PORTLAND — For Gabriel Pascuzzi, one of two Portland-area chefs competing on “Top Chef” Season 18, having the show finally come to town in 2020 provided a much-needed boost for the local food scene. “It’s kind of the perfect timing,” Pascuzzi says, in that the cooking competition series, which airs weekly on the Bravo cable channel, gives Oregon food and dining a positive national spotlight.
In a recent phone interview, Pascuzzi also sounded a bit wistful about “Top Chef” not being able to film in Portland “during normal times.” Instead, the Bravo series came to the Rose City during September and October of 2020, when measures meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus forced many restaurants to close, or pivot to takeout-only. For food professionals in Portland, the pandemic has often meant lost jobs, financial hardship and unprecedented challenges.
“I think ‘Top Chef’ will definitely help,” Pascuzzi says, because of its focus on local food and ability to broadcast the beauty of the region. The visibility the show offers may help bring people back to restaurants once, as Pascuzzi says, “fingers crossed, we hopefully come out of the pandemic.”
Pascuzzi, a 34-year-old native Portlander, is the chef and owner of Mama Bird, Stacked Sandwich Shop and Feel Good. His path to a culinary career and competing on “Top Chef” dates back to his younger days, he says, when he watched celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse on TV.
“When I was 16, I told my dad I wanted to be a chef,” Pascuzzi says, recalling that his father responded by saying, “If you want to do that, you’re going to go work for your uncle for the summer.”
Pascuzzi did just that, putting in long hours at his uncle’s restaurant in Bigfork, Mont. He emerged from the experience still wanting to be a chef.
After graduating from Wilson High School (now Ida B. Wells High School), Pascuzzi moved away, earned a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts from Johnson & Wales University, and began notching impressive credits. In New York City, Pascuzzi worked for Daniel Boulud and Tom Colicchio (the head judge on “Top Chef”), and in Copenhagen, Pascuzzi was able to cook at Noma, consistently ranked as one of the world’s top restaurants.
Pascuzzi moved back to Portland at the end of 2011, and worked at area restaurants, including a stint as executive chef at Multnomah Whiskey Library, before opening Stacked Sandwich Shop in 2017.
The winning chef will take home $250,000 in prize money. Being chosen as one of the 15 chefs to compete on the Portland season of “Top Chef” was “humbling,” says Pascuzzi. “I’m very grateful for the opportunity. I’m a fan. I’ve watched every season of the show. During my sophomore year of college, we used to watch it together and nerd out about it.”
He was such a fan, Pascuzzi says, that he applied to be on “Top Chef” a few years ago. “I got pretty far but wasn’t the right fit that year.” Then, “during the pandemic, an email popped into my inbox, asking, ‘Hey, do you want to be on Top Chef?’” This time, Pascuzzi succeeded in being cast.
Because of pandemic safety precautions, the “Top Chef” Portland season is like no other. Instead of flying in a variety of guests to sample food and judge, Season 18 features Colicchio, host and judge Padma Lakshmi, judge Gail Simmons, and a rotating group of veterans of the show, including Portland chef Gregory Gourdet.
Instead of the competing chefs all living together at some fancy house, as happens in other seasons of “Top Chef,” the Portland contestants — including Pascuzzi’s fellow Oregon-based chef Sara Hauman — stayed at a hotel in downtown Portland. “We were in a bubble, within a bubble,” Pascuzzi says. “We had our own floor that nobody else was allowed on.”
In addition to the pandemic, the Portland “Top Chef” production had to contend with racial justice protests, and devastating wildfires that in September filled parts of Oregon, including the Portland metro area, with smoke.
Since “Top Chef” Portland premiered on April 1, Pascuzzi says he’s been recognized by “a few people” who have seen him on TV. “I’ve talked to a few people who say, ‘Hey, I’m rooting for you,’ but nothing crazy. I got flagged down at the farmer’s market the other day.”
Some viewers may have also noticed that, in terms of how this season is edited, Pascuzzi has sometimes come off looking a bit cocky. During the second episode, for example, chefs who thought they were making individual dishes featuring coffee and beer learned they instead had to work in teams of two.
Pascuzzi and Dawn Burrell collaborated on a dish that pleased the judges. But the edit included Burrell saying in an interview, “Gabriel’s trying to chefsplain things to me that he has no business doing.”
In the fifth episode, which required the chefs to prepare food for a crowd to eat in their cars at a temporary drive-in movie set-up, contestant Jamie Tran said in an interview that she has some reservations about team challenges.
“If anybody’s a little bit more stronger-minded, it’s going to be hard,” Tran said. “I just know, like, Gabriel rubs people the wrong way.”
Characterizing him as cocky isn’t accurate, according to Pascuzzi. “I’m a confident person,” which he says is different than being cocky.
As for what comes next with his Portland businesses, Pascuzzi has done “a little remodel” of Stacked Sandwich Shop, and says it feels “a little cozier, and a little nicer.” While he’s been able to serve diners on the patio at Mama Bird, he says, “it would be nice to see what it’s is like with both the patio and the restaurant open at the same time. Everything is just baby steps right now.”