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October 23, 2014

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Q+A: How did L.V. cheftestant Shirley Chung fare on ‘Top Chef’?

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Bravo

Las Vegas chef Shirley Chung, here with Nicholas Elmi, has made the finals of Season 11 of “Top Chef” in New Orleans. The last challenges are on Maui.

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Las Vegas chef Shirley Chung, left, with Nina Compton and Nicholas Elmi, has made the finals of Season 11 of “Top Chef” in New Orleans. The last challenges are on Maui.

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Las Vegas chef Shirley Chung, center, with Nicholas Elmi and Nina Compton, has made the finals of Season 11 of “Top Chef” in New Orleans. The last challenges are on Maui.

“Top Chef” Season 11 cheftestant Shirley Chung was gracious in defeat tonight when she was unexpectedly eliminated from the final four in the Hawaii showdown. The judges’ shock decision outraged viewers on the East Coast, and the Twitterverse was flooded with comments praising Shirley and adding that rival Nicholas Elmi should have been eliminated.

Neither of the “Last Chance Kitchen” combatants made it through, so next week’s final episode will be between Nina Compton and Nicholas. Tonight’s guest judges who decided on Shirley’s ouster and the ultimate battle between Nina and Nicholas were Hawaii chef restaurateurs Sam Choy and Peter Merriman.

Our Las Vegas star chef had shone brightly in the previous 14 episodes filmed on location in New Orleans — she won a car that she gave to her mother and several cash prizes. But in tonight’s episode filmed on Maui, “Everything went wrong,” she said.

“I feel like I disappointed a lot of people, but I have to be honest and say that I agreed with the judges. I was simply not at my best caliber for the end of the competition or for the dish. Everything went wrong. It totally wasn’t my day,” she told me this evening moments after the Bravo show was telecast on the West Coast.

“You would have thought I did something to upset the people in Hawaii. For the second time on national television, I tripped and fell. I was running to the boat on the beach and went flying.

“Then in the race back with the produce, I had a big problem. I didn’t have vegetables. I had pork, sweet potato, turmeric and honey, but it was starch on starch on starch. As if that wasn’t enough, my pots also went flying off the grill. With the honey pork and marinated turmeric and egg for the chicken, it was a much sweeter dish than what I normally put out. Then when presenting the dish to the judges, something dropped and some fell off the plate!

“I don’t know if I even want to watch the episode I’ve taped for later. I decided to drown my sorrows by coming out to watch the Britney Spears show at Planet Hollywood. I’m such a fan! I knew she’d take my mind completely off what happened. I didn't cry, though, when they told me I was going home. I had so much to be proud of over the weeks and all the great things everybody said about my cuisine.”

Shirley thinks of the disastrous result as a big win and not a loss. “I found my voice. It was a great experience,” she told me. “I know now my goal, my career and my calling. I grew so much, and I also found my confidence to be a real chef. Emeril Lagasse and Tom Colicchio were amazing, and I loved their straightforward, constructive comments and criticism. I think I grew at least 50 percent better by the end than when I started out.

“I used to be more in the management positions at the restaurants I worked in, but now I realize that I can really cook. And my dish from last week is on the menu at all of Emeril’s restaurants in New Orleans for the next month, so that’s what makes me cry far more than getting so close to a win and then just missing out.”

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Las Vegas chef Shirley Chung, center, has made the finals of Season 11 of “Top Chef” in New Orleans.

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Hubert Keller and Shirley Chung at Chefs to the Max, a fundraising dinner for food critic Max Jacobson, at Rx Boiler Room on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, in Mandalay Place.

Shirley has worked for a decade here in the Venetian, Caesars Palace and the Cosmopolitan for Thomas Keller, Guy Savoy and Jose Andres, respectively. “I had all their knowledge in my head, but everything I did was carrying out their vision. Now I have my own vision for Shirley’s cuisine. I accomplished that, and I have my own creativity now.”

She told me that one of the toughest parts of “Top Chef” was the stress of the long hours and grueling daily production schedule. “Actually, I look back, and that wasn’t it. It was all the food in New Orleans. It was so hard not to eat everything in front of us!“ she laughed. “I knew that it was all going to my face! In the end, there was nothing bad about doing the show, and, even losing tonight, I really enjoyed the entire experience.

“I honestly thought when they said I was going to the finals in Hawaii that I had what it would take to win it, but it wasn’t to be. Everything that could go wrong went wrong.

“All night long, though, I’ve been getting great messages of love and support from the East Coast, and that’s made me feel wonderful. Total strangers saying how much they loved what I achieved, what I created and cooked and what they learned from me while watching, so that’s a great feeling. That takes away the sense of a loss.”

Next week, Shirley heads off to Korea on a culinary research and development trip. “It’s the first of many trips I have scheduled. There will be a lot of travels so I can be even better and have more knowledge from other parts of the world to add to what I can do already.”

She plans to juggle her own restaurant-consulting business while deciding about her own restaurant future. Shirley summed up: “ ‘Top Chef’ has already opened a lot of doors. There are ongoing discussions and negotiations with different groups who want me to open my own restaurant. One may very well be in Las Vegas, and Las Vegas will definitely continue to be my home base whatever we wind up deciding somewhere later this year.”

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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