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Jamie Tran Talks About Her Anxiety and How Close the Contestants Are on ‘Top Chef: Portland’

Tran takes on Mexican ingredients and tofu

A woman uses tongs to turn corn on a grill
Jamie Tran chars corn on “Top Chef”
David Moir/Bravo

Six chefs remain on Top Chef: Portland, including Jamie Tran, the executive chef and co-owner of The Black Sheep. “We all bonded so it’s kind of hard at this point,” Tran tells Eater Vegas. “If anybody goes, everybody tears up.”

This group of contestants seems closer than ever with everyone chipping in to help when someone falls behind. It’s no different for Tran, who has been outspoken about her anxiety all season long. Early in the latest episode, Tran talks about how fellow contestants Maria Mazon and Dawn Burrell helped her. “I’m always gonna have my anxiety but I now have a little bit more tools so I know how to deal with it,” she says on the episode.

During the Quickfire Challenge, Tran’s background cooking at Aureole at Mandalay Bay came into play when the contestants had to choose from 53 ingredients from Chipotle to make a dish for the judges. Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons joined Padma Lakshmi in judging the dishes that had two contestants competing to make a dish that combined two flavors. For Tran, that meant smoky and charred flavors for Simmons. Tran lost with her grilled skirt steak with chipotle, smoked corn, and spicy tomatillo salsa to Gabe Erales.

Tran says a lot of the kitchen staff at Aureole came from Puebla, Mexico, so making dishes with a lot of Mexican ingredients for a family meal was a good fit for this challenge. “I’m from Southern California, so a lot of the ingredients like jalapeños, cilantro, chilis, and limes are familiar,” she tells Eater Vegas.

Dawn Burrell ended up winning the entire challenge.

Tran really shined in the Elimination Challenge, dubbed the Tournament of Tofu. The chefs competed against each other using tofu as the main ingredient. “At this point, that was very stressful,” she tells Eater Vegas. “All of us were like tired and it was a big issue with two hours and 30 minutes to make all that.”

The chefs had to prepare three different tofu dishes and then compete head-to-head with 10 judges tastings their dishes. The first round pitted Tran against Byron Gomez using extra firm tofu. Tran made banh xeo with sautéed tofu and fresh herbs and won her bracket, so she didn’t have to compete to make fried tofu or a dessert dish with tofu. Nine of the 10 judges picked Tran’s dish. “When they put up paddle with my color, I didn’t realize that was my color at first,’ she tells Eater Vegas. She says she looked at Gomez’s apron, which corresponded with the color of the paddle, and realized she won.

Tran also says that the entire group has a team mentality when it comes to the competitions. For example, Burrell cut her finger on a mandolin while slicing radishes, and the other competitors helped her plate her dishes.

“We all definitely talked in the beginning and wanted to show everyone out there that there is a bond in the culinary industry,” she says. “Some of us didn’t really care about the money. If I didn’t have it, I wasn’t going to dwell on it. For me it was getting past my anxiety and getting past the first round.”

Gomez ended up losing the challenge.

Next week, the chefs recreate the Top Chef: France Black Box challenge in the Quickfire, and later receive care packages from their families. The twist? They have to use the ingredients from their care packages to make their dish for the Elimination Challenge.

Top Chef: Portland airs on Thursdays on Bravo at 8 p.m. PDT.

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