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For 16 years, Portland, Oregon, has waited like a jilted prom date as “Top Chef” hopscotched across the country, never landing in the Rose City even in its heyday of media buzz.
And then the show arrives just when it seems the party’s over. Filming for the new season began in September 2020, when the pandemic had shuttered some of the town’s biggest restaurant icons. Homeless encampments had sprouted up along highways. Months of protests for racial justice and police reform brought a glaring national spotlight on a contentious few blocks downtown that stoked the flames of unrest. And then came the literal flames — September wildfires that turned the sky red.
By January, pundits had declared Portland dead.
But here’s the thing: They only see what was lost, not what survived. They see a few embattled blocks downtown, not the living, breathing neighborhoods. Most of all, they don’t see the sense of community at the beating heart of the city, and the lifeblood of hope that fuels its scrappy, independent-yet-collaborative spirit. That’s what put Portland’s food scene on the map in the first place, and why it’ll be there for years to come. If there’s any good that’s come from 2020′s steady march of strife, it’s that it stripped away the “put-a-bird-on-it” hipster frippery and revealed what really makes Portland a standout destination.
In a way, “Top Chef” couldn’t have come at a better time.
When Season 18 premieres April 1 on Bravo, viewers will finally get an authentic, handlebar-mustache-free look at what makes Portland, and Oregon in general, such a food- and nature-lover’s paradise — yes, even in the middle of a pandemic, and, yes, despite Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s guest judge appearance conjuring eye-rolling memories of “Portlandia” past.
New this season is a judging panel of “Top Chef” All-Star alums, and the cast of “cheftestants” is considered the strongest lineup ever — all seasoned executive chefs and chef-owners with not a sous-chef in the bunch. It’s quite likely that had there not been a pandemic, many of the contestants and judges would have been too busy to take part.
“I believe in timing. And the timing was just right,” says Sara Hauman, chef at Soter Vineyards and one of the two Portlanders competing this season. “Having always worked in restaurants, I didn’t have the ability to leave for a large period of time, but with the pandemic happening, we were even slower.”
A relatively recent transplant to Portland, Hauman arrived from San Francisco in 2018 after earning a long list of accolades during her tenure as executive chef at Huxley and chef de cuisine at Michelin-starred Octavia. What drew her north were the same things that draw visitors from all over the world.
“The pace was slower, the food scene was great, and nature is in very close proximity,” she says. “Within an hour, you’re lost in the forest. It was really more about getting out of the city environment and reconnecting with nature and myself.”
After making an immediate splash at wine-focused Arden restaurant downtown, she craved more freedom than what the pace there would allow. A year later, she stepped away to take over as executive chef at Soter Vineyards in the nearby Willamette Valley wine country, just an hour southwest of town.
“It’s been a way for me to focus on some new projects and figure out how I can still be in the food industry but have a bigger impact on sustainability,” she says, pointing to recent work with sustainable fisheries on the Oregon coast and nonprofit organizations that support fishers who are Black, indigenous or people of color.
Hauman says Oregon’s wine country is moving in a particularly exciting direction — more young winemakers, more varietals beyond pinot noir and more opportunities to enjoy exquisite food pairings right at the wineries themselves, from the hyperseasonal meals she creates with ingredients from the biodynamic farm at Soter to the traditional dining experience at Willamette Valley Vineyards, where “Top Chef” filmed one of this season’s episodes. One of her favorite spots is Hiyu Wine Farm in the Columbia River Gorge, about an hour east of Portland. “It’s really amazing, and the drive there is so beautiful, with state parks and waterfalls along the way.”
Though Hauman works in the country, she still lives in Portland and says what she loves most is the diversity of the restaurant scene, especially outside the downtown area, which “Top Chef” worked hard to capture with a Pan-African challenge this season. “The neighborhoods are where it’s at,” she says. “Portland gets this bad rap for being whitewashed and one-note, but you can go around in one day and eat 10, 12, 15 different cuisines.” Among her go-to places are Gado Gado for Indonesian, Nong’s Khao Man Gai for Thai chicken and rice, and Mekha for Vietnamese. “And the food cart scene is insane.”
Gabriel Pascuzzi, the other local chef competing this season, is a born-and-raised Portlander with his finger firmly on the pulse of the dining scene. “We don’t have the crazy top-end restaurants that Chicago, San Francisco and New York have,” he says, “but I feel safe saying the best bang for your buck is Portland, for the quality of ingredients and skill of the chefs here.”
He names Thai-barbecue favorite Eem and “Top Chef” alum Gregory Gourdet’s new Haitian hotspot Kann as prime examples. “You can get amazing meals that would cost double that in another city.”
The chef-owner of Stacked Sandwich Shop, Mama Bird chicken joint and soon-to-open Feel Good grain bowl spot, Pascuzzi earned his stripes in the fine-dining kitchens of Manhattan, including one of “Top Chef” head judge Tom Colicchio’s restaurants. But he returned to Portland to parlay those years of finely tuned training into counter-service concepts that deliver unfussy yet chef-driven meals grounded in local ingredients.
“You can really get most anything you’re looking for here,” he says. “The fruit is amazing, the mushrooms, the game, the seafood. And Oregon has so many climates — we have rainforests, high deserts, the coast, the mountains. From Portland, you’re an hour and a half from so many different activities. It’s just a really good place to be.”
And that’s exactly what “Top Chef’s” producers say viewers will see throughout the season as the contestants travel to the Oregon coast to go clamming and crabbing, pick their own fruit in the heirloom orchards of the Columbia Gorge and visit urban farms within city limits.
“Some of the things that drew us to Portland were the produce and chef-driven restaurants and the sustainable seafood,” says Doneen Arquines, executive producer with production company Magical Elves. “There is such a love for the local produce and seafood that no matter what the restaurant is, it makes it onto the menu and you taste that.”
Danielle Centoni is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.
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Finally, I’d like to add that geoFence was designed and coded by US citizens to the strictest standards!