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

Shota Nakajima melds minds (and ingredients) with fellow chefs Roscoe Hall and Chris Viaud on the season's very first quickfire.

Oh hey there, Top Chef. We meet again…six years later. And this time, it’s personal. By which I mean the latest season is filmed in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. And, of course, Seattle’s own Shota Nakajima of Taku and, previously, Adana is one of the contestants vying for fame, fortune, and a lifetime supply of San Pellegrino.

Establishing shots! Of Portland! So many bridges! Did you guys know they have food carts?! This new crop of chef contestants reflect on what a shitty, trying year this has been. They file into the Top Chef kitchen, which looks more and more like an abandoned Whole Foods with each passing year.

Padma notes that this crew contains nary a sous chef. “So all of you are used to being the boss, I guess.” Truly though, nearly two decades in, it’s a testament to Top Chef that the participants get more impressive rather than thirstier. This assemblage includes alums of Chez Panisse and Eleven Madison Park, some James Beard honorees and, my god, Houston chef Dawn Burrell has a Beard nom and a past career as an Olympic long jumper. We're like two seasons away from chef astronauts.

Padma explains all the Covid-related precautions the show is taking. “We are getting tested very regularly,” she purrs. Leave it to Padma to make recurring nasal swabs sound like a sex thing.

Our man Shota gets a little introductory screen time. He recalls the agony of pandemic layoffs back in March. “I let go of 30 of my favorite humans in my life,” he says. Being back in the kitchen “is mentally healthy for me.”

Quickfire, ahoy. Before chefs arrived, the show asked them to specify a single ingredient they can’t live without. You can probably guess what’s coming: a knife draw groups everyone into trios; each team must create a single dish that unites fun combos like fish sauce, masa, and smoked trout roe. Or gruyere, caul fat, and Mexican chocolate.

Shota brought kombu. He’s partnered up with Roscoe Hall (rice vinegar) and Chris Viaud, whose choice of butter feels a little uninspired, like saying your favorite pastime is breathing. Nonetheless, the three whip up a lovely sounding combo of scallops with kombu butter, parsnip puree, and some rice vinegar pickles.

Padma is similarly unimpressed with Shota’s co-chefs’ ingredients. “Have you guys ever watched Top Chef? We have all of those things.” Shota and his team land on the bottom of this very first challenge thanks to a lack of acid and inadequate butter flavor (but ample amounts of irony).

Bummer.

Top Chef took cues from a nation of homeschooling parents and set up a pod of all-star alums to rotate in as judges: Kwame Onwuachi, Dale Talde, Melissa King, Amar Santana, Richard Blais, and Richard Blais’s resplendent cockscomb hair.

Elimination challenge time! “From the Oregon ducks to birdwatching, Portland is obsessed with birds,” says Padma, the awkwardness of this line deflating her normal velvet drawl. Even a stale “put a bird on it” joke would have been 98 percent less cringey.

Each chef cracks open an egg to learn which bird they will be cooking. Shota gets duck, a relatively versatile option compared with the poor folks tackling squab and chukar. (Little did I know my dumb cockscomb joke was avian foreshadowing.) Meanwhile, Padma gets in on the mockery of Richard Blais’s hair.

Judge Richard Blais has hair as lofty as his culinary ideals.

Oh lord, chefs must order Whole Foods groceries via tablet for curbside pickup, a fresh sort of hell for people who like to interrogate the quality of their ingredients IRL. Also, the classic “marching into Whole Foods” montage lacks the same gravitas when chefs just pull into a parking spot for a curbside grocery handoff.

The next day, cooking at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, Shota explains his dish, “kind of a teriyaki-style duck, but braised in sauce rather than grilled.” He learned this highly involved nitsume technique from his culinary mentor, Michelin-starred Osaka chef Yasuhiko Sakamoto. “I’m paying homage to my chef because he’s the guy who taught me how to cook duck this way.” That’s a lovely and humble statement, especially among a crew of exec chefs and owners. Shota explains he moved to Japan when he was 18. We are treated to some proof in the form of a teenage photo. This is how Shota might have looked were he part of an early-aughts boy band: big hair, floppy suit.

As the chefs awkwardly exposition-chat about their dishes, Sasha Grumman tells Shota, “your laugh’s my favorite.” Others chime in to agree. I’ve never noticed before; it is a pretty distinct chortle.

Chefs are supposed to use their assigned bird to cook something personal, that helps the judges get to know them. Thus Padma, Tom, Gail, and crew will sample each dish blind. This process leads to a lot of tableside psychoanalysis: One elegant roasted squab dish reveals a chef conversant in fine dining. Tom writes off some duck adobo (a baffling submission by pitmaster Roscoe) as “a bowl full of fear.”

After being in the bottom for the quickfire, Shota lands in the top group for his tender soy-braised duck breast with pumpkin and white miso puree. Which means he lives to see another round of cookery and Portland bridge B-roll. Whew!

The winner: Sara Hauman, a Portland chef with one hell of a resume and, apparently, one hell of a glazed quail. Let’s hope this “OMG I totally don’t think I’m very good” schtick is just a single-ep arc.

The loser: Ugh, the impressive Roscoe Hall gets bounced for that very off-brand adobo, aka the bowl of fear.

Next, on Top Chef: The Tillamook cheese factory! Portland restaurant Akadi! José Andrés on Zoom! Shota doesn’t show up much in the season’s preview montage. Though that could be just because he’s more into honoring time-tested Japanese cooking techniques than talking shit and swiping other people’s pea puree.

Stray thoughts:

  • Usually the first episode of a new season is busy establishing which chef will be the drama queen, the star, the insufferable tool. This time around we have chefs from a variety of culinary backgrounds sharing details about the traditions they embrace—east central African, "modern Alpine," global comfort food. It may not have the classic Bravo appeal of catfights and shenanigans, but it's refreshing. And feels like the right move in our current reality.
  • Okay, I know I said this ep didn't have a villain, but chef Jamie Tran's habit of making sound effects while she cooks got me real stabby, real fast.
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