Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

One Step Beyond!!

Anthony Bourdain's thoughts on Hung being named winner.

I gather that Hung won.

Of course, you saw the Olympian struggle, the final, mountain-top face-off before I did. Security was so sphincter-tight in Bravo-land that even a man of known virtue and impeccable reputation such as myself was not allowed an advance peek at the previously taped combat. And where I am, I couldn't catch the live bits. I'm writing this, days later, from my favorite pub in London, The Festering Ferret, where, in between pints -- and bites of meat pie, I finally laid eyes on this historic clash of the titans -- via bootleg download.

Hung won. Not a big surprise for me -- but for many viewers, apparently, a kick in the stomach. I think the right contestant won. And as importantly, I think that Hung's well deserved victory is a nice, stiff middle finger to all those boneheads who've been predicting that "The producers are setting it up so Casey will win," as well as the poor, deluded souls who feel they can somehow taste food through the television screen and who've been hanging on to a few heavily edited comments about "flavor" as "evidence" that Casey was the "better" competitor. What we saw in the finale did not support that hypothesis.

That viewer polls and public opinion seemed to lean very heavily against Hung speaks well, I think, of the integrity of the judging. In fact, there's no more illustrative example of how things really work: Had the judges really cared about appealing to the majority or pleasing their cruel, corporate masters, they would have given the win to Casey, providing the producers with not just a satisfying, crowd pleasing, Lifetime Channel story arc but a heartwarming resolution -- and a moral lesson to boot:

"Heart Wins Out Over Clinical, Soul-less Technical Skill!"

"Arrogance, Overconfidence and Hubris Punished in The Rockies"

"All-American Girl Next Door (Underdog From Texas) Wins Out In Battle With Overqualified Loudmouth Asian Guy"

But they didn't do that, did they? They did what they were supposed to do and gave the win to the Top Chef of the bunch.

In the end the best chef won on the merits. In recent episodes, Sirio Maccione, Andre Soltner, Michelle Bernstein, Todd English, Rocco DiSpirito, and Tom Colicchio ALL clearly recognized a superior craftsman in Hung -- and rewarded him with well deserved wins. THAT is the bottom line. You want to argue with that kind of consensus? Go right ahead.

But let's deconstruct a little. Casey, as I've said for some time, is an excellent cook. Her food, in my experience -- and according to judge after judge -- usually tasted extraordinary. But she choked on the last episode, came up short on every single course -- and knew better than anybody that she would not be getting the win. She can hardly complain about her prep sous-chef, Michelle Bernstein, whose facial expressions she might have read better. Casey made most of her mistakes during the conceptualizing, planning, and prep period. By the time Howie came on board, he was, it seemed to me, more help than hindrance. (The judges loved his sirloin.) I barely recognized the Casey I saw on the last episode. Busted by Colicchio for claiming there were no leeks, complaining about the altitude, pointing the finger at Hung for using half the plum wine, at Howie, she looked confused, disorganized and thrown by the sudden freedom to cook whatever she wanted.

There was, during the questioning by judges, a moment which was not, I hope a telling one. When informed that yet more salmon roe was not welcomed in her prawn dish, Casey reacted with, "That was the thing that ruined it ALL. Alright!..." Fact is, the dish was ruined from the outset by bad planning. It was ugly, busy, and didn't taste anywhere as good as it might have. Her foie dish was ruined by salty roe, her selection of pork belly was a huge tactical error, considering altitude and time constraints -- and the sirloin (which the judges liked best of her dishes), was a desperate throw -- which she largely tasked to Howie. I think she knew already by that point that she was in deep trouble -- and was pretty much beyond caring about the additional course. She's a great cook -- and presumably a terrific chef. If Michelle Bernstein likes her? I like her. She did a very difficult thing making it all this way to the finals. She just didn't have what it took to make that last step over the finish line.

Dale, too, possesses extraordinary talents. And he's shown us again and again that he's capable of stepping up and making shockingly good food. He's got balls the size of casaba melons. But he's also prone towards inexplicable lapses in judgment . In short, he's terribly inconsistent, careening from the sublime to the awful in a heartbeat. His foie gras was too rich and too much. His summer "ragu" of lobster was a terrible idea and was received with the same enthusiasm as unexpected seepage. It was interesting that at one point, Dale is seen yanking off the (tougher) tails and giving away the heads and claws. (Should have done the opposite). He went overboard (as he is dangerously prone to do) with the spices again. And he made gnocchi -- at high altitude -- not once, but TWICE, resulting in leaden little bundles of evil which would have dragged even the best dish down. But Dale should take consolation in the fact that just as typically, he came up with one truly bold and wonderful dish; his lamb chop with "ratatouille". If the story arc around Dale's rise to the finals is a redemption tale -- of a man lost in the wilderness, looking to return and prove himself, he has more than done that.

Hate To Say I Told You So. Hung, Hung, Hung. Was there any question? Was there any doubt? Not in Hung's mind. That is one confident, driven young man. And it ain't just "technique" and knife skills that got Hung all the way. It was subtle, sophisticated flavors, consistency, knowledge of culinary history, the ability to work under pressure, imagination, and the ability to think on his feet. Sure, he smelled which way the wind was blowing with the whole "Heart and Soul" vs. "Skill" discussion and pandered shamelessly to the judges and the audience in recent weeks. So what? I call that adjusting your game to get the win. I call that smart.

His decision to move completely out of the kitchen, set up his own (presumably roomier) work area using the portable stoves (which he'd observed previously to be better suited for the altitude) was breathtakingly shrewd, further evidence of his willingness to cut his own path -- alone if need be. He seemed to enjoy working with his hero Rocco, and had no problems delegating work to him (thereby putting the lie to the "does not work well with others" argument). He worked clean, fast, smart, and organized ,and when asked how it had gone by the judges, he didn't whine, he didn't complain, he didn't point the finger or make excuses, he said he'd had "fun" and I believe him. Where cooking "anything you want" was a challenge for Dale and Casey, for Hung it was like letting him out of the paddock.

His hamachi "fish and chips" was inspired. His prawns looked great -- though they fell a little short on salt and acid. (I believe Rocco's comment was "close ... SO close"). And his duck a triumph. "Three star Michelin" said Todd English. The chocolate cake was an afterthought -- a sweet (if somewhat ordinary) treat. He didn't need it. Hung likely felt ( not without reason) that he'd already won the day. So, congratulations, Hung. You are as good as you said you were -- a rare thing these days. And to those who feel that you have to be "nice" to be a Top Chef, an inspiring chef, a great chef, I leave you with this: Marco Pierre White Albert Roux David Bouley Joel Robuchon.... I could go on, but I have to get back to my pint. See you next year.

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Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

Richard Blais explains why Mei Lin won, and why we'll definitely be hearing from Gregory Gourdet soon.

The finale of Top Chef is the one absolute every season. Make the best meal of your life, in a multi-course tasting format for a room of the "who's who" in the culinary industry.

If you get to the finals, it's the type of thing you can prepare for. Every finalist should have a few four to five course menus floating around their heads, including a dessert, and all complete with options and Plan B's transcribed to their moleskins. And although the knowledge of what's coming is helpful, the format does not play to every chef's strengths.

There aren't too many restaurants committed to such meal services. Which means less chefs experienced with how to "write" and execute them. A progressive meal has to have a certain flow about it. And even the stereotypical versions of the "menu degustation" could force a contestant into cooking a dish that's not in their wheelhouse, for instance a straight forward fish course because "it belongs there."

Tonight, Mei Lin has a slight advantage. She cooks in a restaurant every day that showcases a tasting menu. Her food has been the epitome of a modern tasting menu all season. Many previous times, to a fault. Mei's food is small and precise. Beautiful to look at, and intellectually stimulating to discuss. Cold sometimes, every once in a while a shaved radish plated with tweezers heavy. It's not for everyone. It's not for everyday. But it's the type of food that when done well, can win Top Chef. Win James Beard Award noms. Win Best New Chef honors. Win Michelin stars.

Her future could indeed be bright.

What struck me most about Mei's food tonight however, wasn't technique. Technique and presentation often can get in the way of flavor. But tonight Mei delivered a few courses that were deeply satisfying. Soulful, delicious food that also was presented at a high level and cooked with surgeon's precision. That congee though...combined with a simple dessert that took yogurt and granola to another planet, won her the day. Her other two courses were fine, but suffered from the strains of modernity. Overly plated (the duck) and technically overwrought (the fried octopus).

Gregory on the other hand, it's just not his finest work. You can hear it in his voice as he's explaining his food. He's cooking improv, an ode to Mexico. The problem is, this isn't a jam session at a local cantina. This is a studio session where the chefs should be cooking practiced and refined pieces.

His octopus was a highlight and featured the unusual combination of passion fruit and avocado. It was an explosive start. The following two courses unraveled a bit, with the soup being good, but way too unrefined for the moment and technically problematic (the crispy shrimp heads), and the fish course bordering on dessert with the sugary carrot purée.

The mole was authentic and delicious, the rib cooked perfectly, but the dish felt a little incomplete. I believe Gregory had the better ideas, but just needed to think them through a bit more.

His sadness after the fact, I can attest, is profound. Tearful. Absolute emptiness. Close to the feeling of the sudden loss of a loved one. This may shock some of you, because it is indeed just a game. The mere thought of feeling that way over such silliness is well, silly. But not for us. This isn't the Super Bowl where an athlete loses and they can shake it off. Jump in their Bentley and start thinking about next season. There is no next season. There is no guaranteed pay day for the runner-up. The ten wins you had before don't matter. It just ends. Suddenly. And it's rather sad.

The good thing is, this is certainly, 100%, not the last time you will hear from Gregory. I waxed last week about Doug's professionalism, all of which is very true. But Gregory... Gregory is a special talent. His food (and I can say HIS type of food, because it's unique to him), is a study in refined, exotic comfort. What the man can do with a one-pot meal of braised anything, some chilies, sugar, vinegar, herbs, and spices is beyond impressive. Rarely do I taste food that makes me jealous as a cook. Rarely do I taste food that makes me start thinking about a new restaurant concept. The word inspiring in cooking competitions is sort of like the word "love," when it gets used too much, it loses it luster. Gregory's food however. I love it. It is inspiring.

Congrats to Mei and Gregory! Tom was right, I can't wait to one day say I saw you two way back when, in Mexico, in a little kitchen, before the bright lights, fancy kitchens, and big stages that lay ahead for both of you.

See you next season. I hope!

Richard Blais
@RichardBlais - Twitter and Instagram

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