Gail Simmons

Gail Simmons on why Harold Dieterle won the first challenge ever.

on Dec 15, 2008

Top Chef's first Elimination Challenge also marked my first day on the set. Until the moment each contestant put their signature dish in front of me, I had never met them, never spoken to them and knew nothing of their kitchen skills. What a perfect introduction!

A signature dish says so much about its creator. It should be, when executed correctly, a very telling plate of food. Great chefs have built empires based on their signature dishes. Nobu Matsuhisa, for example, has literally gone global with his play on Japanese and Peruvian flavors showcased in his sweet Sea Scallop Tradito. Jean Georges Vongerichten revolutionized dessert when he put Molten Chocolate Cake center stage. And don't even get me started on what Wolfgang Puck did with smoked salmon pizza. Like a magic mirror, these famous dishes reflect the chef's grasp of technique, understanding of flavor and presentation, not to mention personal tastes. They represent not only their unique personalities but also how diners come to familiarize themselves with each chef's cooking style.

Our Signature Dish Challenge was no exception. I learned so much more about each of the contestants by what they put in front of me, then how they acted or what they said at the Judges' Table. And just like that magic mirror, the plate never lied...

So what did I really think about the bottom and top three contestants?

Oh Andrea, if only your food was as lofty as your ideals! She was so well-intentioned but so shortsighted as to who was tasting her food. I love kale as much as the next gal, I definitely love sesame, maple and of course shrimp. But this was a first-class case of how less could have been so much more...