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Just watched the “Top Chef” season 3 finale. Actually having some waterworks.

I want to comment more about this season and last–but not now.

All I can think of is — WOW!

Dreading going to sleep tonight. I know I’m going have another high stress “Top Chef” dream where I’m one of the contestants. It’s the high stress recurring dream that has replaced the old Jurassic Park dinosaurs are loose in whatever location I’m in dream.

Yes, Tom Colicchio has replaced T. Rex in my nightmares.

The next morning…

Okay, yeah, had that recurring dream. And I know it’s boring to hear about someone else’s dreams.

“Top Chef.”

It seems like you have to comment on “Top Chef” or have your food blogging license revoked. I personally have loathed reality shows since the first season of “The Real World” and even more so since I first heard of the premise of “Survivor” before it even aired.

For this reason, I intentionally avoided the entire first season of “Top Chef.”

Yet I was pulled in by someone talking about some challenge involving Korean food. During season two, one of the early elimination challenges was for the chefs to divide into two teams. One would cook Vietnamese food. The other would cook Korean food. The two teams then had to showcase their foods at some Asian food festival/show that I forget the name of. One of my favorite chefs, Ming Tsai, was the guest judge for that episode.

I was chomping at the bit, wanting to be on the Korean team. I was SCREAMING at the screen.

“What are you DOING?? Tapioca-Coconut Panna Cotta?”

The one chef who made that monstrosity referred to herself as a pastry chef and also had delusions that she was some sex pot. Her personal web site originally had her scantily clad in a kitchen with a blow torch.

Her team, the Korean team, lost mainly because her panna cotta was too rubbery. Ming Tsai, though, when he tasted it at the food fair, said exactly what I was thinking, “And this is a traditional Korean dessert?”

Yes, exactly!

Korea is in northeast Asia. NORTHeast Asia.

There are no coconuts in Korea. They showed up one time at my local E-Mart and ended up in the bargain bin because no one knew what to do with them.

For their cold dish I said they should have tarted up a Naengmyeon or something.

Since then, I had been regularly armchair quarterbacking “Top Chef” on the Ruffianville (a Tony Bourdain fan club) boards. I always talked about what I would have done if I was on the show.

Nonetheless, the presentation of the dishes always remind me that, even though I used to cook professionally, I’m really just a food writer, if anything. Towards the end of the seasons, the food the chefs put out baffled me. I wondered how they thought of their menus.

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Season three, though, was far superior to season two. Season three didn’t have the intense petty personal conflicts that season two had, and I think it worked better that way. The caliber of the contestants was also much higher. There were a lot more surprises, such as Tre and CJ not making it to the finals. Those two and Hung were the ones I had picked from the beginning. I had no idea that Casey would be a finalist — and I really didn’t think Dale would either, based on the first couple of episodes. In fact, Dale didn’t win any elimination challenges until the second-to-last episode. But man, when he put it in gear, he put it in gear! I was really rooting for him by the end.

All three of the finalists were freakin’ amazing. I wish–and maybe one day I may be lucky enough to–I wish that I could taste their food one day. I may try to experiment with Hung’s winning duck dish, even though doing anything sous vide can be dangerous in a home kitchen, even if you do own a vacuum bag sealer. And Dale’s Colorado Lamb simmered in Duck Fat is close to impossible to recreate in South Korea.

Season three proved that you don’t need to have a villain. You don’t need cat fights. You don’t need to cheapen things to make good reality television. They tried to make Hung a Marcellian villain early on, but as Anthony Bourdain later blogged, he became more of an overeager puppy towards the end. I mean, who else woulda come up with something like the Smurf dish. (Note that in that Quickfire challenge Hung had to create something from the cereal aisle of a supermarket.)

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And Howie? A villain?

Nah, if Hung was a puppy, Howie was a stubborn bulldog who liked to add his own personal touch to his food — mainly forehead sweat.

Lots of comments were directed at Casey that she got by on her looks. But no, the woman seemed to have an amazing palate. I can only imagine what her food tasted like with her flavor combinations.

And as far as sexy, there is a contingent of us who were partial to Sara N. (Don’t fret, Sara. I can’t cook in heels either.)

I also wish Mississippi Clay didn’t fuck up and get kicked off in the first episode. So what if he didn’t know was an amuse bouche was and made an appetizer instead. Amuse bouches are the pinnacle of pretentious haute cuisine that turn off many middle class Americans to fine dining. The elimination challenge was to cook up some game for judge Anthony Bourdain. It was shameful that a Southern boy messed up a game dish. Yet I wish he stayed on because he seemed to have some good ideas and a lot of soul–something the judges regularly criticized the other chefs for not having.

The show, along with “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Kitchen Nightmares,” has made me step up a little more in the kitchen myself. From prep to cooking to cleaning, I feel Gordon Ramsay screaming at me to clean that knife correctly and Colicchio arching his eyebrows as I experiment with a sauce on the fly. I consider presentation more in the process of making something good. I also am more risky in the flavors I throw together.

My one criticism of the chefs on that show, and the only reason I’d want to be foolish enough to be on it, is the problem of where the show takes place. It’s an American show, and the cuisine is decidedly French. Most of the chefs are French trained. Even Hung, who has a rich Vietnamese culinary background, is trained in the classical French style and sticks with it. Even the food is judged by classical European standards in regards to sauces and seasonings. I should note that their palates are more forgiving of oiliness and salt than Far Eastern palates. What many of them consider “proper” seasoning, I currently see as oversalting and feeding into an addiction to salt that we are blasted with from our early years growing up. I understand that salt is supposed to bring up the volume of the food, but a lot of people in the food industry have had the volume turned up so high that they can’t perceive the desensitization they have subjected themselves to, like lifelong musicians with deadened hearing.

But that’s another rant for another time.

I hope that next season can match this past one. I hope that they have at least a few chefs who aren’t locked into the arrogant assumption that French standards of cuisine are the only legitimate standards of cuisine.

As a hypocritical side note, while I was waiting for a subway train at Yongsan Station, I came across a used copy of The Escoffier Cookbook, an abridged English translation of the classical French tome that is the textbook for culinary schools. I bought it for $5. Poring through it now.

I’ve resolved to be another blogger doing computer chair menu planning when it comes on. We all know that there are tons of bloggers talking about the show, including the crowded panel on the Bravo site itself. Since I live in Korea, my comments will show up a lot later than others.

In the meantime, I am looking forward to Food Network’s “Next Iron Chef.” This is so for three reasons.

ADDENDUM: It looks like I’m not alone in my sentiments. Frank Bruni of The New York Times has the same sentiments on the difference between seasons two and three.

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