Beyond the whirlwind schedule, constant cameras and international fame that Top Chef brings, Portland’s relaxed vibe is where Gregory Gourdet began to find himself. After working his way up in the renowned Jean-George Restaurant group, he left New York for The City of Roses– Portland Oregon, where he was searching for a fresh start and a path to shake his addiction to drugs and alcohol.
Today, as Executive Chef at Portland’s pan-Asian restaurant Departure, Gourdet’s has parlayed his Asian-fused flavors and unique style into a spot as Top Chef’s coveted final three. As an avid marathon runner, Yoga enthusiast and triathlete, Gourdet opens up about conquering his demons, bonding with Doug in Season 12 and channeling the French flair of cooking legend Julia Child.
Your bond with roommate and fellow Portland “Cheftestant” Doug was very sweet, but he’s also a formidable competitor. What was your first thought when you saw him on the patio in Mexico fighting to return to the competition?
I knew he had a really hard time when he got eliminated. He took it really hard. But right from the beginning, I always knew that Doug was a fierce competitor. Even though we were both competing for the same thing, at the end of the day we’re both human and we both support each other.
I was really happy to see him. He has many lives, as he’s proven on the show so far. It was very interesting to see, but I wasn’t surprised.
During the artists-pairing episode, you did a wonderful job interpreting color and style—we just wish we could have tasted it.
Yeah, it was interesting. I had a really good day that day. Overall, I think in a lot of ways comfort food is something that wins often, because there’s so much mouth feel to it. I had one bite of Doug’s chili dish that day and it was really, really good. I feel it was very fair judging.
Which is interesting, because his dish was so simple. And he was nervous about plating it, too, because all the other dishes were so elaborate.
At the end of the day, there are many rules for the challenges and you can get penalized for not following them. But it’s about the best‑tasting dish winning the challenge. I think it was a close tie, but Dougie’s dish probably had a little bit more mouth feel, and that took it over the edge for the judges.
Do you have a most-memorable challenge of the season, one that you really enjoyed or challenged you?
A few come to mind. On a positive note, the Revolutionary War episode was a good one. I think we had about an hour to prep or something. It was a really short prep time the previous day. I was literally seasoning repeatedly until the very last minute. I just kept tasting and tasting and re‑seasoning and re‑seasoning, right up to where I had to present to the judges. I was pushing myself to the last limits and trying to get it as perfect as possible. Chef Tom Colicchio said it was perfectly seasoned—one grain of salt more would have been too much. That really made me happy with myself. Just to be able to push under the pressure and get something perfect and working on it until the last bare‑bones minute. Thanksgiving challenge was probably one of my worst moments on the show. But it was really cool because to be able to cook in that setting as a chef was amazing. Just to be able to cook over an open flame and with wood and these old‑school cooking methods was great. My dish wasn’t successful though. I feel if I had more time I could have produced a successful dish. But it was still amazing to be able to cook like that. I took important lessons away from that challenge, even though I had one of the worst dishes that day.
Your cooking is obviously Asian-inspired. How did you become so interested in Asian flavors and preparations for your dishes?
I worked for Jean‑Georges Vongerichten for about six and a half years in the early 2000s. He actually got his start working in Asia as a French chef. He was one of the leading French Asian-fusion chefs in the country for a certain period of time. In the late ’90s he pioneered that movement of Asian fusion and early into the 2000s as well. I just was drawn to Asian flavors when I was working for him. I always loved the highlights of fresh herbs, the chilies, and these exotic ingredients that I didn’t work with so much in culinary school or any of my previous employment. So it all started to click and make sense. My first Chef de Cuisine position was working for Jean‑Georges at Restaurant 66, which was a modern Chinese restaurant in New York’s Tribeca. It meant a lot to me. My first official chef position running a restaurant was at a modern Chinese restaurant. It all clicked. I’ve basically cooked at specifically Asian restaurants ever since.
If you could only cook and enjoy one dish for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Would have to be roasted chicken. I’m a pretty simple person. I like healthy, savory flavors. I love cold, roasted chicken with a great chili and spice crust, or rub, served over root vegetables with lots of chilies and ginger. Really clean, really healthy. A perfect Sunday night meal.
How do the judges’ feedback and involvement influence your performance?
Padma, Gail and Tom are the show just as much as the Cheftestants are. They definitely help us a lot with their critiques throughout the seasons. They taste so much of our food. They definitely get to know us, and they definitely help us. It’s cool to be able to get so much feedback from them. Because you want to get better and you want to listen to what someone eating your food constantly has to say about it. Generally it’s good to see them as much as possible on‑screen, because they do give us some insights into what they’re really thinking about our food.
You’ve spoken candidly on the show about your past struggles with addiction. How were you able to overcome that?
Living in New York City, I fell very much victim to the nightlife, party lifestyle. I love going to clubs and listening to music. I’m definitely a nightlife person. It just caught up with me. I was caught up in the lifestyle of the VIP area and just staying out late and listening to tons of music. Today I can channel my tons of energy into some positive things. But 10 years ago, I definitely made some poor decisions with what I wanted to do with my time. In New York, there are so many things at your fingertips all the time. I just took it all in way too fast and way too much. I checked myself into rehab about eight years ago and I moved across the country to California. I moved to Portland, but I still hadn’t gotten my shit together. It really took me moving to Oregon and just falling into the same styles and mistakes again. Just taking a step back and realizing that I needed to take better control of my life. I was lucky enough to have some friends who had gotten sober and clean, and I reached out to them. I really do just believe that it was a matter of timing. I had reached my limit. I knew it was time for a change. Deep in my heart and in my soul, I felt I was really ready to make that change, and I did. I’ve never looked back in the past six years, and it’s been an amazing roller coaster of opportunity and happiness ever since.
How much of a role did Portland—its setting and the change of scenery for you—play in helping you in getting sober?
It was two‑sided. Because in one sense I moved to the town where a lot of people didn’t know me, they didn’t know about my past in New York too much. When I left New York, I definitely had some people who weren’t happy with me. Some old friends that I had to make amends to and all that stuff, just for my behavior.
But I moved to Portland and the only people I knew were old friends from college. We immediately started partying together. But the other side of that was I was in this beautiful, lush, green place where there’s so much food and the food community is so important and so strong.
This place is just a mecca for pursuing a healthy lifestyle. It’s great running. There are the mountains, there’s the ocean, there’s the woods. It just took a quick switch to completely change gears and to realize that I’m a mid‑30s person hanging out with 21‑year‑olds, doing drugs, and I was done.
I changed my diet. I started running. I focused on my career. I started caring more about the food and it’s just steadily increasing. I’ve been able to make my mark in this town and it’s been a lot of work. I have no regrets at this point.
Some Top Chef critics have cried foul about the show’s lack of diversity in the finalists, and Season 12 is a marked departure from that. How is the celebrity chef scene doing in terms of honoring and celebrating diversity?
It’s really about the opportunities you want to take and how far you want to go. If you really look around, there are tons of different ethnicities represented throughout my profession.
Maybe not as many people make it to the spotlight, but I know plenty of black chefs. I know plenty of gay chefs. At the bottom line, we do work in a white male‑dominated profession. That’s probably going to be more of what you see, unless you’re looking for it.
My season of Top Chef of the final four, there’s an African‑American, there are two Asians, and there are two gays. That says a lot, I believe.
Who is your favorite Top Chef competitor from this season or any of the other seasons? Can you pick a favorite?
That’s a tough one. Mei is a fierce competitor. From day one I looked across the kitchen and I knew she was going to be serious and fierce, and she’s proven to be so. She definitely has her ups and downs, but she’s been consistent. She’s always been very, very focused. She’s definitely been a little bit steadier than I have.
I just love Doug. He’s super young. I think a lot has fallen into his lap really quickly. But for being such a young chef, the guy can cook. He has an amazing grasp on flavor, cooking technique and proper execution. He’s really honest with the food that he creates.
I think overall, right now for us being in the final three, there’s three really different styles represented. Obviously I’m a little bit older than the other two, but again, great work by all. It’s nice to stand with them in the final three.
Do you have a favorite from past seasons?
Richard Blais is someone I really respect. I was absorbed every time I watched him or watch shows that he was on. He was the type of person who never got involved in the drama. He was always extremely focused on his food.
He spoke about never making the same dish twice, only creating new dishes on Top Chef. He always worked with confidence and organized calm. He creates out‑there food that has this approachable back-end to it all. He has an awesome redemption story to come back and win Top Chef All‑stars. Richard Blais is definitely someone from past seasons I respect a lot.
What are you looking forward to most coming off of your amazing run on this program?
It’s been a very long year. It’s been a lot of commitment of time. I’m really looking forward to being able to go back to my regular job and focus back on my restaurant and fine‑tune some things. It’s definitely a sacrifice to be on the show, but pays off in the end. It’s been great for business.
I’ve learned a lot about myself on this show, and I’m still learning a lot. Obviously, becoming a popular figure is fun, but at the end of the day I’m way more concerned about my business and making sure my cooks are getting the attention that they need and making sure I’m inspired. Top Chef has given me a lot of inspiration.
I’m just looking forward to traveling around the world and learning more about food. Just being able to do great, interesting events around America. I love traveling, meeting other chefs and working with products from different cities and states.
Since inquiring want to know, are you seeing anybody?
Yeah. I’m single. I just started seeing someone but it’s not defined yet. I am single and ready to mingle, as they say.
You talked about wanting to travel and doing the famous thing and having it be good for business. But is it actually good for your dating life, your love life?
Portland is an interesting town in the sense that it’s more of a lifestyle town as opposed to a career town. For me, my career is way more important than my lifestyle. I’m definitely a workaholic. I think it’s a little bit challenging to meet people who share that same work ethic and have the same drive. I think in that sense, my pool has been a little bit shallow in terms of dating. But if something good comes out of this, then sure. [laughs] I’m not getting any younger. I’m looking for love!
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Top Chef airs Wednesday nights at 9/8c on Bravo
Will Pollock is an Atlanta-based freelance culture and entertainment writer, photographer, musician, artist and author of “Pizza for Good.” He writes about politics, pop-culture, photography and other nonsense on his blog, and you can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.