Chefs Byron Gomez (from left), Shota Nakajima, Jamie Tran, Dawn Burrell, Gabe Erales and Maria Mazon at Willamette Valley Vineyards’ Salem Hills estate after the finalists (Nakajima, Burrell, Erales) drew knives to see who would choose their sous chef first to aid in the final elimination challenge of “Top Chef: Portland.” ##Photo by David Moir/Bravo
Finalists Shota Nakajima (from left), Dawn Burrell and Gabe Erales serve their dishes to an all-star judges’ panel alongside host Padma Lakshmi, head judge Tom Colicchio and judge Gail Simmons in Willamette Valley Vineyards’ tasting room. ##Photo by David Moir/Bravo
Willamette Valley Vineyards winery director Christine Clair behind the scenes of the finale. ##Photo provided

The Final Course

Behind the scenes of Bravo’s “Top Chef” finale

By Annelise Kelly

The Oregon culinary community has been abuzz for months as 14 episodes of “Top Chef: Portland” unfolded on Bravo TV. Willamette Valley Vineyards, just south of Salem, hosted the suspenseful finale, an unusual three-way tie-breaker, which aired July 1.

Local media was rapt as Season 18 unfolded, delivering episode recaps and updates, along with interviews with two local chefs who competed: Sara Hauman, the chef at Soter Vineyards and Mineral Springs Ranch in Carlton; and Gabriel Pascuzzi, chef/owner of Portland restaurants Mama Bird, Stacked Sandwich Shop and Feel Good.

The ever-dwindling cast of competing chefs delighted in Oregon’s foodie trail, catching crabs and digging clams on the coast, touring the Tillamook Cheese factory — each inventing a single dish using cheddar cheese five ways — and visiting the Columbia Gorge, Mount Hood and the Hood River Fruit Loop, as all visitors should.

Christine Clair, Willamette Valley Vineyards’ winery director, discusses what it was like to host three days of filming in mid-October 2020 at the tasting room outside Turner.

“To start off, we’ve never closed in our history except for inclement weather,” says Clair. “It was quite a spectacle to see all these experts in lighting or set design or audio, and the producers — it was like this little bustling city with well over a hundred people. We had just four of us that could be on site during that time because being the finale episode, it revealed the final three contestants and the ultimate winner. It was very top secret. And it was so exciting. Long days, but just full of adrenaline.”

While the season was broadcast in the spring — Episode 1 aired April 1 — the six-week filming period started in early September, so Portland street protests and wildfires both affected the schedule.

Fire also impacted harvest at Willamette Valley Vineyards, like most other Oregon wineries. Normally, harvest would have taken place sooner, but, according to Clair: “The smoke from the regional wildfires made air conditions such that we couldn’t bring in a crop in early September. So, we were very much still receiving fruit when filming started. We had to shift all harvest activities to the nighttime because during the day it needed to be quiet, with no trucks coming up the driveway.” While harvesting could take place in the daylight at other locations, the grapes were delivered and pressed after 10 p.m.

Surrounded by wine, the “Top Chef” team definitely explored the winery’s offerings.

“That was a really exciting part, being able to share so many of our wines with the contestants and the judges,” Clair explains. “We received great feedback about the food-friendly nature of a lot of our wines because they’re very balanced, moderate alcohols, a lot of freshness and acidity. Kind of behind the scenes, we would hear from the chefs like, ‘Oh, I want to feature that in my restaurant’ or ‘Oh, this will go great with this and that.’ Often at the judges table, they would enjoy more of the Chardonnays and rosés because they were filming and didn’t want to worry about teeth stains, but I can promise that they were loving the Pinots after filming.”

The team of chefs had access to Oregon’s agricultural bounty as they crafted their menus. For example, in Episode 4, they incorporated local fruit; Episode 6, local mushrooms; Episode 12, Oregon Trail ingredients, and so on... Episode 9 was an homage to “Portlandia,” so hipster ingredients and vintage kitchen equipment were the limiting factors — actors Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen served as guest judges. In the finale, viewers saw snippets of the chefs shopping in such places as Bauman’s Farm & Garden in Gervais and Side Yard Farm & Kitchen in Portland’s decidedly cool Cully neighborhood.

“Throughout the whole season, we felt that Top Chef did an excellent job highlighting a lot of Oregon, from Hood River to the coast to wine country,” Clair says. “I think it was really fitting in the finale to have the contestants work with local farmers and purveyors to get those specialty ingredients that kind of spoke to our place along with their culinary style. I know the production team worked really hard on giving them a variety of options they could select from on that day.”

When asked about the most memorable story, Clair laughs, “It’s kind of a funny story that will always stick with my team. The deliberations and selecting “Top Chef” went on for hours, they took the decision so seriously and really went through so many different considerations, and it ended up going to past midnight on the last night of filming.

“After the winner was announced, there were celebrations and filming and promos. So, we didn’t get done with filming until quite early in the morning, and, at that point, the cleaning crew hired for the kitchen was gone. The four of us winery staff that were here on site had to do it all — the next day we opened at 11 a.m. And so there we were, at 5 a.m., scrubbing some of the last pots and pans and sweeping the floor. It was such a hilarious thing to us: Here’s this world-class culinary competition that we got to host, and it was so incredible, but we also had to clean up.”

All three contestants competed out of Willamette Valley Vineyards’ commercial kitchen, each with their own assistant and zone, but sharing some equipment. “They were very, very respectful in coordinating and making sure that anything they were doing was not impeding on someone else’s success,” Clair explains.

“You really could tell that all three of them, and their three assistants, really respected and genuinely cared for each other and wanted the other people to bring their best menu forward,” she continues. “It was very jovial and lots of lending a hand or tasting something. They had a lot of collaboration, which I think we always greatly admire because that’s part of the reason why we love working in the Oregon wine industry; it’s got that same kind of spirit.”

Filming may have ended eight months ago, but “Top Chef” remains an influence in the kitchen at Willamette Valley Vineyards.

“Our winery chef and his team, they’ve been watching all the episodes and having fun kind of recreating some of the dishes, and serving them, too, on our daily menu or with our wine dinners.” In fact, the winery hosted a viewing party during the finale and Chef DJ recreated some of the dishes from Episode 5, “Meet You at the Drive-In.”

The culinary inspiration continues. Willamette Valley Vineyards will host a “Top Chef” Behind-the-Scenes Wine & Pairings Experience and a “Top Chef” Inspired Pairings Wine Dinner, both slated for August.


Patty Melt with Gruyère, Caramelized Onions, Barbecue Sauce and Arugula on Marble Rye

Courtesy of Brooke Williamson

“We forged a really nice friendship with Brooke Williamson,” says Christine Clair, WVV winery director. “She was the Season 14 winner and one of the guest judges. She took some of our wines back and did a fun pairing: a gourmet patty melt to pair with our estate Pinot Noir.”


4 6- to 8-ounce beef patties

* salt and pepper, to taste

8 slices marble rye, buttered and toasted

8 slices Gruyère cheese

1 cup caramelized onions

¼ pound arugula, washed and cleaned

1 cup barbecue sauce (below)

Barbecue Sauce

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 poblano pepper, roasted, peeled and sliced

1 red bell pepper, roasted, peeled and sliced

½ cup canned crushed tomatoes

¼ cup cooked bacon, finely chopped

1 yellow onion

4 cloves garlic

2 ounces sherry vinegar

4 ounces light brown sugar

2 ounces tomato paste

1 tablespoon chili flake

2 ounces Worcestershire

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon smoked sea salt

2 teaspoons fresh ground black pepper

1 cup chicken stock

Sauce: In medium saucepan over medium heat, add oil and sweat onions until they begin to soften and brown. Add garlic and peppers; cook another 5 minutes. Add remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low. Cook for about 40 minutes, until ingredients are soft and mixture resembles chunky sauce. Reduce liquid by at least half. Season with salt to taste.

Burgers: Season patties with salt and pepper; cook to desired temperature over high heat in cast-iron skillet or on grill. Top each patty with two slices cheese and broil just until cheese melts. Place patty onto slice of bread and top with caramelized onions, warm barbecue sauce and arugula; top with remaining slice of bread. Cut in half and enjoy.


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