Top Chef: Season 3, Episode 13 Recap
Episode Overview: After a month break, the four remaining chefs have to get back on their game as they head back to Aspen for the final elimination before someone is named Top Chef. That's right, it's going to be three people heading into the finale, not the usual two. The past few episodes have made seemed to make it abundantly clear that it was going to be Hung Huynh vs. Casey Thompson, with a lot of talk about his technique and her soul. So will it, in fact be those two? And if so, who's the third person – Brian Malarkey or Dale Levitski – who will be tagging along? Or Top Chef pull off a major twist that sends one of the leading cheftestants home?

The chefs all convene in Aspen, rested and ready for the next stage of competition. They pile into a van and are taken to their first event – a hot air balloon ride. Casey, not a fan of heights, isn't too thrilled, but with a few mimosas in the gondola to toast their making the final four, everyone seems to have a good time.

Dale reflects on the competition. Prior to the show, his restaurant was closed, and he had just been dumped. He was feeling lost, but the show has refocused him on the joy of cooking.

Hung started out this episode yet again talking about how superior his technique was. In other words, he was “on message,” Top Chef style. However, he also reflects on what brought him there, his family and their love of cooking and hard work to achieve the American Dream.

What's that I hear? Is that the sounds of the modification of the message? You watch too many reality shows and you start to think you can hear the machinery at work. I could be wrong but Hung's talk of family sounds like groundwork for tempering the whole “Hung's a soulless cooking robot” story they've been creating to set up a good vs. evil conflict at the end. Just like Marcel Vigneron of last season, if the reality show villain makes it to the finale, you have to start allowing some slightly more likable or sympathetic elements into the edit. 

The chefs are deposited in a field and there, they find Padma Lakshmi and famed chef Eric Ripert. Their challenge? To cook, stream-side, some fresh-caught trout in a thoroughly rustic kitchen. Just a camp stove, a frying pan and some basic ingredients. They only have twenty minutes to create their dish.

Although Bryan has been the King of Seafood thus far, he's feeling scattered and disoriented this challenge. Seven minutes before time is called, he abandons the fish he had been cooking and starts over.

Dale is definitely not the King of Seafood, and this challenge won't be changing that any time soon. He seems to be just trying to hang on.

Hung coasts through, and ends with minutes to spare, but in his rush, he forgot his lemon juice.

It's a move that might have cost him the win. After criticizing Dale and Bryan for their poor seasoning, Eric says Hung and Casey are the best. Hung is “precise” but Casey's dish has “soul.” Eric is ON MESSAGE! Casey wins. She will get an advantage later.

The chefs unpack at the hotel, including their special ingredients from home. Hung brought some ingredients used in the cuisine his family cooks. Casey brought Asian ingredients as well, since her usual style is Pan-Asian.

Neither, however, will most likely be appropriate for this elimination challenge: they're cooking for cowboys. And although Hung first assumes this means “Baked beans and baked beans…and baked beans,” this actually means elk. Hung seems like he would have preferred the baked beans, calling elk "heavy and boring" and appearing frustrated to not be cooking something he enjoys.

The chefs get started with the difficult challenge of working with this gamey and lean meat. Brian decides to braise the meat, a risky move since he only has three hours.

The chefs also learn that there will be three of them heading to the finale, which gives them mixed feelings. It's great there are more spots available…but it also will suck even more to be the one singled out to be sent home and then you have two people to still beat in the finale.

But for now, they are focused on this challenge. Dale's having bad luck. He was missing a key ingredient for his goat cheese tart, and so it winds up not being usable. He quickly throws together a potato and cauliflower dish, and hopes the strength of his sauce – something the judges have enjoyed in the past – will be enough to save him.

Hung is not thrilled to be cooking elk. He won't deign to cook cowboy-style so he's going to cook for the judges instead. But he admits his dish lacks soul (ON MESSAGE!) because he's not standing behind it.

Casey is the only one sort of humming along contentedly…a Texas girl, she's cooked elk before and her family has hunted it.

Her dish, though, is not as successful as you would expect, with the judges finding her elk very rare. She redeems herself with an excellent sauce. Dale's dish is exceedingly complex but the judges actually find it all works together well. Brian's dish is also complex – it takes him twenty minutes to explain it with his usual salesman patter, complains Gail Simmons – and he also added the odd touch of providing two optional cheese for the guest to choose. Hung's dish seems well-done overall, but there wasn't a good harmonious balance of seasonality in the dish.

The judges call the chefs back, deliver their critiques, and ask the chefs to make their case for their spot in the final three. Dale talks about his journey back from a difficult year to being a chef again. Casey gives a picture of herself as a dedicated and hard worker. Hung veers away from the message – again, groundwork for the finale – by talking about how he's actually all about soul, haven't you heard? Soul soul soul. Brian makes a speech that both Tom Colicchio and I agree is kind of a copout, claiming that he hasn't yet made “his” food so they should keep him until the end so they can see it.

No such luck. After Dale receives his very first win – and a great prize of working with Eric Ripert – Brian is asked to pack his knives and go.

So we have Hung the Robot, Casey, who is kind of the earnest Good Girl, and now Dale, the scrappy underdog. Who do you think will come out on top on next week's finale? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

- Leslie Seaton, BuddyTV Staff Columnist
(Image courtesy of Bravo)