We will check in occasionally on Shota Nakajima’s journey through season 18 of Top Chef.

Tom makes everything better.

Previously, on Top Chef: Fantastic African fare!

Last night’s episode begins with a moment of television history: The first time a group of sentient adults have stood as one and applauded a cabinet full of Campbell’s soup cans. Yep, we’re kicking things off with a classic product placement quickfire. At least this one makes more sense than last year’s tribute to the latest Trolls movie.

Chefs must choose a foundational can of Campbell’s (cream of mushroom, tomato, etc.) and make a dish inspired by a food memory. And not just a bunch of casseroles, guys.

Some chefs interpret “food memory” as “my memory of the vacation I took in 2018 to a gastronomic capital of the world.” Shota’s plan seems pretty brilliant: he dilutes some cream of mushroom and adds bonito flakes to make chawan mushi.

So, technically adept, but also hitting that whole Campbell’s nostalgia theme in an unexpected way. Shota tells the camera that chawan mushi makes him think of his mom. “She cooked every single day of our lives when we were growing up. I think that’s kind of a big inspiration of why I became a cook.”

When she was not making chawan mushi, mama Nakajima apparently also fried a lot of karaage during Shota’s childhood. If Top Chef Parents ever becomes a spinoff, we know who’s going to kick some ass.

Unfortunately the steamer basket Shota uses does not kick ass. His chawan mush emerged with its center kinda broken, a worthy symbol of pandemic-era America, but not so great for winning a quickfire.

Padma and Dale and Dale’s gleefully loud sneakers are judging this round. “Did you mean for the chawan mushi to be this loose?” Padma asks.

“I like it pretty loose,” Shota tells her in the moment. “Not really,” he tells the camera in the cutaway interview.

Shota has one of the judges’ least favorite dishes. Meanwhile, Chris Viaud wins with a grilled cheese that has a room full of accomplished chefs craving one of their own. Not to compete with. To eat.

Padma previews tomorrow’s challenge: A trip to the orchard’s of Oregon’s Hood River Valley. Do people actually call this region the fruit loop? Or is that like calling San Francisco “Frisco”? I’m reasonably sure nobody said this when I was growing up, but that was also before the era of destination marketing.

Cut to a fleet of BMWs wending their way through scenic evergreen-lined terrain. “Now I understand why people want to live in Oregon,” says Kiki, who apparently is immune to the charms of progressivism, no sales tax, and having a beaver as your state animal.

The chefs are greeted by a scenic orchard and another Top Chef classic: the twist. They must cook savory dishes using fruit, but no vegetables of any kind. No onions, no garlic. No chilies for poor Maria.

Chefs cavort through the orchards gathering fruit; it’s weird to see bougie apple-picking that doesn’t involve selfies. Tom swings by for a refreshing round of culinary advice, old school Top Chef style. Avishar, fresh off his win for making a fancy buckeye, tells Tom he’s making “Ohio-otto,” the Buckeye State’s answer to risotto. Tom’s physically pained reaction definitely became a meme within seconds of hitting the airwaves. He also advises Kiki that, with a grill and smoker standing by, maybe using a tiny countertop fryer for her chicken wings is a horrible, awful, no good, very bad idea.

Shota is making salmon atop a bed of pickled fruits. He samples the “orchard jus,” a sort of mole proxy Gabe will put atop smoked plums, and whispers, “That’s nice dude; that’s better than my dish.”

As the judges assemble in the world’s most scenic orchardside gazebo, the chefs are nearby, battling the elements. Bees and butterflies alight on proteins. Portland Gabriel get stung by a bee on his finger as he prepares to shuck a bunch of oysters. High winds complicate Byron’s attempts to thread sheets of pasta dough into his KitchenAid.

Shota’s in the middle, which means he doesn’t see any judges table action.

The winner: Gabe with his rad fruit mole! Serving a savory fruit dish with zero meat and a smoked plum as the central “protein” was one high-stakes flex.

The loser: Ugh, I almost couldn’t watch this part. The foreshadowing of poor Kiki’s raw chicken was like the script of a horror film. DON’T GO IN THE BASEMENT FRYER.

Next, on Top Chef: A drive-in! No, not the Canlis one!

Stray thoughts:

  • Forget Padma and Gail. Tom’s Huckleberry Finn straw hat might be the sauciest sartorial decision this season.
  • Shota and Avishar might be buddy comedy material, but Maria Mazon needs her own damn show.
  • I am very invested in Chris Viaud finding his mojo.
  • And dammit, Jamie is pretty endearing, even though she added a soup-slurping noise to her nervous-tic beatboxing repertoire.
  • Between the beer, the coffee, and the fruit, Top Chef Portland draws on an awful lot of themes that would have been more at home in the long-ago Seattle season of Top Chef. Instead we got a pool party and a trip to Alaska.
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