t shooting to win. I was shooting to just make sure that I get through it and get over my anxiety of being in a competition and trying my best to represent Vegas but at the same time just to make sure my staff knew I tried my best,” she says in an interview.
Tran says the pandemic also shaped her attitude about the show and making friends there. “Restaurants are shutting down. We’re going through a tough situation with what’s happening with Black Lives Matter and all this stuff. People need more positivity now than ever so why not be more supportive of each other because we’re all in this industry?” she says. “I’d rather make a friends for a lifetime than win. That’s all we do in our industry is we cook so we can make a connection with people.”
Top Chef: Portland airs on Thursdays on Bravo at 8 p.m. PDT.