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

You had me at carbonated grapes.

Previously, on Top Chef: Shota’s mind-blowing duck! A pod full of all-stars! “The stew that isn’t!”

Back at their hotel, the chefs pour one out for the departed Roscoe. Actually they pour many out for Roscoe as everyone contemplates the various ways they fell short in the first round. They are like me on New Year’s Eve: Kinda drunk, opining on What It All Means, and vowing to do better next time around.

An unrealistically sunny morning dawns in Portland. All the judges await behind the long curved counter, which is tricked out with round stools and squeezy ketchup bottles to represent a diner. We get a shot of judge Richard Blais drinking coffee out of a white diner mug, shrugging at the contrivances all around him like, “yep, this is ridiculous, but what are you going to do?” His hair has calmed down quite a bit since last week.

“Portland is an amazing breakfast town,” Padma intones. At least this time around, the take on Portland rings true. Gregory Gourdet name checks a few local favorites (Canard, Fried Egg I’m in Love). The quickfire casts each chef as a short-order breakfast cook, putting a personal spin on whatever classic breakfast dish the judges call out. It’s an incredibly smart, hella grueling challenge.

Shota runs the numbers: 30 minutes to cook eight perfect breakfast plates. “That’s a little more than three minutes per plate.” Look for him soon on Bravo’s killer spinoff, Top Math.

Chefs hover over their buzzers, ready to claim a particular judge’s order. Amar Santana’s request for steak and eggs has a lot of takers. When Melissa King requests “dim sum, just one perfect bite,” it’s crickets. Cut to chef Maria Mazon imagining the horrors of putting her own Mexican spin on dim sum—“Tiny quesadillas? No thank you.”

Shota buzzes in for dim sum. “Whatever, I don’t want to wait anymore.” So does Columbus-based chef Avishar Barua. The two will compete head-to-head.

The Top Chef kitchen is enormous this season, meaning chefs need to full-on sprint to get anything done in their time constraints. Dawn Burrell’s background as an Olympic long jumper suddenly feels like an elite advantage. This extra layer of cardio leaves chefs winded and sweaty. Mmmmm.

Richard Blais may have ditched his rockabilly-on-steroids hair, but now he’s trolling in another way: The last two chefs to buzz in on a dish have to make his request of corned beef hash with eggs over medium, hash browns, and hollandaise sauce. As chef Chris Viaud tackles this monstrous order, Shota shouts his encouragement: “Chris, you’re looking tall and gorgeous, just letting you know.” Now that’s an affirmation we could all use on the regular.

Avishar and Shota ready their dim sum. Avishar made squash fritters; Shota prepped some fried sesame mochi balls that look as dainty and well executed as something in a real restaurant. Avishar expresses astonishment in what his counterpart accomplished in half an hour and pays Shota a compliment over the fryer: “Your balls look better than mine, bro.” Even this season's more thoughtful, culturally enlightened version of Top Chef can’t resist hyping that line for laughs.

Alas, Avishar's fritter doesn’t make it on half the plates. Because this is Top Chef, producers make sure one of the fritter-less plates goes to Melissa King. Shota’s shrimp dumpling mochi tossed in sweet soy and green onion sauce wins the round, partly by default of fritter fail, but it also looks spectacular.

Why is Jamie just yelling the word “cooters” for no reason? Her beatboxy verbal tics are part of the fun “character development” we get in this ep. Sidebar interviews zero in on some of the chefs' personal journeys, from Jamie’s manic anxiety to…uh, every other chef’s manic anxiety. Turns out, sitting at home for six months stressing about the future of your industry isn’t good for the psyche.

An out-of-breath Jamie wins the quickfire for a gochujang-sparked version of shrimp and grits. She beep-boops her way through her thanks to the judges. Avishar translates: “She’s very happy to win.”

Elimination challenge! Padma’s here to tell us more fun facts about Portland. Including its rich landscape of two brewed beverages: coffee and beer. I mean, it’s no Seattle, but sure.

Chefs draw knives to determine whether they will make a dish with coffee or beer. Cut to Shota crossing his fingers for coffee. Naturally the next shot is him drawing beer. Everyone grabs their tablets to place socially distanced Whole Foods orders.

The Emmys should have a category recognizing the intrepid film editors who try to inject drama into a bunch of chefs looking at tablets. Shota declares this challenge “un-beer-lievable,” which prompts an extended play of the chortle that fellow chefs admired so much last week.

He has a plan, though: Lobster sunomono, with beer-pickled components. While other chefs are likely to do strong beer flavors, “I’ll just ninja mode this.”

Sasha and Brittanny lounge on a couch and reflect on the vibe of the group. “If I feel like having a calm conversation, I’ll go hang out with Nelson,” Sasha reflects. “If I want to, like, be crazy and be a little shithead, I’m going to hang out with Shota.” I imagine offscreen Bravo producers high-fiving at the narrative possibilities of a “little shithead” who’s also steeped in badass Japanese technique.

Sasha recounts how she got sober during Covid after self-medicating to deal with the crushing uncertainty. “I want to win Top Chef for all those amazing reasons, but also want to be here to share this story,” she tells the camera. Sasha’s been one of the most visible characters thus far, so my Over-Explication of Doom alarm bells are going off. Ditto for her and Brittanny’s (semi-facetious) declaration that they will for sure be friends forever.

Sobriety and self care is a prominent and vital topic in chef communities of late, so it’s wonderful to have Bravo include these narratives. But maybe a touch weird right before a bunch of chefs go cook with beer?

The next day, everyone adjourns to Portland’s Red Star Tavern. I recall coming here with my family as a fourth grader and being outraged that the kitchen ruined my perfectly good salmon by putting raspberry sauce on top of it. I bet nobody predicted that jerky little rube would grow up to become a food writer!

Tom and his grandpa sweater are back. With a twist. “You are no longer working individually—this is a team challenge.” Beer chefs and coffee chefs must pair off and make a collaborative dish.

Chefs mill around, dazedly, trying to pair off as they process this development in real time. Shota puts up his hand, high five style, and is left hanging until Avishar shuffles up.

Cut to these two in a side interview, wearing T-shirts and joking around about this moment. "Nobody wanted me," Avishar remembers. “I looked left and right, no one locked eyes with me. And then I looked down and I saw Shota.” Wooooooow, superb shade, my friend. Let’s just agree to scrap this whole cooking competition thing and go in on the Shota and Avishar buddy comedy we all need in our lives.

Meet the crime-fighting, lobster-cracking stars of your new favorite buddy comedy.

The two continue Shota’s lobster sunomono plan, swapping in a Japanese vinaigrette with stout and coffee cream. We learn Shota also isn’t drinking right now, though he doesn’t mind cooking with beer. He reflects on how hard it was to close both of his restaurants; how it led straight downhill, to a lot of drinking. “I do need to focus and put myself back together,” he tells the camera. “It’s another reason I put myself in this competition.”

Meanwhile, Gabriel tries to chefsplain ribs and pepper to Dawn, who is not having it. “This dude is crazy,” she tells the camera. "I don’t underseason food.” I need a “What would Dawn do?” bracelet. Nelson and Maria pair up and discuss their plans in Spanish. “It’s like you were holding your pee for an hour,” Maria says of reverting to her native tongue. “And then you pee…and it’s nice.” I officially love Maria.

Aww, Avishar is a covert science dude! He has a degree in biology and is not afraid to unleash some nitrogen on his cold brew butter. He ponders, "What would it be like to eat beer?” His answer: carbonated grapes. “I trust you, science man,” Shota tells him. An unassuming modernist chef who’s quick with a dunk and a little shithead who's all about traditional techniques? Seriously, somebody’s out there pitching a Shota and Avi series, right?

They serve the judges their lobster sunomono, with double cream coffee and stout reduction, carbonated grapes, and furikake. The judges dig the composition, the cook on the lobster, the rich sauce, and the carbonated grapes.

Our duo lands on top; the judges deem their lobster “out of left field,” in the best possible way.

The winner(s): Shota and Avishar!!!

They celebrate with a full-body high five. Cut to the duo recapping to the camera. “Asian sensation,” Shota crows. “Watch out ladies.” The way he says this is self-effacing, not creepy.

Avishar tells him, “you encouraged me to do stuff that I would have been afraid to do by myself.”

“Thank you for believing in me and trusting me,” Shota tells him. Awwww. (Also, his original plan to hide beer in pickles probably would have gone over with a briny thud.)

The loser: I knew we were getting a concerning amount of Sasha backstory. She’s felled by mediocre romesco, and heads off to Last Chance Kitchen. She takes it like a woman. After all, she says, “I’ve been working a fuckton on myself.” Preach, sister.

Next, on Top Chef: Inspired pan-African cuisine! Fried palates! A fried fryer!

Stray thoughts:

  • My favorite moment of forced exposition was Avishar asking Dawn, “what are you doing to make this dish stand out?” Her response: "I’m going to get it on the plate."
  • If anyone (else) is a fan of the Watch podcast, Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald do a thoughtful Top Chef recap each week and declared Shota their clubhouse favorite early on.
  • Richard Blais clearly got a haircut, right?
  • Padma’s way with magenta eyeshadow is nearly as impressive as Maria’s knack for a memorable simile.
  • Cooters!

 

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