Five chefs remain on Top Chef: Portland, including Jamie Tran, the executive chef and co-owner of The Black Sheep. Episode 11 proved to be one of the most emotional of the season with a Black Box challenge, care packages from home, and Tran almost leaving the show to save a friend.
The episode starts with the five remaining contestants talking about Last Chance Kitchen and Byron Gomez trying to cook his way back onto the show by defeating two of three of the contestants — who make a surprise appearance on the online show — cooking from a basket of 10 ingredients. Gomez said he left Tran’s basket to last because it had the easiest ingredients, and that fired up Tran.
“I guess I get tired of people … treating me like an underdog. That kind of triggered me. I’m like, ‘I can’t believe this is coming out of your mouth right now,’” she tells Eater Vegas. She defeated Gomez, who won’t return to the competition.
Next, the Black Box Quickfire Challenge, where the contestants prepared a dish by guest chef Gabriel Rucker, who has Le Pigeon and Little Bird Bistro, in Portland, Oregon. Rucker made a dish, placed in the black box, where the contestants could taste, feel, and smell the dish, but not see it. They then paired up into three teams with each contestant cooking for 15 minutes to recreate the dish, with five minutes left at the end to see the dish and make quick changes. Tran partnered with Maria Mazon to recreate the dish and Brooke Williamson, who won Top Chef: Charleston, joined the challenge for an even six contestants.
Tran went in the box first and started preparing squab, carrots, and pear that she tasted in the dish. She couldn’t communicate with Mazon to tell her what she thought or what she was making. The two didn’t win the challenge, although Tran says she had fun cooking that dish.
The contestants got the night off, and receive care packages with letters from their friends and families. “Reading the letter makes me sad. It’s been a minute since I’ve seen my family and friends. I miss them and they miss me,” Tran says on the show. She gets ingredients in her care package as well — strawberries, jasmine rice, cucumbers, matzo ball soup, English muffins, corned beef hash, chicken wings, and challah bread.
Tran says her sister sent the matzo ball soup and challah bread as a reminder of one of Tran’s favorite restaurants, Weiss Deli in Henderson.
But Tran has to use at least some of the ingredients to make a dish for the Elimination Challenge.
She opts to make a thit kho braised brisket with caramelized Thai chili jus and pickled cucumbers, but since the brisket needs a lot of time to cook and she only has two-and-a-half hours, she uses a pressure cooker for the first time in her career. Tran tells Eater Vegas that she wavered between two dishes and even considered using black cod offered by Shota Nakajima.
Tran and Mazon ended up in the bottom two, with Mazon told to pack her knives and go. But that’s where the most drama of this season starts, when Tran insists that the judges send her home instead. “She has more to give. I think she should stay,” Tran says on the show. “She definitely deserves a second chance … I want to give her that second opportunity that you guys gave me,” Tran says, referring to her comeback on Last Chance Kitchen.
“It just got to me, just her doubting herself and I know she’s very talented,” Tran tells Eater Vegas. “I just thought maybe if she got a second chance, she’d increase her confidence as a person.”
Both host Padma Lakshmi and head judge Tom Colicchio ask Tran if she wants to quit. “No, I don’t want to quit, but I would quit for her.”
“I think it’s really beautiful the friendship that’s clearly deepened,” Lakshmi says. “This is unfortunately what the game is.”
Mazon departs, leaving four contestants on the show.
Next week, the chefs visit Tillamook Creamery to pick up some cheddar cheese they need to cook five ways.
Top Chef: Portland airs on Thursdays on Bravo at 8 p.m. PDT.