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One Step Beyond!!

Anthony Bourdain's thoughts on Hung being named winner.

I gather that Hung won.

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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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