Presenting their finale meals, with Oregon as a literal and culinary backdrop.

This should go without saying, but the following contains Top Chef spoilers the way Tom Colicchio’s wardrobe trailer contains hats.

After making it to last night’s finale, Seattle chef Shota Nakajima didn’t quite clinch the title of Top Chef for the show’s 18th season. While Austin chef Gabe Erales’s menu seemed a clear champion from the start, I’d argue our man was the runner-up, since fellow finalist Dawn Burrell continued her frustrating streak of leaving delicious elements off dishes that otherwise looked so good I wanted to throw myself at the television screen.

Mystery around Erales's firing for an undefined, but repeated, form of misconduct back in December—after this season aired, but before its contestants were announced—puts a murky asterisk on what was otherwise one of the show's most stellar seasons and a welcome moment of uplift. Here in Seattle, Nakajima, chef-owner of Capitol Hill’s Taku, ends his TV run with a more national profile, a fervent fan base that makes liberal use of his Instagram stories sticker, and entree into a fraternity of Bravo all-stars, should he want it. He's spoken often of the friendships formed with fellow cast members.

More importantly, for a guy rigorously trained in Japanese tradition, Nakajima tapped into a creativity he hasn’t always let loose in his restaurants. The man used cheese five different ways to make a dumpling in the Tillamook episode, for god’s sake. It contained cheese dashi. And it won. Over the course of the season he worked dark beer into a lobster sunomono, made magic with smelt and rabbit, and used his kaiseki training to orchestrate perhaps the best Restaurant Wars menu in Top Chef history. His assiduous social media this season suggests he’s not wasting the professional capital that comes of this national exposure. And I can’t wait to see what’s in store for him, beyond some exceedingly good fried chicken.

The finale itself centered on that classic Top Chef challenge: Cook the best four-course progressive meal of your lives. “The state of Oregon is your oyster,” Padma intoned to the three finalists, as they stood in the majestic Willamette Valley Vineyards. (You know what state actually has oysters? Washington.)

I’m a little confused at a chronology that had Nakajima receive his assignment in the Willamette Valley, then busting up to the closest Uwajimaya in Beaverton to stock up on octopus and sashimi. I guess those sponsored BMWs are pretty fast. His meal included a trio of sashimi garnished with gold leaf, a big-swing octopus karaage, beef tongue curry that honored his mom, and a hoji-cha tea cheesecake with cedar gelato. While Melissa King deemed the curry “a little staff meal-y,” the quibbles around his meal seemed minor (damn that underdone rice). Gail dinged his menu for starting as a fine dining concept, then shifting to his casual concept, an observation that rings a little too canny considering the trajectory of his first restaurant, Naka.

“I think I needed Top Chef,” Nakajima tells the camera, after Erales took the title and the contenders and judges milled around awkwardly with champagne, hugging and chatting like the cast at the end of an SNL episode. Weirdly, the audience needed it too.

I didn’t expect to have so many feels around a show that airs on Bravo, but amid a year of continued international chaos and emotional turbulence, Top Chef offered a real example of how things could be. Contestants with myriad, distinctly American backstories cooked food that drew from their respective cultures and it all looked fantastic. Chefs stepped in to help one another through injuries and time crunches and formed friendships rather than sniping over bogarted ovens and missing pea puree. The all-star-judge panel—born of pandemic bubble necessity—had a mentor vibe and some really good statement jackets. When they all showed up to cook dinner for the finalists, the emotional resonance was real. If competition TV can figure out our shifting social landscape, there’s hope for all of us.

Speaking of landscapes, I'm still envious that Oregon received such a worthy showcase, even amid some tricky Covid logistics, compared with Seattle's long-ago season, which included a weird pool party and a finale in Alaska. Top Chef's new, narrative-centered approach seems to show the surroundings in their best light, not just the competitors.

Since this season began, Nakajima has hosted a ton of fellow competitors for popups and charity dinners here in Seattle, translating that Top Chef energy into something local. “I’m really excited to go home and work without a time clock,” he tells the camera at the episode’s end. So are we.

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