And then there were nine. Jamie Tran’s triumphant victory on Last Chance Kitchen last week earned her a spot back on Top Chef: Portland. She returned to the kitchen just in time for the Quickfire Challenge as host Padma Lakshmi announced that one contestant was coming back. Contestant Shota Nakajima even said he hoped Tran returned.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a group of chefs more excited to see another competitor,” Lakshmi says on the show as Tran walks into the kitchen.
“This is a stressful environment,” Tran says in an interview with Eater Vegas. “But just opening the door and seeing everybody and how they just responded to me and showed me love — it just felt good to see my friends again.”
The nine remaining chefs jumped into a Quickfire Challenge, the final chance for immunity for the season. The contestants had to make a dish that showcased the lessons they learned from a previous dish mistake using some tired products that were on the verge of going bad. Tran decided to redeem herself for a turkey dish from Episode One that had too many competing flavors by making turkey karaage with Indonesian corn fritter.
“Being eliminated and coming back, that’s definitely the biggest second chance of them all,” Tran says on the show. “I plan to focus on making things that make me happy.”
Nakajima won the challenge and immunity, but Tran says she’s happy landing in the middle.
The Elimination Challenge had the contestants making 65 dishes for frontline workers at three Portland hospitals. Tran says the episode was especially touching for her since her nephew, who at one time worked with her at The Black Sheep, became a first responder during the pandemic. She says she helped raise the 23-year-old since he was two. “If I feel like I’m cooking for a reason and it helps somebody or changes something … I just feel like it touches me more,” Tran tells Eater Vegas.
Tran made kimchi tofu soup with bulgogi braised pork, eggplant, and steamed rice, a dish she wanted to comfort frontline workers that could be easily reheated. She said working with her dad in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant in Monterey, California, inspired the dish with fried eggplant. “I love having kimchi with my rice so you eat it like a stew,” she says on the show.
When Tran saw that all of the stovetops were full, she decided to deep fry her eggplant, a trick she credits her dad with teaching her. “Working with my dad, I watched him pivot and I learned how to pivot because of him,” she tells Eater Vegas. “He taught me my work ethic. … I think it just comes natural as a chef.”
Tran won the Elimination Challenge with a dish the judges called intelligent and comforting all rolled into one that really put soul into the dish.
Next week, Restaurant Wars return.
Top Chef: Portland airs on Thursdays on Bravo at 8 p.m. PDT.