Running Man: Top Chef runner-up and James Beard semifinalist Gregory Gourdet reflects on a nonstop year

by
Share This Article

Running enthusiast Gourdet says he gained 20 lbs. during the eight-week Top Chef production. His guilty pleasures? Carrot cake at Blossoming Lotus and the gluten-free, dairy-free mac ‘n’ cheese at Harlow. Running enthusiast Gourdet says he gained 20 lbs. during the eight-week Top Chef production. His guilty pleasures? Carrot cake at Blossoming Lotus and the gluten-free, dairy-free mac ‘n’ cheese at Harlow.
By Amanda Schurr Gregory Gourdet can’t stop. Even now that he’s home, after a whirlwind year that saw the culinary force placing second in the 12th, Boston-set season of Bravo’s smash series Top Chef and, even more recently, landing a coveted James Beard nomination as semifinalist for Best Chef Northwest, the guy won’t sit down. As soon as we take a seat at Departure, the restaurant he’s run as executive chef since 2010, Gourdet hops up to get the table coffee. It’s hardly surprising for the NYC native, who since his move to Portland in 2008 has become one of the city’s brightest new stars, from his kitchen’s award-winning modern Asian cuisine to his hot seasonal party, Electric Summer, to his work with organizations including Our House, Basic Rights Oregon and Share Our Strength. “I’m not that political but I do believe in human rights, the human spirit, and causes that affect our health and our food,†says the 39-year-old Gourdet, an avid fitness fan whose inspirational social media posts have earned him the nickname “mini-Oprah.†As humble and soft-spoken as he is busy, Gourdet says all the “cheftestants†came off fairly accurately through the reality TV lens. “It’s funny because they have cameras on each and every single one of us, so you’re like, ‘I do remember making that reaction.’ They catch you,†he recalls. These days, he’s gearing up for his latest adventures on the road while planning a Denver outpost of the Nines’ signature restaurant. All that, and some actual running, too. Gourdet spoke with PQ Monthly about the Top Chef experience, which took him to Mexico City for the finale, the Portland culinary scene today, and what keeps him going… and going. PQ Monthly: What was the audition process like? Gregory Gourdet: I actually auditioned a very long time ago, like season two or three, in New York, and then when I moved here I auditioned again, and then this time, my friend Grayson Schmitz, who was on season nine in Texas, she’d suggested I do it and I said no, and then a casting producer from another show I was on called Cutthroat Kitchen was the same casting producer for Top Chef, so she said I should do it…. Just the application process itself is a very huge time commitment, in terms of flying to L.A., all the paperwork, video submissions and the waiting game, because basically you’re on lockdown waiting for weeks and weeks and every time your phone rings and you see an L.A. number, you’re hoping it’s them. There’s a lot of anxiety around it. PQ: This season was relatively free of drama. Did you have any expectations going in? Gourdet: It was a very personal thing. For me, I didn’t really talk to anyone for like the first half of the show. I was very much in my room, working on my recipes and I won a lot of stuff in a row, which was awesome, I was very focused and then you loosen up a little bit, or it just changes, some people leave, and you realize no one can hinder your performance, you’re just kind of competing against yourself, so I was definitely avoiding drama. I was not getting involved, I was just very focused on the food in hand. But at a certain point, there’s fewer and fewer of you so you’re bonding a little bit better, you’re talking a little bit more, you realize that you’re in this weird, crazy situation that’s kind of shitty but kind of crazy fun and all you have is each other, so you can commiserate and hang out. PQ: Was it surreal to witness the public response as the show aired? Gourdet: Yeah, it’s weird. The day the first episode aired I was expecting this amazing thing to happen, like 10,000 more Twitter followers overnight, but it wasn’t overnight at all. It was this really gradual thing, and by the end it’s just insane. I was in Thailand. I got stopped like four times by people who recognized me—just standing there at the airport, not even turned around so they see my face, like just tapped on the shoulder, people were like, “Hey, hi.†… The scope of the show, the reach is pretty huge.
“There’s a certain expectation, I think, especially living somewhere like Portland where there are so many amazing places to eat and people eat here as an activity. … We can’t really fake stuff here. You can’t not be amazing and use the best ingredients and try to push yourself because people are expecting it, people are looking and they know what they like.†“There’s a certain expectation, I think, especially living somewhere like Portland where there are so many amazing places to eat and people eat here as an activity. … We can’t really fake stuff here. You can’t not be amazing and use the best ingredients and try to push yourself because people are expecting it, people are looking and they know what they like.â€
PQ: What about the reaction, nationally and beyond, to Portland as the home of two—along with Imperial’s Doug Adams—of the final three cheftestants? Gourdet: We’re on the map. I think the most amazing thing for me has just been the support that we’ve gotten here. I think it’s cool that we live in such a small town and everyone really rallied behind us. That’s probably what made me the most emotional, just seeing all that. I wasn’t really emotional throughout the show. When I landed in L.A. after our time in Mexico, I had a little emotional breakdown because you realize it’s all over and you’re stuck with what just happened. But it was mostly like just thank you letters that I’ve received, like after the finale, people telling me, “You did such a great thing for Portland,†and they’re so proud. … It’s just so nice! I just felt like I just did what I was supposed to do to be on the show, you know? PQ: Looking back on what you’ve accomplished, what has most inspired you? Gourdet: A lot of things. I mean, my recovery is probably the biggest inspiration keeping me going. I can equate seven years of my life in New York just battling addiction, falling into addiction with drugs and alcohol, and it took me two years to get sober from the first time I checked myself into rehab to the first night I walked into AA and stopped drinking. … It was this messy thing, so when I got sober in Portland I made it my mission to get super healthy, and I was very public about all the stuff that I was doing so everyone back home could see that I was actually getting my shit together. In terms of success, when I started working here at Departure after I’d been sober for a year and a half, publicly we were just a very different restaurant. … I knew that I was going to have to work really hard to get us in the best light, and that was going to be by connecting with the farmers, connecting with the writers, connecting with the food community, doing my part to serve our local product, doing my part to work with artisans and doing my part to connect with shops, and I’ve made that my mission in the past five years. … So it’s been a series of things and just letting go of the demons of my past and wanting to move forward. I feel a lot better about myself. PQ: What do you say when people approach you? You’re an ambassador for the city, but also a role model with how candid you’ve been. Gourdet: Honestly, one of my problems is that I kind of bury my head and I just go and I just think about what’s in front of me and what I have to do, and if I have any spare time, I’m gonna put another project in there—that’s something I’ve been doing for the past few years. One of my problems is that it’s rare that I stop and just appreciate things, so [with] the whole Top Chef thing, just being able to feel the gratitude surrounding that and just everyone reaching out and saying thank you for what I did for Portland, that feels really good. I’m a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, and I know we’re not supposed to talk about it publicly, but so many people have come to me, so many chefs have come to me, at this point I feel like I can’t hold it in. It’s a part of me. … I’m just gonna put it out there because it’s been helpful. And just talking about being sober on the show, my friend was like, “I had my first talk with my son about being sober and sobriety, and he’s 10, so now he understands,†it’s just little things like that. PQ: What’s next for you? Gourdet: It was a really stressful year in terms of me being out of the kitchen for as much as I was. … I’m just really happy to just be back and reconnect with my cooks and just be in the kitchen. Obviously there’s a bunch of trips coming up, but I’m just really happy I’m not going to be gone for eight weeks, because it was quite the bear. Every day I wake up I’m so happy the show’s over, you know? Just for many reasons but, I got to go running today, I’m trying to get back in shape, like all these things I completely put to the side… It just feels good to be here. Visit pqmonthly.com for the complete transcript of our talk with Gourdet.