Signature Dish?

Signature Dish?

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

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...

Candice's Chicken Shitake Roulade reminded me of the meal I was served on my flight from New York to San Francisco two days prior. My advice for our "model-turned-cook" is this: Beige food looks just as enticing as an all beige outfit. If you want to impress go big...or go home.

And then there was Ken. If what he served us was even one-fifth as confident and over-the-top as his actions he would have been home free. But alas, we all know the biggest mistake one can make in competition is talking the talk before you prove you can walk the walk. His Pan Seared Alaskan Halibut was a complete mess! The thought of his tasteless fish with its fig gastrique, tomato garnish and soybean, spring onion and parsley puree put me off before he even set it down. But perhaps somehow it did show his personality unfocused, inconsistent and all around forgettable. Let alone that he treated Chef Hubert as well as his fellow contestants with such lack of respect, a major no-no in, or out, of the kitchen. But all was not lost. After 14 hours on set and little hope of a good meal, the second team of cooks presented their creations.

Stephen's Trio of Lamb was focused and well conceived although it lacked depth on the palate. What could have easily given him that winning edge? Perhaps more concentration on proper seasoning. And, where did he come up with the term "seared to the fourth power"? To me, all that says is he is full of bologna, and not the good kind... His attention to visual detail shone through and so did his obsessive personality. I will say that his decision to serve wine was a definite bonus it totally helped us all get through the night's long shoot.

Tiffani's Pumpkin Stuffed Lasagna tasted as good as it looked - rich, sweet and full of flavor. The dish was seasonal and original. Her garnish of arugula salad with raisins was extraneous though. She should not have added any other flavors, as the pumpkin was powerful enough on its own. I loved how the colors of the dish mimicked her bright orange hair and fiery character.

I am still dreaming about Harold's Steamed Thai Snapper. It was delicate and refined, quietly commanding attention at the end of the table. My first impression was that his was the simplest, with its light, airy Fall Squash Sauce and gently sauteed chanterelle mushrooms. Each bite confirmed that although his style may have been subtle and understated, Harold had a game plan. He is not packing his knives without a serious fight. Luckily, we all have ringside seats!

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