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Three The Hard Way

Anthony Bourdain on elk, Aspen, and Eric Ripert.

At this point in the competition, it was a bit of a low blow, dragging the contestants to a trout stream in the freakin' wilderness and making them clean and cook fish over propane for the Quickfire. Something of a come-down after Le Cirque and the French Culinary Institute. I think they deserved better treatment this late in the game and a cleaner shot at the brass ring. And it was a terrible waste of a great judge.

How to Watch

Watch Top Chef Season 21 Wednesdays at 9/8c on Bravo and next day on Peacock.

Eric Ripert is probably the greatest seafood chef in the country (one of the greatest chefs -- period, but he famously specializes in seafood). His restaurant, Le Bernardin didn't just get four stars from The New York Times and three stars from the Michelin guide -- it has gotten them EVERY TIME. An unbroken, perfect record going back more than 15 years -- when Eric was suddenly, and unexpectedly called on to step in as chef. To remain as relevant and widely loved in Manhattan, the most competitive, capricious, dog-eat-dog, and outright vicious restaurant environment in the world is an amazing accomplishment.

So it was, to my mind, a terrible waste of a great judge to shoehorn him into a Scout jamboree. While I have seen Eric cooking fish under even more rustic conditions -- on hot stones in the Pyrenees -- it would have been nice, given the all-too-rare presence of a distinguished specialist, to see what the kids could REALLY do with fish.

On the other hand we DID get all that nice B-roll of a gleaming RAV4 driving the contestants home from the boonies. I just hope that before leaving the campsite, everyone remembered to police their areas and deposit all waste in one of the Glad Family of trash bags.

In the Quickfire, Brian, who had earlier been portraying himself as a cross between Jack Palance and Dinty Moore, seemed less comfortable at chuck wagon duty than expected. Hung, worryingly, raced through his challenge as if extra points would be awarded for speed. He then stood around allowing his fish to fester, unprotected, in the wilderness for seven minutes before remembering that he had forgotten, in his race for the finish line, to add the lemon juice. Spice-happy Dale's ethos of "More Is More" came back to bite him (again) -- or more accurately, guest judge Ripert: Eric grabbed at his throat as if gargling with caustic drain cleaner. An unpromising beginning.

Casey won the Quickfire. And for those commentators here who wonder what "heart" or "soul" means -- in relation to food (The judges frequently reward Casey with the remark that her food is somehow more "soulful" than others. That she has "heart") -- let me make it simple for you. They mean her food has a pleasing FLAVOR. Chefs usually mean -- when talking about "soul" ( or "heart") -- that the food has a depth of flavor that is both exciting and somehow, strangely, comfortingly familiar. As if the ingredients belong together the way macaroni and cheese -- or peanut butter and jelly -- or other, similarly beloved childhood combinations feel "just right." You can go pretty far out onto the edge and STILL manage to create "soulful" food. Thomas Keller, at his best, manages to do this with regularity, combining flawless - -even frighteningly advanced -- technique and flavors which evoke the shared memories of childhood. That he recognizes that human dimension displays "heart" and appeals to that indefinable part of us we call (for lack of a better word) the "soul".

Got it now, conspiracy theorists? "Heart" does not mean "nice rack". "Soul" does not mean "looks like Jennifer Aniston". The woman is GOOD. How many times does she have to prove it? Give her the respect she deserves.

Back at the ranch -- with the country's premier seafood chef in attendance -- it was time to cook up a whole mess a' elk for some rodeo dudes. Why, exactly? I don't know. Is the rodeo a major sponsor? I doubt it. While former rodeo clowns constitute a major part of MY show's demographic (they like to watch on satellite from their meth labs), I don't really know what they were doing in the semi-finals of a cooking competition. It was confusing. Not just to me -- but to the contestants. Were these REAL cowboys? Or post-ironic cowboys?

Dale and Hung seemed particularly baffled; Dale not sure if they'd show up in ass-less chaps demanding Bellinis -- and Hung simply deciding to cook for the judges. Casey, a Texan, appeared comfortable and in her element, while Brian embraced the beast in its entirety, putting on his suspiciously-at-hand cowboy hat (what did he have THAT along for -- all season?), startin' a campfire of burning sage and morphing seamlessly into Walter Brennan. I don't know on what range cowboys get frequent hankerin's for Gorgonzola -- but I'll leave that till later. I'm sorry to fixate on this -- but in my long experience of travels and frequent book tours, REAL cowboys these days are more likely to be found eating at Chili's or Cinnabon than gnawing on elk jerky. But what do I know about the mysterious ways of television?

No matter. Four went into the barn -- and one remained; put down like Old Yeller. The shock of the episode -- and one of the major jolts of the season -- was that Dale stepped up. BIG TIME. Everything finally went right this time for the man with the mohawk. I have to tell you, watching Dale pile cinnamon, ginger, huckleberries, red wine, blackberries, fresh MINT, radish sprouts, and pecans onto his elk (along with mention of pickled cauliflower), I thought he was gonna be tarred and feathered for sure. It seemed insane to me. Knowing Eric and his food, I thought he would surely reject this mash-up of ingredients as over-complicated and pretentious. Le Bernardin may be a three-star Michelin restaurant, but the food is in fact, pretty restrained and even austere. Letting the "ingredients speak for themselves" is something of a mission statement.

But complicated, I had forgotten, is not always bad. Sometimes, complicated is good. On the rare occasions when a brilliantly talented chef can bring a seemingly disparate or even unlikely combination of ingredients together -- in a sophisticated way -- the results can be ... wonderful. Not many can do this. It's a tightrope act -- and a risky one. Dale has fallen off that same tightrope many times.

But this time, under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, and extreme pressure, under the withering gaze of never-more-demanding judges and the cast of "Sleepless In The Saddle," Dale went the distance and emerged the winner. This, at a time, when the judging is -- as was pointed out -- all about hair-splitting. Any one of a hundred things could have gone wrong for Dale -- with as complicated an offering as his, the risks were amplified. And things DID go wrong. His onion goat cheese tart was a bad idea. It came out badly. Dale RECOGNIZED it was not good enough -- and in a superb demonstration of chefly judgment, not only came up with up a Plan B on the fly, but came up with a BETTER Plan B. In short? To use a baseball analogy: In a play-off game, Dale stepped up in the 9th inning and took a major chance by going for the long ball. He wasn't looking to get safely on base. He was there to win. And, indeed, he did. Last night. he did everything right.

Hung did almost everything right. But it wasn't enough. His elk was cooked perfectly. His dish was wisely restrained in concept. The judges recognized his professionalism and his superior technique. But there was no competing this week with Dale's combination of inspiration, good judgment, good execution, and good fortune.

As a close observer of the Hung Phenomenon, I was interested by the close questioning of Hung's motives and attitudes this week. There was a little bit of tape where Hung explains that "if this was a restaurant, I'd help out" -- which goes a long way, I hope to shutting up the whiners who seem to view this competition as a civics exam. This is a competition -- and Hung is a competitive guy. I thought the long overdue history lesson was illustrative of what makes the man tick. His family, it appears, escaped from post-war Vietnam -- as so many who preferred taking their chances in open boats to reeducation camp did. They managed to make a living in a new and unfamiliar land in the restaurant business -- a very hard business, to say the least. Hung, was "born under a broiler" as we used to say about cooks from restaurant families. It is, indeed, in his blood. No one, in my experience, loves food as much as the Vietnamese. The enjoyment of the clean, fresh, sophisticated flavors of Vietnam are central to family life and working life. But so is work. And struggle. This is a country that has been at war for the better part of 600 years. One can only imagine the challenges Hung's family faced in getting here, setting up a new life, starting up a busines,s and raising a son who would go on to be a sous-chef at Guy Savoy.

These are impressive accomplishments -- the best kind of American success story. With that as a back story, I'm guessing childhood for Hung was not a time when lollygagging around playing video games or watching cartoons was acceptable behavior. His whole family worked. Much, I'm guessing, was expected of a son. So if Hung comes off as overzealously competitive, or rude, insufficiently touchy-feely or unsympathetic to the "feelings" of his fellow contestants, I suggest examining the context. Ask yourself, compared to what? A wasted crawfish, some spilled truffle oil count for little compared to the things Hung's family must have lost along the way. But all that drive and ambition threatens to distract Hung from the Main Object. To -- above all -- please his customers. The judges' comments last night were a wake-up call. They're telling him outright that they think he's far and away the most technically accomplished of the lot. They're also telling him that they expect more. That they're surprised and disappointed that he hasn't hit them with his "roots" cuisine. All I can say is I hope (for his sake) that in the last episode, Hung has the opportunity to do just that: to do a take on a Vietnamese classic or two, to bring it all together on a plate -- his technique, his experience, his personal history, his ethnic and national "roots" -- and do it in a sincere way. THAT would be cooking with "heart" and "soul".

Casey undercooked her elk. End of story for her chances this week. But her sauce and seasonings -- her "flavor profiles" as chefs so enjoy calling it -- were yet again, recognizably excellent. It's no accident that one great chef after another respond to Casey's flavors so effusively. She's clearly gifted at making food that not only tastes good, but evokes in hardened professionals similar responses: a thesaurus of descriptives like "soul" and "heart" as discussed above. There is no doubt that she has what it takes to win the Big One next week. And I'd say, at this point, that she's a heavy favorite.

As predicted, it was Brian who was sent home from the range. Not a tough call. Unlike me, Eric Ripert is a very diplomatic guy. He has had to be. He rarely bad mouths even the deserving. He is restrained in his disapproval. But I will tell you, from long experience and much alcohol with my Buddhist buddy, he hated Brian's dish. Given the dearth of suitable English adjectives in the mountains of Andorra (a country you probably haven't even heard of), from whence Ripert hails, I hope he won't mind if I translate his comments: "

Dry elk shank ... horseradish ... sour cream ... bourbon ... red wine, balsamic vinegar, garlic, cherries, sage butter ... and now you want me to choose between overwhelming blue cheeses?

What the **** is THAT about?!"

Indeed. It's not that Brian isn't a good cook. He's clearly very talented. His flavors are usually, it appears, excellent. His technique also excellent. He deserved to be in this competition -- and by whatever means he got there -- deserved to be in the finals. It's that he's often clueless about what he's done wrong -- and why anyone would disagree with him.

I'm sure that Brian still believes that his Jumbo Sirloin With Barbie-Head/Potato Hash was undeserving of scorn. That making an ugly but delicious shepherd's pie for a table of French master chef educators was an adequate effort. And I fear that when he looks back on the inexplicable and insanely awful decision to invite Eric Ripert to cut a fat slab of Gorgonzola onto a (presumably) nicely composed plate of elk ("Help yerseff to some fixin's, pardnuh!!") he's still wondering what went wrong. Where Brian fell down was on the conceptual end. Killed off -- as so often happens -- by a Bad Idea.

What happens next week? I sure want to know! And I haven't a clue. From the few brief seconds of clips, I recognized a incongruous troika of Todd English, Michelle Bernstein, and Rocco DiSpirito. Where this mosh pit of very distinguished, VERY different chef/judges will come down on the final Elimination Challenge is beyond predicting. All I can say is Dale better have another VERY good day.

And in response to some questions raised in the comments section, Mr. Bourdain has the following to add:

Let me respond quickly to a valid question that's already come up twice: Why do the judges (and why do I) keep suggesting that Hung might benefit from incorperating Vietnamese flavors or ingredients or culinary traditions into his offerings? Simple answer. Because we (rightly or wrongly) see a Vietnamese heritage (particularly one with deep associations with the restaurant business) as an enormous advantage for a cook. Because most chefs I know are crazy about Vietnamese food and if lucky enough to have visited Vietnam, totally ga-ga over the place; the easy accessibility of excellent, fresh, startlingly sophisticated food--even in humble homes, food stalls and markets. Hung comes from one of the "foodiest" of foodie cultures. Whether second generation, living in Texas or LA or Minneapolis, he has grown up with--and around--that food culture. He has said as much. There is a tendency among chefs and judges to expect and even hope that he'll show us some of that. Not that he has to. He could just as easily win this whole thing with his French chops.

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