Portland trendsetting chef Gregory Gourdet loves hosting visitors and showing them around town. So when Bravo’s Top Chef chose Oregon’s biggest city for its season 18 location, that’s precisely the role he slipped into. “For someone who has lived here for so long and is such an advocate for our city and our state, it’s very natural for me,” says Gourdet, part of the new season’s panel of all-star judges.
Premiering April 1, 2021, the show travels to several regions of Oregon including the Portland Region, Mt. Hood and the Columbia River Gorge, the Willamette Valley and the Oregon Coast. Episodes spotlight a West African restaurant in Northeast Portland, make tribute to culinary icon and Oregonian James Beard, and showcase many of Oregon’s iconic ingredients, like foraged mushrooms.
Challenges take place amid the backdrop of Oregon’s Hood River Fruit Loop, where the 15 competing chefs from across the United States pick their own apples, and the Oregon Coast, where they go crabbing and see how cheese is made at the Tillamook Creamery. And since the show was filmed during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic (with COVID precautions in place), contestants worked with Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen nonprofit to feed hundreds of Oregon’s frontline workers, as so many locals have done. One challenge has them learning about traditional fishing and first foods from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, then honoring the tribe with a surf-and-turf meal of local fish and game. There’s even a guest appearance by Portlandia stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein.
Hillary Olsen, the show’s senior vice president of production, says the rich culinary scenes in Portland and other Oregon communities have been on their radar for years, and the timing was finally right for a spotlight. “As we set out to plan a new season, the location itself becomes a cast member and plays a vital part in the creative — from the challenges to the ingredients to the guests in this season — they were all inspired by Portland and Oregon,” Olsen says. “Oregon has an amazing bounty to work with, and we were not disappointed.”
Two of the competing chefs are from Oregon: Portland chef Gabriel Pascuzzi, chef/owner of Mama Bird, Stacked Sandwich Shop and Feel Good PDX (temporarily closed); and Sara Hauman, head chef of Soter Vineyards in Carlton.
One of the hardest parts of the show for Gourdet, he says, was returning to the competitive cooking show as a judge instead of a chef. “I’m a competitor. I love the rush of competing on Top Chef — the thrill, the anxiety, the emotional roller coaster of it all. It’s really addictive to me,” Gourdet says. “But I will say, it was really nice to be on the other side. It was a tremendous opportunity to spend time with the judges and see it from a different perspective.”
Recipe for Change
During his 10 years as executive chef for Departure Portland, Gourdet has earned numerous accolades, including being named finalist on Top Chef season 17 and runner-up on Top Chef season 12. He’s also a three-time James Beard Award Best Chef in America semifinalist, and a nominee in the same category in 2020. Over the years, he’s gained a reputation for his food advocacy, helping to lift up fellow BIPOC chefs and artisans and promote their cuisines.
Gourdet is open about his road to sobriety and is part of a group of local chefs embracing a zero-proof movement. He advocates for food sustainability and was named an ambassador for the Marine Stewardship Council. In 2018 Gourdet took part in a chefs’ boot camp for policy and change, a retreat-style training aimed at helping chefs become more effective leaders for food-system change.
In recent years, Gourdet, the son of Haitain immigrants, has made big plans to bring the food from his childhood to Portland at a new restaurant, scheduled to open in 2022. In the meantime, he’s serving a preview of his dishes at Portland pop-up Kann Winter Village, inspired by Haitian and other BIPOC cuisines from around the world. The restaurant sells meal kits to go and invites diners to book a reservation for a six-course dinner at the restaurant’s custom heated yurts.
Gourdet’s debut as a judge on Top Chef is closely timed to another milestone: the release of his first cookbook, Everyone’s Table: Global Recipes for Modern Health, a compilation of three years’ worth of work. The 400-page book features 200 globally inspired recipes from his Haitian upbringing, his French culinary education, and his deep affection for the cuisines of Asia and North and West Africa.
The book’s recipes were also inspired by a life change Gourdet made 12 years ago. He stopped drinking, gave up gluten and dairy, and began experimenting with healthy diets. He also took up running and loves running through Forest Park and the Columbia River Gorge. While he felt physically better, there’s one thing he didn’t want to leave out of his meals: big, bold tastes.
“When I make something, even if it’s simple, even if it’s fast and even if it’s healthy, I want it to be extremely flavorful and extremely delicious,” he says. “I really wanted to write a book that would help change people’s lives by helping them eat healthier.”
Many of the dishes in his cookbook are plant-based and use ingredients that can be found year-round along with some alternative ingredients such as nut milk, flour blends and different types of fats. Some of the recipes incorporate cooking methods and techniques common in other parts of the world, so Gourdet’s book offers in-depth, step-by-step instruction to ensure his readers aren’t intimidated. “I want people to reconsider what they think is health food, and I want people to feel confident in the kitchen,” he says.