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Like A Fish To Water

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

By Barton G.

Now that was entertainment. Between the Aspen eye candy, the truly challenging nature of both competitive exercises and the high stakes involved, this semi-finale was gripping from start to finish. Usually I find the Quickfires rather awkward contrivances the cheftestants -- and viewers -- have to endure before getting to the meat of the matter. They're merely a device designed to lend some additional drama by giving the winner an advantage in the elimination round -- an advantage which, since immunity was ruled out, has often been of dubious merit. However, the campfire cook-off was an intriguing test of nerves and resourcefulness. And the prize of being able to use their imported favorite ingredients could have been significant.

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As we've come to expect, Hung took to the task like, well, a fish to water. But he swam too fast. Fish is not generally well served by a post preparation rest and Hung's had a seven minute nap. Mr. Precision also neglected what he obviously considered a vital element -- the lemon juice. He just may have been more rattled by having to pass muster with the great Eric Ripert under those rustic conditions than he let on. Why else volunteer such an omission? Casey admitted to hand-shaking nervousness, but she shook it off to adopt what has become her signature of focused cool to pull off a winning dish.

Brian and Dale's collective consternation made for good television. Brian's outdoor piscatory meltdown was as much a surprise as his candor about it, while Dale's commentary about his fish out of water experience with the circumstances was typically amusing. Actually, the Quickfire being out of his grasp may have been a blessing. I shutter to think what might have happened had he been empowered to dip into his cache of spice to further embellish the elk. Dale's self-described "carnival on a plate" might not have been deemed such a deliciously harmonious act by the judges. He might have wandered into Brian's discordant three-ring circus arena. Than again maybe not. In fact, probably not.

Dale was at the top of his game during the Elimination Challenge. And what a pleasure it was to watch after his last two mistake-burdened performances. Sure, I was concerned about all that was going into the dish; too much happening on a plate usually being the kiss of culinary death, but Dale fired on all-of-what-is-expected-of-a-top-chef cylinders, especially when he so seamlessly ditched Plan A in favor of B. Throughout the competition, the judges have stressed the importance -- make that, the necessity ---of not letting something out of the kitchen that isn't up to snuff. On (too rare) occasions, we've seen the contestants take that edict to heart, but until Dale tossed the tart and started cooking the cauliflower, we haven't seen anyone so drastically switch gears and improve upon the final product in the process. It was a masterful stroke of gastronomic finesse. From my point of view, he deserved to win for that alone. And I think he scored considerable points with the judges there too -- certainly with Tom.

Conversely, Brian went home because he got mired in a Plan A that was ill-conceived from the beginning. There was no Plan B, although even Brian seemed to acknowledge maybe there should have been. He questioned whether three hours was enough time to braise the lean dense elk meat. Then went ahead and did it. Why? Why take that kind of a risk at this stage of the game? Moreover, he was bucking another important Top Chef mantra about working smart. And just when I thought, after last week, he had grasped the fact his tendency to overplay his hand with too many ingredients has been to his detriment, Brian throws just about everything at his disposal at the dish. Indeed that may have been Brian's Plan B -- trying to mask the fact the meat was tough and tasteless. It failed miserably, only compounding his original error in judgment by proving no amount of flavor, aromatic, or auditory diversions could conceal the elk's faults.

As for Casey, she was competent and confident, once again demonstrating she has become a strong contender for the top toque title. She played to the elk's rich, strong flavor strengths Which brings me to Hung, whose declaration that elk was boring seemed to determine how he dealt with it -- in an all too nonchalant manner. He claimed he was cooking for the judges, but he didn't relate to the meat's characteristics, the result being a dish that was, as always, technically proficient, but boring. Nothing really terribly wrong with it, but nothing special either. Plus, it was a mistake for him to dismiss his audience and environment as much as he did the elk. Yes, the judges' taste buds are the deciding factor, but consistently they have considered context in which dishes were served as part of their evaluation. So now we go into the final finale with Hung and Casey the clear favorites for anyone laying odds. But I wouldn't underestimate Dale, especially with the momentum his first win may have given him. Casey has proved there's a lot to be said for being on a roll, and Dale's timing to start one couldn't be better. Regardless of next week's outcome, Dale just could be the biggest winner. As he so eloquently expressed at the Judges' Table, he's gotten his culinary mojo back.

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