You may think of Portland, Oregon, as a funky, carefree place where people follow their own groove and do unto others, but if a Travel Portland reception in Washington, D.C., the other night is any indication, Rose City also has a wicked competitive streak. The event was held at Kapnos, a terrific Greek restaurant from Mike Isabella in D.C.’s hot, hot, hot Columbia Heights neighborhood. Travel Portland brought along one of its own rock-star chefs — Gregory Gourdet, executive chef at Departure, a popular pan-Asian restaurant. As it happens, Gourdet not only had competed against Kapnos’ executive chef, George Pagonis, on the most recent season of the TV show “Top Chef,” but made it further in the cooking competition than Pagonis, all the way to the season finale.
Travel Portland decided to play off that dynamic by staging a “Top Chef”–style competition between Gourdet and Pagonis. Their challenge: In 10 minutes, create an amazing dish using the special ingredient, which was freshly caught tuna. “There’s no bad blood between us, I don’t think,” Gourdet said, smiling, as he and Pagonis prepared to throw down. Pagonis replied with mock seriousness: “I’m over it now.”
And then they disappeared into Kapnos’ pantry and freezer, returning to prepare their dishes in the bright, open kitchen, against a backdrop of slowly roasting lamb racks and whole pigs. They moved quickly, chopping and whisking and seasoning, playing to the crowd of Travel Portland guests who clustered around the kitchen’s counter to snap photos. While they cooked, we also enjoyed a spread of Kapnos’ food, which tends toward bright, clean flavors, as well as an Oregon-stocked bar that included Mouton Noir’s O.P.P. (Other People’s Pinot Gris), Primarius Pinot Noir, Yin Yang’s Pinot Grigio Rosé, Willamette Valley Vineyards’ Dijon Clone Chardonnay, Deschutes Brewery’s Mirror Pond Pale Ale, and Rogue Ales’ Dead Guy Ale.
Ten minutes went by quickly, and soon Pagonis and Gourdet had plated their dishes, both of which looked amazing: Mediterranean-style tuna tartare (Pagonis) and Asian-spiced tuna poke (Gourdet). Their next challenge was even tougher — facing a five-person panel of judges hand-picked by Travel Portland: Lisa Dyson, CMP, director of conference services for TESOL International Association; Elisa Dozono, chair of the Orgeon Lottery Commission; Rosina Romano, CMP, director of meetings for the Entomological Society of America; Monique Morgan, CMP, meetings manager for the American Dental Education Association; and Michael Jordan, senior planner for the Nuclear Energy Institute.
It wasn’t easy, having to choose between two succulent dishes prepared specially for them by two world-class chefs, but in the end, the judges rendered a split decision, 3-2, in favor of Gourdet. Who was gracious in victory, and very happy to be representing his city. “Today I’m a true booster,” Gourdet said, “for everything we have in Portland.”