Walking onto this season of Top Chef (which airs tonight, April 1, on Bravo), Gabriel Pascuzzi — the Portland native responsible for Stacked Sandwiches, Mama Bird, and the incoming bowl spot Feel Good — knew the set pretty well. Filmed in Portland and other Oregon tourist destinations, Pascuzzi knew his way around the seasonal produce, knew the filming locations, knew guest judges like Kann’s Gregory Gourdet. What he wasn’t prepared for, however, was the sheer amount of cardio the show required. “It was an extra-big kitchen this year, because of social distancing, so you got your steps in for sure,” Pascuzzi says. “And no gyms are open during the pandemic, so we’re all huffing and puffing — it was a lot of sweat.”
Appearing on a show like Top Chef mid-pandemic was enough to add pressure on him as a business owner, but there were more hurdles thrown at contestants this year than that: A portion of the filming took place during the major wildfires ravaging massive swaths of the state, blowing hazardous air into Portland proper. “I felt like, ‘If I do well on Top Chef, maybe my restaurants will survive,’” Pascuzzi says. “Not being able to communicate with your staff, hoping they’re alright, the fires coming about — you wanted to be there, and you couldn’t.”
These days, Pascuzzi is working on opening his third shop in Southeast Portland, but he’s been taking time to reflect on how honored he feels to just have made it to the show at all — not just for the prestige, but to get to experience the wide range of chefs who make it on to Top Chef. “All of us were super fortunate to be on the show; I’m sure there are thousands of people who apply for it,” he says. “We love seeing other perspectives of food. I tried to make a point to taste all the other chef’s food. I came on Top Chef to try other people’s food; I eat my food all the fucking time.”
Eater Portland spoke with Pascuzzi about filming a reality show during a pandemic and re-learning how to think creatively in the kitchen. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I know that you were filming this show during a particularly tumultuous time for the restaurant industry in Portland; how did it feel to be competing in this cooking show during the pandemic? Did the Top Chef team incorporate the realities of restaurant work right now into challenges?
I’m not going to speak for all the chefs, but I think a lot of us brought into the show a lot of pressure to do well. I felt like, “If I do well on Top Chef, maybe my restaurants will survive.” Not being able to communicate with your staff, hoping they’re alright, the fires coming about — you wanted to be there, and you couldn’t. Luckily, I had a good team in place while we were preparing for it, but it’s hard to be away when there’s a raging pandemic and fires going on. They had already closed the restaurants, but I wanted to reach them and tell them they were okay to do that.
This season, it looks like the contestants traveled around Oregon for certain challenges and events; as someone who knows the area, did it feel like you were seeing these areas in a new light? Did you feel like you had the home-court advantage, so to speak?
They did a good job. Whoever did their research on Oregon picked challenges that definitely spoke to Oregon. They were obviously familiar with most or all of the products here. It’s also a sort of disadvantage, because they left out certain Oregon ingredients for challenges, and that’s what I work with all the time. It’s like you’re waiting for certain ingredients to be released.
I know that Gregory Gourdet guest judged during this season and Gabriel Rucker made an appearance; as a member of the restaurateur community here, how did you navigate the potential camaraderie that comes with working in the same town while also recognizing the professional boundaries of the show?
It’s very separated; there was no Gregory and I hanging out; I think we said hi to each other once. You’re going from place to places, producers are around you all the time; I basically only saw him at judge’s panels.
Your restaurants these days are generally centered on very specific concepts — sandwiches, grilled chicken, bowls — though I know you worked in fine dining in the past. For a show like this, did it feel like working underworked muscles a little bit, or did you feel like you had a good handle on a wide variety of cuisines and styles?
There are multiple stages while you’re on the show. You end up reverting to what you know, and then you start to relax and start cooking toward your style the longer you are on the show. There’s a little pressure to cook in a box a bit, because you know there are different people representing those cuisines. We’re all coming from pandemic pivoting, shutting down a restaurant. Even though I tried to practice a lot, it was hard to snap out of survival mode, pivoting constantly, into thinking creatively. It took a challenge or two to wake up the brain and get it working in that direction.
How were COVID-19 protocols folded into the filming of the show?
We got tested every other day, only other certain groups were allowed around other certain people without masks. Everyone would leave that wasn’t in our bubbles. It was like there were bubbles within bubbles. We were in masks, all the time, unless we were on our floor of the hotel. We were indoors a lot; that kind of messes with you. We didn’t have our own kitchens. You’re not touching your produce; we ordered our produce via an app.
What do you want people to know about this season of Top Chef?
This season is going to be like no other season that’s been filmed before. There were mental hurdles that most other seasons don’t deal with. It almost bonds you more knowing this has changed completely.
Top Chef Portland premieres April 1 at 8 p.m. on Bravo.