On the next-to-last episode of ''Top Chef,'' Hung, Dale, and Casey manage to deal with mountain cuisine, but Brian stumbles over cheese choice

By Josh Wolk
Updated September 27, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Bravo
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”Top Chef”: The final four get high

The brilliant and culinarily perceptive Greg Kirschling isn’t able to be here to take you through the penultimate Top Chef, but I hope to keep his seat warm by doing what he does: rooting for Hung and Casey.

I should open by confessing that critiquing Top Chef is a little hard for me, as these contestants are not only talented but talented at a skill that utterly confounds me. I have never been a good cook, and on the occasions that I do make something, I follow the recipe so carefully that you’d think it was instructions on how to dismantle a bomb. I have no improvisatory skills whatsoever: If a recipe calls for cumin and I find none in my cupboard, I have no idea what to substitute for it. You could tell me to sprinkle ground-up tennis ball, and I’d have to take your word for it. The very idea of someone telling me, ”Cook an entire meal, you have two hours, go!” makes my jaw go slack. You might as well be saying, ”Learn how to fly on your own power, you have two feathers and a stiff breeze, go!” So clearly I’m in awe of all of the Top Chef players, let alone the finalists. The very fact that they can make anything better than scrambled eggs with broken-shell sauce puts them above my reproach.

That said, my skill is crapping on people, so let’s have at it. They gotta be them, and I gotta be me.

So Brian’s gone. I wasn’t that surprised; he was the guy I’d see every week and go, ”Wait, he’s still around?” Having him in the game kind of lessened the suspense for me tonight, especially after the judges announced they’d only be booting one person instead of two in Aspen before the finale next week. Hung is the clear favorite, he wouldn’t go; Casey is the upstart fave (and only woman left); and Dale is the charismatic underdog: He’s Top Chef‘s gay Rudy.

And so went Seafood Brian. The writing was on the wall in the quickfire competition, when, having just debarked from a hot-air-balloon ride (because what builds suspense more than a really slow, lumbering airborne vehicle? There’s a reason you don’t see many blimp chases in movies, people), they were all forced to cook trout by a mountain stream on a camping stove. (It’s a land where Glad reusable containers run free!) The chefs all suffered the most rustic panic attacks ever. Well, everyone except for Hung, who was so calm he forgot to add his key ingredient of lemon juice. Food was falling into the grass, pans were sliding over, and they all looked to be sweating profusely. I wanted to watch A River Runs Through It after the episode, just to break a budding association in my mind between placid streams and spattered grease and fish guts.

The guest judge, Le Bernardin chef Eric Ripert (who, legend has it, can sear a flank steak with just his piercing eyes), picked Casey as the victor, saying her concoction had ”soul.” Hung sniped that he had tasted her food, and his dish was more refined. This couldn’t have been a better summation of Ripert’s (and many of the other past judges’) issues with Hung’s cooking. He’s a great technician, which is all he seems to judge himself by, but his food lacks the character or passion of his fellow finalists’.

Quick digression: Why was this finale set in Aspen? I don’t really think of it as a Mecca for foodies. Is it Glad HQ? When I think of Aspen, I think of a friend of mine from college whose mother lived in Colorado and made extra money by cooking Rice-a-Roni and Kraft mac and cheese to gauge their high-altitude cooking times for the companies. Is that part of Aspen’s rich culinary tradition? It is a wondrous land where Pop Tarts only need two minutes to toast, not three. Magnifique!

Okay, on to the main challenge. Padma showed up wearing a cowboy hat and boots, and for a minute I thought they were going to have to cook Jack Palance’s corpse. But no, the task was to prepare elk for 40 cowboys and cowgirls there for a rodeo. As a noncook, I love this show because of the little details that organically filter through the challenges: I didn’t know elk was lean, and I didn’t know that meant it needed to be braised longer. Granted, that will likely never come in handy, since, as someone who hasn’t yet mastered cooking a chicken, the odds are good that I will never choose to whip up an elk. But still, it’s good to have in my back pocket. If nothing else, maybe there will be a Trivial Pursuit: Cooking Elk edition.

Everyone was allowed to bring $200 worth of his or her own ingredients. (I would have kicked ass: Do you know how much Hamburger Helper $200 can get you? Cowboys love that stuff! Or is it firemen? Well, somebody’s got to love it.) As quickfire winner, Casey was the only one allowed to use hers, but she chose to save them for the finale, instead making a mushroom-crusted loin. Assuming she’d still be around to use her ingredients was a gamble, and one that nearly didn’t pay off. The judges were underwhelmed, especially by her cauliflower puree, in which she mixed chunks of cauliflower. (Hey, that’s the way I’d cook: You know what this dish needs more of? The same ingredient, just in a different form!) Fortunately, her sauce saved the day: The way Ripert raved about its smokiness, I wonder if he invited it up for a romantic balloon ride after the show. Are there privacy windows in a hot-air-balloon basket?

Dale looked like a goner when his tart fell apart, but fortunately he had seen the writing on the wall soon enough to prepare a plan B — potatoes and cauliflower — that ended up working. And not just working: He won the whole damn competition, his first of the series. I had an inkling that he was due for an inspirational victory the way the producers kept hammering home how he’d nearly quit cooking after his last restaurant shut down. It would have been quite abusive to stress his painful past and then, at the end of the episode, all yell, ”Guess what, Dale! Your losing streak doesn’t stop here! See ya!”

NEXT: The finale three

Hung was his usual cocky self, once again finishing early (although with all his ingredients in his dish this time). The judges weren’t thrilled with his meal. Tom said its competing flavors gave it ”seasonal disorder.” I thought this would have been the perfect time for Eric Ripert to stand up and say, ”Seasonal disorder is right. It sure gave me an autumny ache!” and then high-five Gail Simmons. But I guess four-star chefs aren’t really one for puns and/or kickass disses. Their loss.

Then came Brian, who braised his elk and then apparently put an entire Whole Foods into a blender and poured it over the meat. As usual, he put on a show for his eaters, donning a cowboy hat and describing his meal in such lengthy detail that Bravo had to preempt The D-List. But his key mistake was giving people the choice of two cheeses to eat with his meal: Ripert said not deciding this himself was ”a crime.” This strong statement seemed a disproportionately stern rebuke for just offering a choice of cheese; I wondered if the producers hadn’t edited out an earlier scene where Brian knocked a cowgirl over the head with a gorgonzola and stole her chaps. That’s gotta be at least a misdemeanor in Cheese Court.

When brought in front of the judges, the final four were made to state why they deserved to be in the final three. This was a humanizing moment, of which there haven’t been many this season. That’s probably for the best. This isn’t The Bachelor; we tune in to see people’s kitchen skills, not their life stories and hopes and dreams. But I did like hearing them say why cooking was so important to them. It certainly worked to Dale’s best interest and also gave the first sign that Hung isn’t an android sent from the planet Confit.

But Brian really didn’t step up, dwelling only on wanting to stick around for the finale so he could show the judges what he could really do. This was a bad approach, because it made it seem like everything he’s done before was subpar. It might make the judges think, ”Sure, he may work magic in the finale, but did everything previous from him suck, in which case, were we dopes for letting him go this far?” Plus, he was constantly criticized for concentrating exclusively on seafood, and his comment during the quickfire that trout ”isn’t really considered seafood” might have made him seem like even more of a narrow talent. Now, the antitrout bigotry might be common in the seafood-chef world, but it seemed kind of fishist to me. Do trout have to swim at the back of the school? (Hey-oh, I’m here all week, don’t forget to tip your arctic char!)

It looked for a moment as if Hung could be sent packing, which I’m glad the judges didn’t do, although it would have been in keeping with many of their impulsive evictions in this season. I’m still annoyed that Tre and C.J. were bumped after isolated losses that were clear anomalies, considering their previous standout dishes. Ousting the contestants for one bad showing and not taking into account all their accomplishments is arbitrary and Apprentice-esque, good only for drama and surprise, but bad for the integrity of the title of top chef. This is why I hope Dale doesn’t win: He seems like a nice guy and a great chef, but he’s never really shone in this competition. He’s only narrowly avoided eviction and then pleasantly surprised everyone by fighting his way back to the middle of the pack. To leapfrog him over Hung and Casey based on one finale dish (however good that may be) would be random and unfair. Save that crap for Donald Trump.

And so next week it all ends. My money’s on Casey in this little kitchen morality tale, just because of Hung’s established lack of ”soul.” I hope she does win, and I know where I’ll be: celebrating in front of the TV with a plate full of my specialty: toast and toast sauce.

What do you think? Who’s going to win? Who should win?

Episode Recaps

Top Chef

Tom, Padma, and Gail tell the cheftestants to pack their knives and go.
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