”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