As the Top Chef: Portland finale approaches this Thursday, some of the local restaurants and businesses featured this season seem to be reaping the benefits of being showcased on small screens across the country.
But it may just be a coincidence. This season happens to be airing as the same time coronavirus restrictions are lifting after a grueling 16 months. Are people populating patios because of television, or because they are sick of watching it?
Either way, Portland’s presentation on a nationally beloved reality competition show comes at an advantageous time, as the city attempts to reassert itself as a tourist destination, and its stakeholders are cautiously optimistic about how long “busy” will last.
We asked six restaurants featured on the show what effect their Top Chef cameo had on business.
Sara Hauman, one of two local chefs featured this season, is head chef here, so naturally anyone doing a local tour of businesses featured on the show would make the journey to Carlton, Ore., for a potential glimpse at the contestant.
According to Julia Bandy, the vineyard’s director of sales and marketing, reservations have been on the uptick, making it hard to manage considering the restaurant is still at limited capacity.
“We’ve never been so booked,” she says. “Some guests have absolutely come in to see Sara since watching her on Top Chef.”
Bandy added that not only were Soter employees stoked to see Hauman compete, but they were happy to see Portland portrayed in a positive light following a rocky year.
“I think Portland often gets overlooked as a destination city,” Bandy says. “It was a great chance to show the world a different side of our region.”
On Episode 3, judge Kwame Onwuachi took the contestants to Portland’s only brick-and-mortar West African restaurant, which shuttered temporarily in December.
Owner Fatou Ouattara plans to reopen in a bigger location later this year, and has since returned to Ivory Coast to develop more recipes from her hometown to add to Akadi’s current offerings of peanut butter stew, fufu, spicy okra, and curried spinach.
Since the episode aired, Ouattara recalls not wanting to take part in the show initially, saying it felt “too good to be true,” until “many conversations” with chef and series alum Gregory Gourdet. The experience, she said, was overwhelming at first, having so many cameras filming her cooking in a small kitchen, but ultimately ended up being rewarding.
“Because we are closed, we have been receiving a lot of requests for reopening,” Ouattara says. “Our sauce sales did go up thanks to that feature, so we hope the hype is still there when we come back for the reopening.”
Episode 3 took a deep look at cuisine hailing from the African diaspora, but also those with African influences, among them Bake on the Run, a Guyanese food cart located in Southeast Portland’s Hawthorne Asylum pod. Guyana, located in South America, takes influence from all over, including parts of the Caribbean, Africa, India, and China.
Chef and owner Michael Singh and his mother, Bibi, run the cart and said filming their segment of the episode was “lightning fast”—crews showed up, and in less than an hour they were gone. It’s hard for Singh to tell if the feature on Top Chef yielded a bump in business because, fortunately, the cart has “flourished” amid COVID restrictions.
“We were open the whole time, and it only benefited us because everything else was closed,” he says. “Because of the show, the whole entire pod is benefiting. Since we are in the back, people who come for us have to pass the other carts, too.”
Not only has foot traffic increased, but the restaurant’s online exposure exploded.
“After the episode, initially we were getting 60,000 views on Google a month,” Singh says. “We experienced a burst, and are now getting over 130,000. I don’t know if that’s a lot.”
It makes sense Top Chef: Portland would include an entire episode dedicated to tofu—the city is home to the oldest tofu manufacturer in America. The contestants headed to Ota Tofu for Episode 10′s “Tournament of Tofu” and met with owner Jason Ogata to learn how it’s been making tofu by hand for over a century.
Ota Tofu is only available in a small selection of local grocers, and many restaurants here use it, but Ogata said the episode yielded dozens of emails asking when, and if, Ota could start shipping its signature nigari-style tofu beyond the Beaver State.
“We’ve heard from businesses who want to use high-quality tofu and loved what they saw on the show,” Ogata says. “Even our social media blew up, and the clicks on our website went through the roof. It showed us we could definitely grow in other markets.”
In Episode 12, Portland chef, restaurateur and local icon Vitaly Paley made an appearance as a guest judge. But just before filming the episode, Paley shuttered his classic downtown eateries Headwaters and Imperial. The sadness he felt was palpable, he said, but being on set for the Oregon Trail-themed challenge was reassuring.
“The fact that they paid attention to folks like myself, [Gourdet] and Naomi [Pomeroy]—long-term food scene people—was nice to see,” he says.
Paley and his partner Kimberley’s 25-year-old flagship, Paley’s Place, is going strong, despite last year’s profound hiccups. And it’s not like Paley’s needed a boost from the show, either. Reservations pre-pandemic had long been coveted.
The restaurant made a push on its social channels and newsletter to promote the show and, since it aired, has noticed an uptick in business. “We’ve been super busy, so it’s hard to say where that business is coming from,” he said. “People are just happy to be out.”
In Episode 8, the show headed to Southeast Portland’s instantly distinguishable events space for the Top Chef fan-favorite challenge Restaurant Wars.
If this season had taken place any time other than in a pandemic, the Redd might not have even been available, says Tess Blessman, director of events.
“The Main Hall had sat largely empty for months and was fortuitous for filming,” she says. “In a normal year, we would not have had the availability for the production team, so it actually worked out well.”
Once the space was allowed to open once again at reduced capacity, Blessman said she fielded a number of requests from folks who saw the episode, especially the aerial shots of the building, and the events calendar has since been filling up.
The Top Moments of Top Chef: Portland
Top Chef: Portland represents the 18th season of the finest reality show on television, and like a maturing teen, there’s a lot less drama and harshness than of some of the earlier seasons—but there was still drama to spare. Ahead of this week’s finale, here are the top five moments and themes from our Bravo TV glow-up.
1. Jamie trying to leave in place of Maria: In the highest drama of Season 18, Maria is eliminated for her wing dish, and Jamie, who is also in the bottom, starts sobbing and asking the judges to give Maria a second chance. “This sounds like a Mexican telenovela,” Maria says. Ultimately, Maria hugs Jamie and asks her to “let me pack my knives with grace.”
2. Richard Blais’ hair: From a truly magnificent pompadour in the first episode to all manner of cascading ginger wave lewks, the former contestant-turned-judge’s wacky hairstyles were a fun Easter egg in each episode.
3. All of Episode 1: As a Portlander, I couldn’t help but get super giddy to see all the shots of Mount Hood, the Rose Garden, the city’s skyline—heck, even a reference to “put a bird on it.” Not to mention seeing hometown faves like Gregory Gourdet, Vitaly Paley, Akadi and Gabe Rucker. It truly felt like we had arrived.
4. The chefs cook with sacred first foods: In this episode, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla shared with the chefs their first foods: salmon, sturgeon, the rare duck potato, and elderberry. The dishes from that episode remain, to my eyes, some of the finest of the season. Sara and Shota made a smoked smelt-crusted rabbit, for goodness’s sake.
5. Top Chef draws the ire of Oregon’s wilds: A few times, the Beaver State bit back. In Episode 4, Nelson tweaked his knee running through orchards in the Willamette Valley, then Gabriel got stung by a yellow jacket. In the penultimate episode, Gregory Gourdet finds himself on the business end of a Dungeness crab, and Shota cuts his hand open trying to open a clam. I can’t think of a season with more nature-induced injuries. ANDREA DAMEWOOD.
SEE IT: The finale of Top Chef: Portland airs 8 pm Thursday, June 30, on Bravo.