Extremism in defense of tastiness is no vice.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

And the Top Chef is...

Congratulations, Hung! More so than any contestant in three seasons, you deserve to be called Top Chef.

It pained me, before the decision was read, to see that only 19% of the viewers thought that Hung should win. For me, it was a no brainer. And, despite the editing shenanigans, I think it was for the judges, too. Casey's been spot on for most of the competition, and the flavors she's brought to the table have been wonderful. Dale really brought his A game over the last few weeks, and has put together a few fabulous sounding dishes. Moreover, he's been fantastically entertaining. But only Hung has shown a true mastery of cookery week after week, and only Hung was able to consistently impress some of the most discriminating names in the business. When the words "three-star Michelin" left Todd English's lips I gasped, knowing that it was over--and, I bet the contestants did, too.

The guy from the early episodes? The one the Bravo execs and editing room tried to portray as a soulless, villainous snake? The guy who could cook but not take criticism? A distant memory.

Fuck whatshername from Miami and that Bombay Sapphire dude. Seeing Hung's puppy dog eyes as he cooked for Eric Ripert or duplicated a dish from Le Cirque was enough for me--and that's to say nothing of his playful joy in creating a smurf village out of children's breakfast cereal. One doesn't acquire knife skills that stun Tom Colicchio by accident; he acquires them through years of hard work and love. When Hung says, early in the series, "this isn't the kind of food that I cook," he's saying that he cares passionately about making really excellent food, and couldn't care less if some company shill thinks it goes well with his gin-o-colada du jour. That is a Top Chef.

On to the menus!

The first courses all seemed wonderful to me. I'm a sucker for foie gras, and Dale's with ras el hanout gastrique looked a little messy but sounded flavorful. Too rich too soon? Probably, but I'm not one to complain about a preponderance of foie. Casey also offered the sublime liver, hers with apple, but, more interestingly, paired with a cinnamon scented scallop. Like so much of her work, this has really piqued my interest, and I love the idea of the creamy foie with the sweet, tart apples, leading into the bitter cinnamon and succulent scallop. Unfortunately, I can also imagine how salmon roe would cut through the elegance of this dish. Still, I'm stealing the rest of the idea. Hung's Hamachi fish and chips looked sublime: light and elegant, jaw-droppingly beautiful, and playful yet refined. A perfect starter.

All of the second courses sounded good, too, but none of them particularly stood out. Casey's dish sounded flavorful, and the caviar here seemed better placed than the roe in her first course. It didn't wow me, but did sound delicious. The grapes with Dale's scallop seemed a bit much--I find them very assertive, and I prefer scallop with a lighter accompaniment, like the sweet corn that Dale also used--but the judges loved it, so it would be something to taste. Hung's dish, again, sounded magnificent, a controlled crescendo in his beautifully orchestrated meal. The torturous part is that I know I couldn't pull it off if I tried.

Casey's third dish was a shame, because every good-hearted person likes pork belly. The peach seemed a nice touch, and I think it sounded close to a very good dish. Dale's, on the other hand, was all over the place. Gnocchi, lobster, mushrooms ... and curry? It just seemed a bit confused. When Hung's plate came out, I remarked "That looks amazing." The dish sounded absolutely fantastic. When Michelle Berstein said she was jealous and Todd English dropped the M-bomb, I knew it was. I want to eat Hung's food.

Dale's final course looked and sounded great. I was glad to have him there, an unabashed flatlander representing for the Midwest. I would order that lamb any day of the week. Casey, unfortunately, was having an off day and didn't adapt well to the twist. The sirloin Howie cooked for her looked good, but paled compared to Dale's dish. Then there was Hung. Like his runner-up earlier in the season, Hung recognized that dessert, while not a requirement of the competition, is a requirement of a complete dining experience--and unlike Dale's pineapple, Hung's dish was a classic that actually tasted good. Chef Colicchio remarked that it didn't follow the progression, but I must disagree.

Imagining myself in a happy food coma, tasting the richness of chocolate cake, sipping coffee, and reflecting on the wonderful meal that came before, it seems the perfect, comforting finale to an exquisite dinner. It's the warm and gooey heart of an elegant meal, and it's the soul of a perfect technician who, when he's not running into truffle oil or eviscerating chickens--or perhaps especially when he is--just loves to cook.

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