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''Top Chef'': Hung and Casey step up

On ”Top Chef,” Hung wins both challenges during a French-themed night, despite the regular judges’ negativity, and Casey continues to gain ground

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Top Chef

TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons
Reality TV

”Top Chef”: Hung and Casey step up

Hung’s got this one. He’ll win it all. Isn’t it obvious?

I don’t know how you actually feel about Hung. Personally, he’s grown on me. I like how he smiles all the time now. So what if he doesn’t help the other competitors plate their dishes, or give away whether he used the stove top or the oven to cook his sea bass? If you were Hung, like you would either?

Unless you were weak, and unworthy of the title of top chef. Then maybe you might. You know why I’ve come to think Hung’s great? Because he’s a goofy little Asian Terminator. And if I’m gonna salvage anything out of this season of subpar Top Chef, it’s the evergreen idea — first presented to me a while ago by Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential — that great chefs really are, besides being full of personality, also merciless and cutthroat. ”Chefs,” to quote myself from week 1, ”are effing tough.” Suppose Tom Colicchio was a contestant instead of a stony-glaring judge. Would he be the kind of generous soul who would help his fellow contestants wrassle their coq au vins to the dish? Would he have said to his fellow chef-iators, after he was done with last night’s quickfire, ”Okay, guys. Listen up. I got to go first, and I only had 20 minutes to plate the fish, and I started out on the stove top but realized the oven was best. Don’t make the same mistake I did, friends! And best of luck! Go kick my ass!” No way. And neither — rightly — did Hung. Tom is a d—, Hung is a d—, and the depressing thing about being a chef, according to Top Chef (and also Anthony Bourdain’s book), is that, plain and simple, if you’re gonna be a chef, it helps to be a d—.

And Hung, by all appearances, is a steady cook and a fine d—. He won both challenges last night! At the top of the hour, all the chefs convened in New York City at the mighty Le Cirque. (Random aside: I’ve lived in New York City for almost 10 years, and faithfully followed restaurant comings and goings for only the past couple of those, but I have to wonder, ”Who in this town ever goes to Le Cirque anymore? Is it really still a big deal?” Mom and Dad Kirschling — an unpretentious pair, and then some, but susceptible, as we all are, to a little razzle-dazzle — are visiting from out of town in November. Should we go, and it will it wow ’em?) The Top Chef quickfire challenge tonight was about replicating, in 20 minutes’ cooking time, the long-perfected, classic sea bass on the Le Cirque VIP menu. The judge was an elderly and obviously at least a little infirm gent named Sirio, who owns the place and who also didn’t appear too high on memorizing dudes’ names. ”You!” said Sirio when asked by Padma who did best on the challenge. He meant Hung. ”Who else?” asked Padma. ”Casey, Casey too,” the old man said. Wow! He memorized her name! How’d that happen? ”As a man,” he said, ”I would like to say Casey [won], because she’s attractive — but I had to say from the beginning: Hung!” Wait a minute, Sirio and I feel the exact same way about the whole competition. I wish I could say, ”as a man,” that Casey wins the whole thing, because she’s attractive, but from the beginning, it’s been Hung’s show. No wonder wise old Giuseppe or whatever his name is gets a guest spot on the program — Tom, Padma, Gail, and Ted all have yet to boil the whole season down to so effective a summary.

As it turned out, this episode was crawling with old learned men with centuries of know-how and very thick accents — several more were on the way! In this respect, the episode slightly reminded me of one of my favorite movies, Ball of Fire, which is about a coven of cute, uptight, exotically tongued professors who get wowed by a voluptuous dame named Sugarpuss O’Shea, played by Barbara Stanwyck — or in this case, Casey. (Rent the movie tonight! It’s Howard Hawks directing an immaculate Billy Wilder and Charles Bracket script, with an assist not just from Stanwyck but also Gary Cooper at his best; it’s ten times more classic than a stupid piece of fish wrapped in a potato skin.)

The elimination challenge, judged by a panel of mulch-mouthed professors from the French Culinary Institute, as well as its female founder, was about what you could do with a russet potato, a piece of chicken, and a big yellow onion. And the fussy old deans liked Casey’s coq au vin — they called it rustic, and actually kept most of the talk about how beautiful Casey is off the table. The deans were, if wholly indistinguishable from each other, also awfully cute (especially that Swedish guy who’s been in two reggae bands).

NEXT: A tough audience

But our judges were, as usual lately, a tougher bunch. At the end of the whole thing, to cut to the quick, Hung won the challenge even though his ”pommes dauphin” were called out for not being fluffy enough; Casey got busted because her ”coq” was made of chicken instead of rooster (people eat rooster?); and Brian was accused of making the chicken upstage the sausage (or vice versa, I forget) in his neon-green-turd ”peasant’s pie.” And these three, friends, were the top finishers. The problem with that, I’ll say again this week as I said the last time I covered this show, is that the Bravo judges are all underminers. I get that being a cook means you’re a d—, but why must the judges be such d—s too? (It simply feels like there’s too many d—s on just one show!) ”Considering what’s at stake,” Tom said at the outset of the judges’ table to the other judges, ”I think they all did a pretty good job.” Really? That was basically the last we heard of any ”pretty good job” for the rest of the episode. The chefs came out, and the judges all asked one leading question that pointed out exactly the way that each dish was totally lacking, to the point where, afterward, Dale and Hung, demoralized with the other three chefs in the holding pen, quite rightly used the word ”nitpicking” to cheer themselves up. The judges were nitpicking. So, again, I just wonder: at what point this season did Top Chef become primarily a show about bitchy judging over heroic cooking? That’s what we’re getting left with here. If I don’t think any of these chefs are ”Top Gun” material, it’s only because it’s been drilled into my head repeatedly by the cranky panel of judges.

Sara lost. Her classy Jamaican chicken marinated in goat’s yogurt wasn’t executed well. Or something like that. A few weeks ago, I would’ve cheered her departure — she was never my favorite, and I wasn’t sure why she was even still around. Lately, I feel sorry for her as I feel sorry for any chef on this show, that they have to face up to this persnickety-ass panel. Dale nearly got tossed for forgetting to plate his honey-rosemary sauce — now he lives on for the two-week-long-finale, along with Brian, but I’ve got my fingers crossed for a Casey vs. Hung final showdown, with Hung making enough mistakes along the way to keep it close. Because this far out from the end, Casey’s late surge and newfound confidence aside, it’s fairly obvious to me that Hung’s the winner here. You agree?

What else do you think about this episode? Is Hung as unstoppable as I think he is? Do you appreciate Dale’s zinging bitchery, and was it reason enough to keep him in the final and kick out Sara? Have you seen Ball of Fire, and do you love it? And where do you take your parents for dinner when you’re all in New York City?