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Top Chef Finale, Aspen Style



Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons

Top Chef Hung Huynh and F&W's Gail Simmons

Our F&W Classic in Aspen doesn't get going in earnest until tomorrow, but last night a healthy percentage of early arrivals gathered at the subterranean bar Belly Up to watch the Top Chef Finale like the food tv groupies we are. The party was sponsored by, fittingly enough, the Rums of Puerto Rico. As I sipped on a refreshing Bacardi Superior with lavender syrup and tonic, I tried to look graceful while scrounging for a seat. The place was packed like it was the Super Bowl, folks crammed into tables and along the bars to watch the show on the big screen, everyone from our own Dana Cowin and Ray Isle to chefs like Michel Nischan  and Andrew Shotts (the 2 both said they'd watch a lot more of the show if they weren't so busy cooking, and were glad to have a chance to watch the finale uninterrupted).

Top Chef judges Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi hadn't yet landed, but the fantastic Gail Simmons led the crowd in an informal poll: Stephanie won the warmest applause, Lisa many boos. Once the show started, it was tricky to hear over the chatter (Frank Bruni's take-down of Ago was the topic of the night). I snuck down to the speakers to hear what Richard Blais was teaching Eric Ripert over that steaming pot of liquid nitrogen, when I ran into last season's winner, Hung Huynh. During the commercial break before the judges' table he told me a little about the new restaurant he has planned, and his pick for the winner.

"I'm pulling for Richard," he said, "but it's not looking good. He's made that dessert [scalloped bananas] three times, I have no idea why. Stephanie cooks from the soul, she's solid." (Great praise from the contestant criticized for being too technical -and soulless - last year). "If she wins it will be ok."

Hyunh's still cooking at Solo, a high-end kosher place in midtown, but he's got his eye on a 60-seater in Murray Hill, and hopes this fall to open a seafood place there. "Mediterranean-Asian," he said. "My style."

Finally the judges began their deliberations and the room quieted down, only to erupt in happy shouts when Padma pronounced Stephanie top chef. When the camera caught Blais choking up, he got his own warm round of applause. But then the room broke up as guests headed out to the first of the weekend's many afterparties - or for a few of us, bed, for our last long night of sleep till Monday.

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Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.

Join celebrity chefs, renowned winemakers and epicurean insiders at the culinary world's most spectacular weekend, the FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen, June 19-21.