Here's the funny thing about television reality competitions: You can plot and plan, you can think you know exactly who deserves to win and who should be sent home, you can place your bet on your favorite player, but when the moment finally arrives it's anyone's game. Heading into the final challenge of our third season, I was prouder than ever of the three chefs who made it. Casey, Hung, and Dale have all fought incredibly hard, tackled their own demons, and cooked their brains out to be there. They have each shown us, at different points in the course of the show, that they are all strong, committed chefs with well-trained palates, sharp skills and the ability to think on their feet.
Dale overcame the heartbreak of losing his restaurant and had not cooked for over a year before dusting off his knife kit and diving back into the fire. How lucky we were to be the recipients of that fateful choice. Casey, the last woman standing, demonstrated time and again that she cooks not just from a deeply heartfelt enthusiasm for the craft, but with a true sense of her customer, proving you can be innovative and interesting, while still serving the food we all crave.
And then there's Hung. Headstrong, resolute, defiant, provocative. Call him what you will but you cannot deny his talent in the kitchen. More than anyone on the show, Hung has been consistent and the most sophisticated in his cooking from the first day on set. Our finale meal at the top of Aspen Mountain proved this more than ever. We ate so well that night and were thrilled with the performances from all our finalists, but while Dale and Casey served us a roller coaster of flavors and ideas (some delicious, some questionable), Hung took us for a smooth, yet exhilarating ride.
Please understand there is no secret equation to choosing our winner. Like always, our final elimination was taken very seriously. We debated and discussed every detail late into the night. In fact, we talked straight through until early the next morning! There were points to be made for each of our finalists and at no time did we take for granted that our decision would ultimately affect the course of people's lives. We judged only on the food that was placed in front of us that night. The process went something like this:
First, we all begrudgingly agreed that Casey had not shown us her best possible side. From how she spoke at Judges' Table I think she knew it, too. It was clear her food suffered from shaken nerves and lack of focus -- we could taste it in her menu. Her Scallop and Foie Gras would have been extraordinary if she hadn't added that dollop of salmon roe. It changed the flavor of the whole dish, completely overpowering the delicate nature of the other ingredients. Her Sake Poached Prawns Over Bamboo Rice was equally confusing. It, too, had a scoop of caviar, which added a muddy taste to the already strong yuzu broth, instead of infusing it with more flavor. I could tell her idea was interesting in concept, if only she had more time to refine it. Her Crispy Pork Belly was so dried out that it was almost impossible to cut, but that roasted peach with ginger pea shoots and cardamom crÃƒÂ¨me fraiche was just as perfect as she claimed. It was her "surprise" course which shone the brightest -- Seared Sirloin with Chanterelles and Ruby Chard, Crispy Fingerlings with Red Wine and Parsley Puree. Although she was the chef, we found out later that Howie was actually responsible for most of the work. I was just as upset as I know so many of you are that Casey was out of the running. She embodies so much of what a true chef should be both in and out of the kitchen. I have nothing but respect and admiration for her confident attitude and, of course, her hard work.
Dale, on the other hand, dug deep for this meal and it showed. Every dish he produced made a bold statement. True, he served us enough foie gras mousse in his first course to give us all instant heart attacks, but I loved the other components on that plate -- the radishes, pistachios, peaches and a pinch of Ras el Hanout (an aromatic blend of spices often used in Middle Eastern and North African cooking) were fresh and thoughtfully combined. Dale's "surprise" course was served second and it sure was a stunner: Seared Sea Scallop with Purslane, Marinated Grapes and Dehydrated Corn. I would have licked my plate, had I not been on camera! After two harmonious offerings, his third course caught us completely off guard. Dale's Gnocchi with Lobster, Bacon, Corn and Chanterelles in Curry Broth stopped us dead in our tracks. Attempting gnocchi at such high altitude was enough of a gamble, but adding such a large fistful of curry to the mix did not help his cause. The balance of flavors was totally off; the texture rubbery and tough. I could have sworn it was a case of the chef not having time to taste his dish before he sent it out, but when we asked him later, he claimed it tasted exactly as he had intended.
Thankfully, plate number four was right on the money. It was one of those rare dishes that worked so well you cannot believe you haven't eaten it before. Each bite of Colorado Rack of Lamb, as well as the deconstructed ratatouille with anchovies and sauce vert, burst with bright, clean flavors. Our esteemed tables of guest diners/celeb sous-chefs all agreed that it was absolutely delicious. But was it enough to win him the title of Top Chef?
Unfortunately, as much as I think Dale is an intelligent and fabulous chef, we must base our final decision on the meal as a whole. That gnocchi dish could not be overlooked. It showed inconsistency in technique and judgment. It also lacked the strength of his other courses, by a mile. If I know anything about Dale, it is that he will bounce back from this as easily as he jumped into it. His spirit, charm, and dexterity will not go unrewarded. If those brief moments of our live finale are any indication, it appears Chicago has found in him an unlikely, yet amazingly likable hero.
It may not have appeared that Hung took as many risks as his competitors, but let me assure you, he made up for it all in attention to detail and pure artistry. He was cool, organized, and steady from start to finish that night. He served us four immaculately prepared dishes and found a way to truly make them his own. Everything he served was masterfully cooked and elegantly presented. Every bite also exemplified what we now understood to be Hung at his best -- a dash of Vietnamese, a sprinkle of modern French, a ton of discipline, and mountains of great technique. From Hamachi Fish & Chips to Prawns in Palm Sugar and that staggeringly good Sous Vide Duck with Truffle Scented Broth and Mushroom Ragout, we honestly could not find a flaw worth dwelling on for more than a brief moment. Sure, a squeeze of citrus would have helped here and there, and adding salt to his Ocean Scented Rice may not have hurt either, but in the big picture these are the most minor of offenses. Even Hung's "surprise" chocolate cake, although not very original, was made well and tasted as good as any I have eaten.
Unlike our viewers, as judges we vote with our taste buds, not with our emotions. I hope one day you too get the chance to actually taste his food. I have no doubt you will think it is as special and exciting as we do. I know whatever Hung chooses to do with his new title of Top Chef, he will never settle for anything but perfection. He can't help it. It's in his soul.