Dale2_topchef_miami_240Following Wednesday (Sept. 26) night’s Top Chef: Miami, we’re down to the three leading candidates for this season’s crown. I think I’m comfortable with the choice made by the judges, how about you?

[You should know that we’ve got spoilers coming, shouldn’t you? Yes you should.]

After last season boiled down to a dramatically flawless finale of Marcel versus The Big Bullies (a great narrative, even if you disagree with the results), producers had to do a little extra legwork during Wednesday’s episode to add just a little humanity to the remaining chefs.

There’s Hung, the 29-year-old Vegas chef with the big ego and technical skills everybody acknowledges are the competition’s best. We know about his culinary precision and his five challenge wins this season, but a lot of time on Wednesday was spent with Hung talking about his family — his father’s escape from Vietnam, the influence of his mother, etc. We even had the odd spectacle of Hung calling himself a team player (just not when it’s a contest).

There’s Casey, the 29-year-old Texan whose six challenge wins lead the field. Quiet in the beginning, Casey has gotten to the finale the old fashioned way, by cooking things that people thought tasted good. A lot of folks are figuring the competition is due for a female winner.

The last member of the trio is 34-year-old self-described "big gay chef" Dale, who has seemed to be on the verge of elimination on several occasions. Dale won his third challenge on Wednesday and also opened up about his backstory, losing his job at a top restaurant and abandoning cooking entirely for 18 months.

Brian_topchef_miami_240That meant we lost Brian Malarkey, winner of four challenges and the season’s main showman. For my money, Brian should have gone home after the open-your-own restaurant debacle, where his idea of leadership was letting his teammates do whatever they wanted to do. Realistically, though, he was eliminated on Wednesday because his cooking didn’t live up to the level of his presentation (and because he had the gall to force Eric Ripert to choose between two kinds of cheese).

This week’s challenges:

Quickfire: After a month of downtime, the Final Four arrived in Aspen, took a hot air balloon to the Frying Pan River, where they were given a fresh trout and told to go crazy. Despite being The Seafood Chef (something he’s told us over and over this season), Brian’s trout with rendered bacon fat (Mmmmmm… Rendered bacon fat) wasn’t deemed flavorful enough for the judges and he was in the bottom group with Dale, whose dish also included bacon as well as a distracting cayenne pepper kick. The contestants only had 20 minutes to cook, but Hung finished seven minutes early, which gave him seven minutes to forget to add lemon to his dish, even though the juice was mentioned in the dish’s name. He still finished second to Casey, whose trout with crisped skin and a side of summer corn and grapes was deemed by Ripert to have soul.

Casey_topchefmiami_240Elimination Challenge: The contestants were charged with cooking for 45 cowboys and cowgirls at a rodeo event. Hung wasn’t pleased with his target audience ("What the hell do cowboys eat? Baked beans and baked beans and baked beans?") nor with the protein… Wild elk. While Dale, Casey and Hung did variations on elk loin, Brian attempted to braise a shank in only three hours. The only major disaster was Dale’s inability to find cream cheese to temper his onion and goat cheese tart, so he replaced it at the last second with a well-received potato and cauliflower thing that I never quite understood.

Judging: While there was some concern that his plate was too crowded (he called it a carnival), Dale’s dish was the easy winner, putting him in the finale. Casey was saved by a smoky tomato sauce with the elk, a sauce that Ripert said elevated the meat. Hung, meanwhile, faced the harshest inquisition. After a long season, Chef Tom chose tonight to ask Hung why he doesn’t seem to put any of himself in his food. I don’t necessarily disagree with that as an assessment, but why criticize Hung for not being Vietnamese enough after he’d been tasked to prepare wild elk for cowboys?

Did we reach the right Top Three? Who are you rooting for next week? Who do you think will win?

Posted by:Daniel Fienberg