Top Chef: Season 3 Recap
When Top Chef first aired, it wasn't clear if the show was going to be able to find its own tone or if it would remain the foodie version of Project Runway. Luckily, it didn't go the way of Top Design, and despite the fact that we can't truly judge the contestants' work for ourselves – after all, other than plating, our opinions are all based on what other people tell us about the food since we can't taste it – Top Chef now has the kind of passionately-opinionated viewers that can help give a show longevity.

The third season was based in Miami, and from the beginning, the show stayed true to the Bravo formula for the relatively sophisticated and high-brow (or, I suppose more precisely, high-ish brow) reality program. The opening scene hit the mark: the new group of chefs met at the former house of Gianni Versace.

It was a certainly a colorful cast of characters, including tall and one-balled Chris Jacobsen (CJ), stocky bald Howie Kleinberg, New Yorker Joey Paulino, young Lia Bardeen, and of course, self-proclaimed “Certified Professional Asshole” and Friend of Marcel Vigneron, Hung Huynh.

The first Quickfire was especially cruel, requiring the chefs to create an amuse bouche out of buffet leftovers. Hung was in the top three for that first challenge, but not yet a winner. He was also in the top two for the stomach-turning “Surf and Turf” challenge. The other top candidate and ultimate winner was Tre Wilcox, and it looked and sounded like these two could be the final two. They both had skills and professional respect for one another.

The next episode saw Hung and Tre once again being singled out for praise in the Quickfire, and joining them were Joey, Howie and West Coast seafood chef Brian Malarkey. Hung had his first win.

Maybe it was the thrill of victory, but we had our first Hung spaz-attack sighting in that episode as he rushed around the kitchen. We also had our first confirmation of his CPA status, as Joey grumbled that he stole his Quickfire drink idea for the elimination.

Howie and Joey first butted heads in this episode. Tre had the first down cycle of his very up-and-down season as he was in the bottom in this elimination challenge. This episode also saw Sandee Birdsong going home for her failed upscale BBQ, and we had what would become a thorn in viewers' sides: sending home a strong chef for own bad performance. But more on that later.

The next episode had Hung annoying his fellow chefs again with his careless clumsiness with some seafood. Brian maintained his reputation as the king of seafood by winning the Quickfire. Howie started to redeem himself, and CJ made himself known as well. Tre, on the other hand, continued in his down cycle.

After the Elk's club challenge, CJ cycled right down himself, landing in the bottom, along with Brian – sort of. Technically, Brian had immunity but his poor performance caused the judges to want to put some fear into him.

Episode four introduced to a new flavor of Hung: Defensive Hung. This is the Hung that charms people and wins friends. When judged negatively in the Quickfire challenge, he said the judge just didn't get it. Meanwhile, Dale finally emerged near the top, as he was called out in the challenge, and Casey Thompson also surfaced from the middle of the pack to win the Quickfire. Tre was called out as well – he was cycling back up.

After a team challenge, both Hung and Brian made it into the top spots, although they are not the ultimate winners – that was young Lia. Dale tried to captain a dessert team to a win but instead ran them aground. Casey also was called out for terrible dishes in this challenge, but she was safe.

In the fifth episode, Howie and Joey made nice. Hung and Dale were in the bottom of the Quickfire, while Tre was among the top. Joey was the ultimate winner, though.

The chefs have to deal with the silly scheduling issue with the telenovela in this episode. This was also a pretty low point for Hung, and probably the episode most pointed to for proof of his jerkiness and unworthiness to win by anti-fans. He ran with the knife in this episode, and argued with the judges. Howie had a win, and young Lia headed home.

Here, the season took a breather for an oddly-timed mid-season reunion show. Little did we know the point of the whole show was to deliver one message: we judge on the challenge, not the overall performance. This was a key detail for later in the season.

Casey wins another Quickfire in the next episode, beating out Brian, Howie and Hung in the final of a blind taste or tasteless sight test. Tre and CJ kick some butt as partners in the Elimination challenge, while Hung continues to falter after a bad team effort with Joey, who gets sent home for it.

Both Hung and Casey are in the bottom on the next Quickfire, and it seems like Hung's overconfidence could be doing him in. Dale has his first win, but it doesn't help him in the Elimination challenge – immunity is over. The team nightclub Roach Coach challenge puts CJ, Casey, Howie and Sara Mair on the same team, and Sara heads home for her loss of spirit, but not before another Howie confrontation. Tre? Still on that up cycle, winning the elimination challenge.

The next two episodes were the Restaurant Wars – both the original and the do-over, and it resulted in the most controversial elimination yet. After Tre's kitchen served some very poor quality food, his leadership role was called into question as he had been executive chef. Ultimately, the judges found his responsible, and a heck of a lot of ticked off viewers were created.

Over the next couple episodes, Casey becomes the front runner, while Hung continues to slip and aggravate his fellow chefs and viewers. Folks, we should have seen it coming! They played us like a fiddle. But with French cooking in New York, Hung seems to hit his stride and he starts to come back to nip at her heels. And suddenly, Dale emerged from the middle of the rest of the pack and made his way to the final three.

With Casey choking in the end, and Dale's one poor dish undercutting him against Hung's relative consistency throughout the courses, Hung came out on top to the consternation of many.  However, maybe time will mellow people's opinions.  We saw in our own BuddyTV poll that the first reaction was wildly anti-Hung, but as of now, a little over half of the responders are glad Hung won.

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