Miami chef and restauranteur Barton G. weighs in on Top Chef.
What a horse race with long shot Dale charging past odds-on favorite Casey to go neck-to-neck with her most serious contender, Hung, for a photo finish! Mercifully, that's about as far as my knowledge of horseracing will get me on the analogy front. But I do think it's apt. Going into the last challenge, Casey was the America's sweetheart favorite who had been on a roll collectively kicking her male contenders butts as she so gleefully noted during the live finale (about the only thing she had to be gleeful about having just watched the show -- more about that later). Then there was Hung, universally acknowledged the most technically proficient contender whose likely presence among the final three was clear to many by mid-season and Dale, who despite flashes of brilliance throughout the competition, got to Aspen by the skin of his teeth.
Last week I said Dale should not be underestimated and he proved that in the finale. With what has lately become a signature balls-to-the wall approach, he planned a menu that required the stretching of his culinary imagination and experience. "Game on!," as he pronounced with such relish, Dale was indeed intent upon cooking the meal of his lifetime. To a great extend he succeeded -- the foie gras mousse was deemed too much, too heavy, and in dire need of toast, but it was also good. Then he wowed the table with his spontaneous fourth course scallop and his lamb poached in duck fat (a device I expect we may see popping up on menus nationally) was clearly sensational rating the declaration of being a triumph by Tom. (And wasn't Dale's delight in hearing that a pleasure to watch?!) It if hadn't been for that pesky gnocchi and lobster concoction which showcased Dale's Achilles heel of inconsistency, he might just have nosed out Hung for the Top Chef title. Of course I wasn't there, wasn't privy to the judges' deliberations -- and the power of editing can never be discounted -- but I got the distinct sense the judges liked Dale's two "winning" courses somewhat better than Hung's two, Todd English's three-star Michelin evaluation of Hung's duck dish aside.
But they couldn't ignore the lobster screw-up, nor should they. A couple of postings ago I made the case for technique translating to consistency and that consistency is all important to a chef and his/her restaurant. That's where Hung edged out Dale. His four dishes were consistently well-executed. They all worked, even if they did all quiet sing. No question he wasn't as daring as Dale and I think the judges knew that. I didn't buy his statement that he'd never done any of the savory dishes before. And I don't think the judges did either. Which is why I also think that -- OK and now I admit it -- like me, they, or at least a couple of them wanted to be able to anoint Dale the big winner. However, based on his performance in the challenge, the judges had to make him Top Chef. I don't disagree with their decision; he deserves it. Andre Soltner said Hung was the one he would hire. So would I, because there is no question Hung can be counted on to deliver, consistently.
Moreover, after this challenge, if there was any doubt about his communication skills and logistical adroitness, both requisites for a top drawer toque, they were laid to rest. He may have had Rocco DiSpirito's head spinning with a dizzying list of ingredients, but Hung also had him working, taking every advantage of having such a skilled sous-chef at his disposal. Casey and Dale, however, as pleased as they were with their respective celebrity chef pairings, seemed to work with them in a less commanding manner. Certainly the only real chemistry we saw between the culinary couples was between Hung and Rocco. And I thought Hung's use of the propane stoves to create a private cooking area was genius; although I wondered if it really was in sync with the spirit of the challenge. Didn't Tom make a point of noting in this finale, for the first the, chefs were all going to cook simultaneously and in the same kitchen? Well, Hung avoided any possible rugby scrum at the stove; he was essentially operating in a different kitchen to my mind.
Now, enough about Hung and about Dale for that matter. What about lovely Casey? Maybe it was the altitude -- I've been to Aspen and I know it affects me. She was a bit frazzled and uncharacteristically undecided, apparently thrown off to be having too much at her disposal. She even alluded to that in her awkward "this and that" discourse at the Judge's Table. I felt bad for her watching the show, as it became so clear she was out of the running; I would have felt worse had I known she was watching the show while was knowing she would have to face the judges on live national television one last time, certain she didn't have a chance in hell of winning. That stuck me as almost cruel and inhuman punishment. However, she handled it with impressive aplomb, acknowledging it had not been her challenge and ceding victory to her competitors while getting off that gleeful statement about her previous encounters with their posteriors.
No, she's not going to fade off quietly into the sunset. Casey came very close to being the first female Top Chef, a fact that will benefit her career enabling her to further flex her undeniable culinary muscle. She's going to be a force to be reckoned with. Ditto Dale, regardless of his status as the first openly gay cheftestant to come this close to winning. As for Hung, the first Asian to take the top honors -- hey, no matter who won, a Top Chef first was in the offering -- won't it be interesting to see what he does with his piece of the American dream that he went after with such relentless determination?