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Keep It Simple, Stupid!

Miami chef and restauranteur Barton G. weighs in on Top Chef.

By Barton G.

Could an episode possibly have been any better designed to enable Hung to finally prove that at least some of his cockiness is warranted? Hung took full advantage of it, drawing on his technical finesse to win both challenges, looking all the while like the proverbial fox in a chicken coop. He was fun to watch and I was delighted the editors allowed us a peek at a Hung with a heart. I found his declaration that he is so focused on winning, in part, to demonstrate what is possible for immigrants in this country touchingly sincere. Not that he should have to justify his will to win. This is after all a competition; everyone is in it to win. The difference between Hung and his rivals is that he has, from the beginning, been most vocal about his intent to win and his belief in his ability to do so. It's earned him more than his share of detractors among viewers and the other chefs seem to enjoy getting a dig in at him when they can. Actually, their carping about Hung being all technique and no emotion is wearing a bit thin.

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The reality is technique trumps emotion in a professional kitchen. Technique is the vehicle that assures consistency in the proper execution of a dish time and time and time again. And the consistency of the food is a vital element of the success of any restaurant. That's why Andre Soltner made the most telling comment of the night. Despite his problems with Hung's potato preparation in the Elimination Challenge, he declared, of the five, Hung was the chef he would hire. Quite an imprimatur from someone who truly deserves the often bandied about sobriquet "legend"! Still Hung's were not runaway wins. Casey was nipping at his heels.

It seem to me he beat her in the Quickfire by a hair's breath slice of the mandolin ,and if Casey had called her elimination dish almost anything other than coq au vin, she might have won that round. Like Hung's sous-vide creation, her dish had an elegant simplicity, which made the most of the three basic ingredients, coaxing the flavor out of them, rather than masking their taste characteristics with too many others.

That was the whole point of the challenge and they nailed it. No one else came close, not even Brian with his judge pleasing riff on Shepherd's Pie. Yes, they appreciated its rustic bold flavors and it was a relief to have him finally understand that less can be more, but one of his three main ingredients got lost in the equation. The chicken was overpowered by the pheasant sausage. Then there was Dale with his "balls to the wall" duet, which hit a number of flat notes, not the least of which was the lack of the sauce. Another case of "I forgot." What's up with Dale? I'm getting worried about him. Despite the judges' assertion it was ill-conceived, I think the duet had the potential to fit the bill given its focus on the inherent flavors of the chicken, potato, and onion. However, the execution fell short. Was it too ambitious? Maybe. But it was a gutsy thing to try, and I think that is what saved Dale in the end. He took a risk and failed, while Sara stayed in what she acknowledged as a culinary comfort zone, but produced an under-cooked under-seasoned dish.
I wonder if she'll ever cook couscous again. What is clear from her typically upbeat exit is that she relished the experience, and, though the $100,000 prize she had earmarked for her farm, she is undaunted. Sara knows exactly what she wants to do and I have no doubt she will realize her dream. In the not-too-distant future, I think Sara's cheese will be a sought after commodity. So now we have a final four, although all along I've thought there were going to be three for the finale. But what do I know? At least enough to last week have named Casey, Dale, and Hung as that threesome.

Well, welcome aboard Brian! Four strong contenders for the Top Chef crown, each with a distinct approach to cooking and to winning. It should be quite a show. I just hope Dale packed some ginkgo biloba for the trip to Aspen.

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