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Aspen Showdown: Final Four Chefs Face off on the Season Finale of "Top Chef"

I was pretty anxious to see last night's season finale of Top Chef (well, the first half of it, anyway), if only to see which one of these impressive chefs would end up getting cut right before the final showdown. To be honest, I really didn't know which way it would play out as each one of these chefs had wowed me at various points during the competition. What I did know was that I definitely wanted Casey to make it to the final round...

So it was interesting that with last night's episode ("Finale, Part One"), the judges decided to mix things up a bit and not have the final cook-off go down between two chefs; instead they'd have three of our finalists face off in one final challenge in Aspen. For me, half the fun of last night's episode had to do with the gorgeous Aspen setting. I love that little town (only been in the winter) and think the Hotel Jerome is just beautiful. I also love game--give me elk, venison, or boar to eat and I am a happy, happy boy--so I was very happy to see what these four would do with different takes on elk, which can have a very overpowering gamey taste. So how did they do? Let's find out.

Hung. Despite what the Vietnam-born chef might say, his dishes really do lack soul. They are refined, yes, and technically precise, but there's just something lacking from them, most of the time. He has fantastic plating and presentation skills but there's a modernity and preciousness to his dishes that seems slightly too empty for my tastes. In last night's case, he presented a seared loin of elk with pommes boulangere, shiitake mushrooms, and a red wine, balsamic, and chocolate sauce with cinnamon. I do agree that his garnish--roasted tomatoes with garlic, olive oil, and lemon confit--was seasonally off, far too summery, they just jarred with the autumnal quality of the elk. Still, elegantly plated and technically proficient. But isn't it really time that Hung either (A) stepped outside his comfort zone or (B) really injected his own personality and viewpoint into his food? If he's ever going to, now is the time to do so.

Dale. I'll admit that I was more than a little worried that this week's dish would go the route of so many others: overly ambitious dishes that fail in the execution, usually after something doesn't quite go off right. In this case, it was a goat cheese and onion tart that failed to set up properly and which shouldn't have been made in the first place sans cream cheese to cut the richness of the goat. However, Casey wisely had a Plan B during prep and decided to throw some potatoes and cauliflower into some boiling milk. Throwing away that failed tart, Dale instead served a still hugely ambitious dish: seared elk loin with cauliflower and fingerling potatoes, with a silky huckleberry and blackberry demi-glace. It's true that Dale--who had yet to win a single elimination challenge all season--had been known for his superior saucework but he won over guest judge Eric Ripert (of the fabulous Le Bernardin in Manhattan) with this luscious, silky sauce. Plus, who knew that Dale had stopped cooking for a year and a half before the competition began? Crazy, but it's definitely evident that this chef has found his groove again...

Casey. As much as I adore Casey, I didn't think this was her best work to date. Sure, she was familiar with elk (and had even hunted it with her family) but it was served way too rare for my liking (and the judges' as well). Her dish: mushroom-crusted loin of elk with cauliflower duo, poached pear, and a smoked tomato butter did sound appealing; however, the loin was undercooked and she made a rare misstep with the duo of cauliflower. I do agree with Tom Colicchio that it seemed bizarre to create a silky cauliflower puree and ruin that texture by studding it with chunks of caramelized cauliflower. Not her best move. But Eric Ripert was blown away by her smoked tomato butter which was the perfect accompaniment for the smokiness of the elk; rather than distract from that flavor profile, Casey's sauce elegantly enhanced and enriched that element of the dish.

Brian. Finally, there's seafood chef Brian, who I knew was a goner as soon as the producers kept cutting away from and back to his laborous description of his "carnival"-like dish which seemed to integrate no less than 30 individual elements into a single dish. His dish--a whiskey-braised elk shank served with horseradish and sour cream potato puree, pancetta, corn, and asparagus relish, cherries, spicy radish sprouts, almonds, sage, blackberry-balsamic-brown butter sauce, and topped with a choice of intense cheese--seemed over the top in its complexity. Did it taste good? Perhaps, but the dish was overwhelming, overambitious, and overly complicated. Plus, there was no reason why, as Ripert suggested, that he allow his guests to choose between two pungently rich cheeses. After all, he's the chef and should be delivering exactly the dish he envisioned to his clientele; plus one of the cheeses (if I remember correctly it was the Roquefort) was extremely offensively headstrong. It was only fitting that Brian be the chef to get the boot. I do think every now and then that he was able to pull it out of the bag but there was a period where he either didn't cook (remember Restaurant Wars?) or only did raw crudo, ceviches, and sashimis; it was time for this cowboy to ride off into the sunset.

Which leaves Casey, Hung, and Dale as the final three contestants going into the final elimination challenge. I have to say that I am actually really, really happy with the choice of this final troika: each of these chefs is so different from the others and each has a fascinating and compelling backstory. As for who will win, I am rooting with all my heart for the self-taught Casey to win this thing, becoming the first female Top Chef, but I'd also be happy if Dale won, too. As for Hung... I think he still needs some serious comeuppance and a little reality check, to boot. Who are you rooting for in the end? And who will you be happy to see pack their knives and go?

Next week on Top Chef ("Finale, Part Two"), the final three chefs face off in the final elimination challenge, but the producers have arranged a twist or two along the way to throw a snag into their plans.

Comments

Anonymous said…
All in all, I think this was a pretty good episode. A couple thoughts, though:

1) I thought the challenge was a little gimmicky for this late stage of the competition.

2) I thought the explanation given by Tom Colicchio as to why they were letting 3 instead of 2 continue to the final was pretty contrived. "Due to the extraordinary amount of talent in this season" or whatever. I don't think a serious argument could be made that this round of chefs are on the level of the first two (particularly the first) seasons.

3) It occured to me that this competition may have been specifically geared towards getting Casey to the final. I'm not saying that I think she shouldn't be there (there were several times this season that I didn't think she deserved to stay, but she's really proven herself in the last several eps), just that it seemed pretty convenient for her specifically.

p.s. Love your blog...my wife and I are religious readers.
Anonymous said…
::looks at above note::

Totally agree w/2. It was contrived. I'd much rather this be announced after the challenge, at judges panel. "We couldn't decide, so 3 of you are going." Saying from the start it was 3, and then watching the comp play out, it seemed pretty clear Malarkey would be left out.

So....

I am very pleased w/this final 3, but definitely want Casey to win. Dale next. So, I am sure it will be Hung. :)
I was happy to see Brian go. He's a good chef but not great and I think the final three contestants really do deserve to be in the top (although I still wish that Tre was around)!

I hope that Casey is able to pull it off. I love Dale too but he seems less consistent...although I was very impressed by his dish last night and, after hearing his story, feel he's getting back into the groove of things.

It was hilarious to watch Hung go on and on to the judges about his "love" and "passion" for food and how everyone in his family cooks blah blah blah. He know the judges don't think that his food has soul and is obviously trying to convince them otherwise. Nice try, buddy.
Anonymous said…
After watching last night's episode I am, for the first time, afraid that Hung won't win the whole thing. He is far and above the best chef on the show. Hung and Casey have been the only real contenders this entire show in my opinion. Dale has no chance at all against those two, he's just waiting for the chopping block.rr
Asta said…
I'm pulling for Casey. She seemed like one of the weaker participants early on, but has really proven herself and her worthiness to be in the finale in recent weeks. I fear Hung may win though. There is no question he has talent, but he's just so damn cocky. I know editing plays a part in how the contestants come off, but I don't feel the Top Chef producers are doing that much to form my opinion of him.