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Victory is spelled H-U-N-G

October 4, 2007 | 11:59 am

Topchef At last, reality TV villain and speed demon Hung has been named "Top Chef." I waited several months for his big moment to happen.

The show's audience may not have wanted that outcome -- an interactive text poll conducted throughout Wednesday's finale found that only 19% of them thought Hung should win -- but even the most illiterate foodie should have been able to tell he deserved it.

The Hung backlash has always been misguided. Sure, the 29-year-old who serves as executive sous chef for, ahem, Guy Savoy clearly wanted the Marcel role this season. Early on he dissed the skill level of his competitors and displayed more bravado about his own culinary talents than maybe even last season's runner-up.

Some called it "cocky," I call it amusing. Besides, his on-camera chest-thumping was so clearly an act. Hung never failed to congratulate challenge winners. He cheered on his fellow chefs in team situations.

Ordinarily, the villain title matters in competitive reality TV. But not so on "Top Chef," where head judge Tom Colicchio has often said it's really all about the food. 

Of all the competitors, Hung most consistently displayed pyrotechnical skill in the kitchen -- to both an advantage and a disadvantage. When the competition took them to the French Culinary Institute, those skills blew away all the deans, who collectively had 200-plus years of culinary experience. During a challenge that restricted contestants to cooking with $10 and the ingredients from a single grocery store aisle, Hung went down in flames for his cereal "Smurf village." But weren't they spectacular flames?

Perhaps the most irritating criticism of Hung's cuisine throughout the season, however, was the complaint that he cooked with no "soul" or "heart." While the judging panel is indeed full of prestigious foodies, I can't believe he displayed anything further from that.

Just look at what Rocco DiSpirito, who got the first-hand experience as Hung's sous chef in the finale, and Ted Allen had to say about him.

Hung wouldn't have raced around the kitchen like the roadrunner with a big grin on his face if he didn't love what he was doing. Hung wouldn't have fabricated four chickens in just a couple of minutes if cooking were merely something he was good at. He wouldn't have designed plates that more often than not impressed the judges and his fellow contestants if his heart weren't in it. I'm guessing the judges meant that they weren't seeing an Asian flare in his cooking. Hung is Vietnamese, and as Anthony Bourdain previously blogged, he comes from one of the foodiest of foodie nations. Hung's style was both classic and contemporary but lacking in Asian flavors.

He brought all of that instead to the finale, where it came down to his inclusion of Asian flavors and his consistency as a top performer. When it came to splitting hairs over the deciding dish, Dale's inedible lobster with curry sauce was a far cry from Hung's own borderline dish: a perfectly made chocolate cake with raspberry sauce. Not ingenious, but not inedible. While Dale's other dishes soared, the judges said his lobster dish failed.

Congratulations, Hung. The long wait was worth it.

--Denise Martin

(Photo courtesy Bravo)

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