Based on their collective work on Top Chef: Miami this season, if I had to have one contestant make a meal for me, I absolutely know who it would be. And on Wednesday (Oct. 3) night’s season finale, that contestant was actually crowned the season’s winner. The people I like on these shows don’t usually win, so I’m pleased.
[If you don’t want the finale spoiled, go sharpen your knives for a while.]
Going into the finale, if I’d had to guess on who would win between Casey, Dale and Hung, I’d have probably guessed Casey. Yes, the conspiracy theorists would like to natter about how Top Chef just wanted a female winner, but she also won challenge after challenge down the stretch and never showed anything less than a savvy awareness of both ingredients and technique (well, except for that unfortunate onion-chopping fiasco).
But if you’d asked me who I was rooting for? I’d have said Hung in a second. In addition to his masterful skills, he also showed an ability to take risks, though every time he did something wacky — the breakfast, for example, where he constructed a Smurf village — conservative guest judges smacked him down. So I never blamed Hung when he went conservative, when admitted that he probably could have done something more inspired. The show frequently forced him into a blander corner than he might have liked.
In the end, freed from all constraints, Hung got to show off, though Dale almost matched him dish for dish. In fact, the only chef who didn’t figure in the final decision, announced live from the most generic Chicago studio they could find, was Casey.
Was anybody else amazed by just how badly Casey blew it at the finale judges table? No, her dishes obviously weren’t going to do her any favors anyway, but in a matter of seconds, she blamed the altitude (which ought to have impacted everybody), she blamed the availability of ingredients (even though Chef Tom said he’d seen the ingredient she lacked), she blamed her sous chef Howie (even though he was responsible for her most praised dish), she blamed Chef Tom for adding another dish to their meal at the last minute and she disagreed with the unanimous assessment of the judges regarding her pork belly. Who knows what might have happened if she’s been as humble as Dale and as relatively humble as Hung? Perhaps the judges would have taken overall performance more into consideration.
The Final Challenge: They had a selection of ingredients and they had to prepare a three-course meal with the help of a sous chef. It turned out they got celebrity chefs. Hung was paired with Rocco DiSpirito, Dale with Todd English and Casey with Michelle Bernstein. The day of service, they were told first that they had to work with their former contestants — Hung with Sara, Dale with CJ and Casey with Howie — and then that they needed to come up with one bonus course.
First Course: The judges gave Hung the first round for his take on Fish & Chips, featuring hamachi and fingerling potatoes, though there was some sense he needed a smidge more acidity. Casey was taken down a peg for the unnecessary salmon roe with her scallops and foie gras, while Dale’s foie gras mousse was deemed too rich and heavy.
Second Course: Dale grabbed the second round with a seared scallop and a grape and corn salad, largely prepared by CJ. Hung’s prawn with carmelized palm sugar, cucumber salad, tamarind juice and some sort of froth had advocates, but again the acidity was lacking. Casey’s sake-poached jumbo prawn over a crispy rice cake was knocked down, again, for the presence of salmon roe.
Third Course: Todd English raved about Hung’s sous vide duck with the mushroom ragout, which looked phenomenally cooked. The other two dishes fell flat. Casey’s grilled pork belly was overcooked (Michelle Bernstein was all "Told ya so"), but at least it didn’t have salmon roe. Dale did a butter poached lobster with gnocchi and Chef Tom dubbed it inedible, largely because of the overpowering curry sauce.
Final Course: Dale blew everybody away with a perfectly colored rack of lamb poached in duck fat (Mmmmm duck fat) and a deconstructed ratatouille. Casey worked with the lamb sirloin and somewhat redeemed herself. Hung did a molten chocolate cake and while everybody agreed that it was well executed, nobody thought it fit with the rest of the meal or with the scale of the competition.
Presumably we assume that Hung either won because none of his four dishes were inedible or because his cumulative performance for the season outstripped Dale’s. Regardless, the finale episode featured some darned good-looking grub.
I’m hungry now. What’d you think of the finale results?