The purpose of the first episode's challenges was not only for the judges to get a feeling for each individual's knowledge and use of basic technique, but also to take the contestants out of their element and force them to think outside the box. I was quite surprised by how few of them had ever actually cooked with the mystery ingredients they were given. Not that I expect anyone to be cooking with frog legs and snails very often, but a well-rounded chef should know how to handle a broad range of proteins; none of these were so totally out of the ordinary for the culinary world.
Versatility is a skill that can never be underestimated.... As you all know, throwing contestants for a loop is what Top Chef does best. Pairing artichokes with snails and American cheese, or chicken with frog legs and peanut butter definitely woke everyone up! In my opinion, the chefs did not have to invent anything miraculous to win this challenge; the best dishes were those that made the unfamiliar, familiar again. As Tom pointed out to me between shots, the challenge did not require you to incorporate all these ingredients in equal proportion, just represent each one in some small way in the same dish.
Betty's liver and frog leg cakes, Mia's (absolutely juicy) Sunday Dinner buttermilk-fried frog legs and Elia's snails with creamy mashed potatoes were at the top of all our lists because they did not attempt to morph their food into some weird and ridiculous mess. Instead, they used ideas and techniques they were confident about and adapted them accordingly, ultimately making the exotic into a dish anyone could appreciate. They also gave us a clear snapshot of their personal cooking styles.