Feels like this season of Top Chef has been running for years -- who are half the people in the opening credits, anyway? At least we're down to the Final Four: Hung, Dale, Brian and -- wouldya look at that? -- Dallas' Casey Thompson. They're bound for the final countdown in Aspen, where $100,000 awaits the winner -- and, at this point, it looks like Thompson's damned near a favorite, behind only technique-obsessed Hung, to whom Casey lost both the Quickfire and Elimination challenges on last night's episode by this much.
Thought she had in the bag the opening Quickfire -- Le Cirque owner Sirio Maccioni seemed to dig her re-creation of the famed NYC eatery's signature halibut dish. (And he certainly dug Thompson.) But in the end he went with Hung. So too did Andre Soltner, former chef-owner of Lutece in New York City, and the other Elimination Challenge taste-testers from the French Culinary Institute -- a veritable "Council of Elders of European cuisine," writes Anthony Bourdain, in awe of the expertise on display last night. Those who think Top Chef a novelty item -- an light appetizer on the reality-TV tray that rewards the less-than-deserving -- should have been disabused of that notion last night: Thompson and her fellow cheftestants making the pilgrimage to Aspen were sent there by the greatest chefs and instructors in the world.
Thompson knew it too: "I really can't believe I made it through all the bullshit," she said upon getting that last boarding pass to Colorado. "I really can't."
Hung has the technique, no doubt -- guy's a regular instructional video on chopping, filleting and sautéing. But he also comes off as little more than a chefbot, going through the motions at warp speed to make a perfect and perfectly soulless dish. Thompson, on the other hand, has soul. Yeah, her second-place coq au vin may not have been coq au vin -- she used a chicken, not a rooster, hence the absence of the titular coq -- but it was her grandmother's recipe -- a nod to the woman without whom Thompson wouldn't be executive chef at Shinsei.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
As Bourdain notes on his blog, there are many on the Bravo blogs insisting Thompson's made it this far based solely on her looks. Their theories are rooted in the fact, most likely, that she didn't make much of an impression during the early episodes; she was in the chorus, but never a lead, allowing others -- including, for a while, fellow Rathbunny Tre Wilcox -- to emerge as front-runners. But as the others were tossed down the garbage disposal, Thompson stood out as a real contender -- she's as well-hung as Hung when it comes to taste, style and preparation.
Writes Bourdain this morning:
Casey, I think, deserves a lot more respect from some of the grassy knoll conspiracy theorists who've commented here. She's clearly a very fine cook -- fully capable of excellence under fire. Let the distinguished judges' comments on this episode be the final nail in the wrongheaded and now utterly discredited argument that Casey has somehow been getting a free pass 'cause of her looks. Other than the brief, freakish, onion anomaly, she has shown nothing but chefly qualities. I, for one, didn’t care if she looked like Broderick Crawford when I judged the airline meal challenge: her dish was far and away the best.
So now it's down to four -- with a local in the mix, so close to a small fortune that could take her out of the Shinsei kitchen. "Guess we'd better eat there now," says the missus. Guess so. --Robert Wilonsky