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The Air Up There

Tom Colicchio on why Hung came out on top over Casey and Dale.

By Tom Colicchio

So here we are, ladies and gentlemen. The final moment. And what a moment it was.

How to Watch

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

We made a few changes off the bat to our usual finale format. For one, we decided each chef's courses would be served side by side for easy comparison, rather than consecutively. I thought this was a good idea -- eating three meals, one after the other, is long and arduous, transforming something that should be exciting into an onerous marathon. It also felt fairer -- this way the judges would be at equal stages of hunger and satiety as we approached each chef's food. Second, we invited Brian to sit in at our tasting. This was less of a policy change, and more because the poor guy was stranded for at least another day in Aspen. Inviting him to join us seemed like the right thing to do.


Third, we invited three celebrity chefs to serve as our competitors' sous-chefs on their important first day of prep. This lent them an advantage (flawless prep skills from a consummate professional) but also freaked them out. Two months ago, Casey, Hung, and Dale would have been intimidated just to meet Rocco DiSpirito, Todd English, and Michelle Bernstein; now they had to lay bare their menus to these three, try not to hyper-analyze their every expression (Was that a raised eyebrow? A flinch?) and then straddle the awkward line between authoritative leader and fawning disciple. Not as easy as you would think.

The rules were clear; Rocco, Michelle and Todd were not allowed to make suggestions or provide ideas. They were there to do the grunt work involved in prepping for a great meal, and that's what they did. I could tell they enjoyed themselves; when a cook calls in sick, I occasionally jump onto the line and work shoulder to shoulder with my cooks. I get a lot of satisfaction from the physical mechanics of cooking -- the feel of the knife handle, the sound of food hitting the pan -- and it feels good occasionally to get to abdicate the creative role and simply work. Whenever I do it, I leave exhausted at the end of the night, but somehow refreshed.

Dale, Casey, and Hung were presented with an incredible array of fresh seasonal produce, fish and meat, from which to create their menu. Right off the bat, I was happy to see our finalists reaching in and tasting. It might seem odd to our audience to see chefs tasting the raw ingredients, but these three are experienced enough to know that just because something looks good, doesn't mean it tastes good. Sadly, none of them were fully prepared for the effects of altitude on their cooking; at higher altitudes, the drop in air pressure causes water and other liquids to boil at lower temperatures. Food can take longer to cook because they are actually cooking at a "lower" temperature than it would appear. This also becomes a factor in baked goods (which can rise too quickly due to the lower pressure) or searing. Watching these three make the necessary adjustments confirmed for me that we were dealing with three real chefs.

As if the air up there wasn't challenge enough, on Day Two we informed the chefs they would be responsible for a fourth, spur-of-the moment course. Now the chefs were clearly in need of a second pair of hands, and they got them when Howie, C.J., and Sara returned to serve as sous-chefs. I was gratified to see all three of the runners-up (as I'll call them) dive in with grace and energy. One thing that has distinguished this season's chefs is their overall professionalism and character. Despite the occasional friction between personalities, these chefs have shown themselves to take food and cooking seriously. They weren't willing to blow it -- and demean themselves -- with shenanigans like heavy drinking or late night hazing, and I was grateful for it.

On to the food: Since we tasted each dish side by side, I'll break it down that way for you. Hung began with a sophisticated twist on "fish and chips" -- a thin slice of raw hamachi with fingerling potatoes and tomato olive oil vinaigrette. The flavors were clean and harmonious, and the dish beautifully plated. A minor quibble was that it could have used a touch of acid to balance the rich, buttery fish, but overall its absence didn't seriously compromise the dish. Dale gave us a foie gras mousse with raw beets and peaches, in a grastrique of ras el hanout (a Moroccan spice mixture rumored to contain Spanish fly). The flavors on the dish were good, but the mousse was heavy and there was a lot of it, without a textural component to eat it with -- even simple toast points would have worked. Casey's first course, a scallop and foie gras duet, was plated beautifully, but the strong, fishy flavor of the salmon roe overpowered the delicate sweetness of the cinnamon-scented scallop, and did absolutely nothing for the foie gras. First round: Hung.

Hung's second course was shrimp with palm sugar and cucumber salad, finished with coconut foam. I found it imaginative and well-prepared, and the coconut lent the dish a jolt of quirky personality. Dale's second dish was a perfectly seared scallop with purslane, grapes, and a playful sprinkling of freeze-dried sweet corn. It was lick-the-plate delicious -- the best dish in the meal to that point, and all the more impressive for being Dale's unplanned, pull-it-from-thin-air surprise course. Casey's second course was a sake-poached jumbo prawn on a crispy rice cake with a yuzu and lobster mushroom broth. The dish felt busy -- it was hard to know where to focus our attention -- and once again Casey topped the dish with a daub of caviar. This surprised me -- sure, she used a different type of roe than in the previous course, but by "finishing" both dishes with a dollop of fish eggs, she was repeating herself, and not to good effect. Round two: Dale.

For his third course Hung gave us a duck sous vide with a mushroom ragout and truffle sauce. The duck was a subtle but unmistakable nod to his Asian roots, and the flavors were terrific. Balanced. Nuanced. Harmonious. When Todd described the dish as 3-star Michelin quality, I had to agree. To my mind, this dish was up there on my personal Best-of-Top Chef list along with Tiffany's incredible artichoke risotto from Season One.

After his scallop dish, Dale's lobster with basil gnocchi, mushrooms, corn and curry jus was a big disappointment. The lobster was overcooked and the gnocchi were leaden and clunky. Worst of all, the curry overpowered all the other flavors on the plate, making the dish disappointingly one-note. Casey gave us a crispy pork belly with pea shoots, roasted peach, and cardamom creme fraiche. The pork was woefully overcooked; Casey would have been much better off slowly braising the pork belly whole the day before (rather than in individual portions) and then allowing it to cool overnight in its liquid, so the juices could reabsorb. The next day she could have cut the cold pork into portions and then slowly brought it up to temperature before serving. During my kitchen walk-through earlier that day, I noticed that Casey had the pork belly in the oven way ahead of time. Now, as you all know, I'm not allowed to offer advice, and frankly, this is the hardest part of the job -- it goes against all my training and instinct. Instead, I ask the chefs leading questions -- how long is the pork belly going to be in the oven? -- and hope the they pick up on what I'm saying. Casey was too busy and flustered to pick up on my meta-meaning, and sadly decimated the pork belly. Third round: Hung.

Dale's fourth course was as good as it gets. When the altitude kept his lamb from searing, he made a quick and brilliant adjustment, and poached it in duck fat instead. He served the lamb with a deconstructed "ratatouille" of white anchovies, eggplant, garlic, and cherry tomatoes. Somehow, the flavors were unexpected yet beautifully inevitable, as though they were meant to go together. The judges were delighted to know that Dale had never made the dish before -- it was a first for him, and demonstrated imagination and sure-handed technique. A slam dunk. Casey's fourth "surprise" course was a seared sirloin with potatoes, chanterelle mushrooms, ruby chard, and parsley puree. Altogether a good dish, and the best one Casey served us that day, but the flavors paled next to Dale's more adventurous lamb. Hung gave us a chocolate cake with raspberries, which was also his "surprise" course, and while there was absolutely nothing wrong with the cake, after the excitement and inventiveness of his three earlier course, it seemed humdrum. Fourth course went to Dale.

So here we were -- Dale and Hung were neck and neck with two courses apiece. And where did that leave Casey? Sadly Casey's cooking in this final, arduous round wasn't up to the level of the food that had made her such a serious contender in recent weeks. Casey is a methodical chef, a serious planner who works out every detail of her menu -- flavor, textures and colors -- ahead of time with pencil and paper. If we had given the chefs four hours to plan, Casey just may have come out on top. The circumstances, however, called for more spontaneity, which just isn't Casey's strong suit. The judges now were faced with deciding between Dale and Hung. And with two wins apiece, we took a closer look at their worst dishes. Frankly, Hung's "worst" dish (if you could call it that) wasn't bad at all, it was merely safe. Dale's worst dish was fairly disastrous (one bite was my limit) revealing Dale's potential for inconsistency. And so, we gave the win to Hung. And there you have it.

Many young cooks see their training as a chance to step away from their background, and proceed, tabula rasa, towards the culinary ideals they've worshiped from afar. In doing so, they may earn marks for proficiency, but can often leave important elements of themselves out of the picture. I know this, because I did it myself. I grew up in a working-class Italian family where it seemed as though every adult -- my folks, their parents, all the aunts and uncles -- could cook. I witnessed their approach to food, the knowledge they had inherited by watching their own parents and grandparents, dating back to the old country. Once I started out to be a chef, I worked hard to teach myself classic French technique and completed two stages (work-as-you-learn stints) in celebrated French kitchens.

Voila! I now cooked French food. But gradually, as I set out to establish my identity as a chef, my background crept in, almost despite itself. Eventually I came to see this as a good thing. It made my food more storied and nuanced. It made it more me. Once I allowed my family's influences in, it opened the door to allowing all of my experiences -- especially travel -- to impact the creative process: Two culinary trips to Japan opened my eyes to an extraordinary palate of raw fish and (who knew?) hand-crafted tofu. A trip to the north of Spain, where I inhaled plates of Catalonian squid and rice with cuttlefish ink, inspired a dish of cuttlefish-ink ravioli. I got married on a sheep farm on Martha's Vineyard and fell in love all over again with lamb. A dish of roasted cod was bolstered by a whip of salt-cod, inspired by my Grandmother's incredible baccalà. In other words, my background, my life experience -- even my day-to-day -- seems to find its way into my food, and I think my cooking is better for it.

Hung is a striver with an enormous, palpable passion for food. He has absorbed the lessons of classic technique and gleefully brought them to the plate throughout the weeks of competition. And while his cooking experience was clearly evident, until now the rest of his experiences were not. Hung comes from an ancient and impressive culinary tradition. He grew up surrounded by hardworking cooks, and it is impossible for me to believe it was all wiped clean by classical training. When I spoke to Hung at the Judges' Table last week, I wasn't asking him to start serving up pho or bahn canh in a clay pot. But I did want the depth of his family's heritage and his own unique, quirky personality to emerge on the plate. For lack of a better word, I called it soul. And the good news is, Hung was listening. He himself knows the difference between an excellent technical cook, and a great chef. He reveres masters like Tabla's Floyd Cardoz -- whose classic Les Roches training in Switzerland marries seamlessly with his Bombay roots, or the great Daniel Boulud, whose rustic Lyonnaise childhood shows itself throughout his elegant menu -- considered the epitome of New York haute cuisine. No one would ever accuse Daniel of cooking without soul. Hung got it, and I hope this final challenge was a turning point for him as a chef -- the time and place where Hung finally gave himself permission to bring himself into his food.

And what of Casey and Dale? I'm not exaggerating when I say that Dale was glowing after the show. He may not have won the title, but he gained something infinitely more important -- a renewed sense of himself as a chef. After retreating into a bleak place for a year and a half, Dale showed us, and himself, that he has what it takes to transcend the pitfalls of this mercurial business. Dale is back, and watch out, world. And Casey ... I can honestly say that the supportive vibe among this season's chefs was largely a function of Casey's own warmth and humanity. It elevated the entire competition. She is a person of true talent, kindness, and integrity. That we judged her harshly tonight was evidence that we respected her enough to assess her on her cooking, and her cooking alone. Hung didn't win as many friends this season because, contrary to the tired stereotype, he refused to play it meek and soft-pedal his own gifts. He was unabashedly vocal about his desire to win. And frankly, it's only when a young, talented cook like Hung looks around and sees that the air "up there" on the A-list is no more sanctified than anywhere else -- that with hard work and passion, they have every bit as much right to success as any celebrity chef -- that they have a real shot at it.

Hung believes this about himself, and therefore so do I. Thanks for watching and, as always, for writing in. Tom.

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