Ted Allen talks about Hung Huynh's Top Chef win.
For me, this final episode brought us one of the simplest, best, most defining moments of the entire season: The scene when our three finalists first approached their ingredients at 11,200 feet, on top of Aspen Mountain. What did all three of them immediately do? They looked, they squeezed, and then they gnawed right into every vegetable that piqued their interest to see how it tasted. That, as much as anything else you'll ever see on this show, is what it means to be a good cook. Everything starts with great ingredients -- the dish, the menu, the music, whatever, all should be inspired by what is tasting great NOW. (In other words, this is no time to be cooking a spring vegetable like asparagus; git yourself some zucchini, friends!) All three of our finalists are artists. It has been a privilege to taste their food, and a serious responsibility to present my opinions about it. I have the deepest respect for all chefs, and, particularly, for these chefs. Their strength under incredibly difficult circumstances is inspiring. Folks, you have no idea how hard this competition is. I don't even really know. And so, at last, we are finished. Mister Hung: Congratulations! For more Ted Allen, check out his iVillage interview here.
I have never agreed with the notion that Hung's food lacked "heart" or "soul." Ever. You see it in every knife stroke, and you taste it in (almost) every dish. Yes, he has seemed less than cuddly with his competitors at times -- I think that's really what Hung's detractors are reacting to. We should consider, though, that most of that was really the product of editing, prodding by interviewers, a few ill-chosen remarks, and a not-very-convincing job of trying to be the Santino/Jeffrey/Marcel/Stephen that Hung thought the show wanted him to be -- a natural hazard of this wildly successful reality format. Set that stuff aside for a moment, and chew on this: What drives a young man to become that excellent with a knife, that relentless with his curiosity about cooking techniques? Who else in this cast has worked harder to master the classics and to explore new frontiers in food, to scratch and claw all the way into the kitchen at Guy Savoy in Vegas, a restaurant so exacting that it's hard to draw parallels? I dunno -- the oncology unit at Sloan-Kettering? The Boston Red Sox? The New York Philharmonic? The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street? Watching Hung tonight was nothing short of thrilling. Energy. Purpose. Confidence. Passion. And, most definitely, a profound love for his craft. How cool is it for Hung to hear chef Todd English say of Hung's sous-vide duck, "This is three-star Michelin, in my view!" That's probably a greater achievement in Hung's mind even than winning this contest. (For those who don't know, three stars in France's famed Michelin Guide is the highest possible rating -- and is this close to impossible to achieve. In the entire U.K., there are just three restaurants with this rating. Even scoring a single star from Michelin is a huuuge deal.) For more Ted Allen, check out his iVillage interview here.
Watching Dale was thrilling, too. At this writing, Padma, Gail and I have just finished a live, promotional segment on NBC/iVillage's "In The Loop." Dale was there, too, cooking a dish for hosts Bill Rancic, Ereka Vetrini, and Kim Coles. And he just seemed so centered on-camera, so easy and confident with his pots and knives and ingredients. After a hard year, he has found his way again as a chef. It's going to be really fun to watch his career take off all over again. He's a class act and a gifted guy. Casey didn't have the best couple of days in this contest -- she overreached, I think, and none of her dishes really worked except the final one. But you could still see her fire, her spirit, her passion for exploring. Third place is not as fun as first, obviously, but it's still a hell of an achievement, here. Casey is a great chef. The world has seen that. And she'll also be a culinary force to watch in the next few years. For more Ted Allen, check out his iVillage interview here.
Let's talk food. And enough nit-picky criticism: let's focus on the good stuff. For me, the most delicious dish of the meal -- and possibly of the season -- was Dale's perfectly seared scallop with purslane and marinated grapes. The freeze-dried corn was such a perfect Dale touch -- witty, unpretentious, yet avant-garde, too. A great note of texture and sweetness. I love that he rocked the underappreciated purslane -- an herb-slash-veggie that was common in medieval England, among other times and places, but is rarely seen on the table today. It brought such a lovely, unexpected note to the gorgeous sauce of perfectly ripe grapes, which, in turn, married so nicely with the juicy, sweet scallop. Dale's lamb poached in duck fat -- talk about mega-decadent! -- was also transcendent. (I really wish I were eating that right now instead of this ham sandwich from room service!) And Dale, like Hung, got one of those incredible moments from a judge -- Chef Tom, this time. "Second dish was just a triumph," he said -- and wasn't it delicious to see Dale beaming? "It's a dish you should keep with you the rest of your life." Note to chef Carol Wollack in Chicago: How about putting this dish on the menu at Sola? For more Ted Allen, check out his iVillage interview here.
But Hung wowed with almost every course; his perfect hamachi "fish- and-chips" starter was clean, bright, and light -- a perfect choice for the opener. His prawn dish brought together the stalwart Asian ingredients of palm sugar and coconut with a terrific piece of shellfish, and was composed and balanced in a beautiful, modern way with his ocean-scented rice and radish salad. And then, his symphony reached its crescendo: Duck breast cooked sous-vide (that is, vacuum-packed, placed in a precisely heated water bath, and brought slowly and delicately to just the temperature needed to achieve medium-rare). I loved how he applied this sexy, cutting-edge technique to this granddaddy of elegant proteins. I loved the powerful broth, and the earthiness of mushroom ragout struck a pitch-perfect note. He nailed every dish. Hung only got close to trouble with his surprise course -- the warm-center chocolate cake with raspberry sauce. It was perfectly cooked and beautifully plated; it's just such a common idea that many judges thought it was a bit cliche, a bit lacking in creativity. But it was undeniably delicious. I think you could also argue here that Hung took a risk doing a dessert when he didn't have to (although we do not award points for that), that he departed from his choice in some earlier battles to cook for himself rather than his customers, and to instead give his diners some classic, chocolaty satisfaction that he knows everybody loves -- a gesture of, dare I say, humility, even? Boy, is this ham sandwich tasting crappy right about now. Not that I deserve any sympathy for my diet, these days... For more Ted Allen, check out his iVillage interview here.
Hung won decisively, and he won fair and square. It's great to see such a talent take the prize! Hung IS the Top Chef. So that's all for now, dearest blogoscenti! It's been fun and rewarding to have these conversations with you here -- many thanks. Until Season 4, stay with us for the swan-song season of Queer Eye (God, I can't believe I even attempted to play the guitar on national television last night!), and Tim Gunn's fabulous new show. And, of course, Project Runwayis right around the corner! I'm traveling a lot this holiday season, doing demonstrations at food festivals and whatnot -- look me up at tedallen.net, and come say hello!
Eat well. Be well. Love on ya. Fin.
For more Ted Allen, check out his iVillage interview here. P.S. -- Here's a few more thoughts from Ted! In response to one of our commenters below, he has this to add: Actually, Randy, I'm glad you ask: I bit my lip and kept myself from saying, "Well, Hung" for the entire season, not being one to jump for the cheap joke (at least, not too often...) And then, what should happen but Padma saying it spontaneously and innocently when Hung walked into judge's table in Aspen! (I had to bring to her attention during the next break the fact that she had said it at all! Loved it!) In related news, when I used "The Other Side of Aspen, Part 1" as the title of an early blog post, I had no reason to expect to be able to use "Part 2," as well--at the time, the finale was slated to shoot in Puerto Rico. (Not that I have ever seen either of those famous art films.) Ah, happy fate! I miss Season 3 already! Let me also say that we judges are extremely gratified (and a little surprised) that the overwhelming majority of viewers saw, as we did, that Hung earned his title. He really did. Dale and Casey are doing very well since the finale, and I truly believe both grew tremendously from the experience. I did, too. See y'all soon! xo --T