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Life Imitating Art

Gail Simmons examines an inherent problem with team challenges on Top Chef

By Andrea Strong

The trickiest thing about weddings is that although every bride and groom (OK -- mainly the bride) want the day to be perfect and always start out with the best intentions, it is rarely just about their own wishes. So many factors go into creating a menu for the most important meal of your life, especially since you'll be sharing it with those you love. And there are countless other issues to consider. At times it can seem that, no matter what you serve, it will never satisfy all the needs of the day. Coincidently, I am in the midst of planning my own nuptials, so I have recently been tackling this very issue. If you have ever been married, or planned a wedding, I have no doubt you know exactly what I mean.

How to Watch

Watch Top Chef Season 21 Wednesdays at 9/8c on Bravo and next day on Peacock.

Forget all the other particulars a wedding entails; selecting the wedding menu is enough to overwhelm you completely. First the venue must be considered (indoors or out, banquet hall, loft space, restaurant or country field), then of course the season comes into play. And what about formality -- seated dinner, family-style feast, buffet, or cocktail reception? How conventional or how offbeat? Of course each of your backgrounds must play a role, as well as family traditions, dietary restrictions, allergies, size, caterer specialties, who pays the bills ... the list goes on. With all this in mind, it is no wonder all of our cheftestants had a hard time on this episode.

The challenge was to prepare a full wedding meal -- from hors d'oeuvres to wedding cake, for 125 guests -- taking into account the specific tastes of either bride or groom. Cooking to the expectations of any couple's wedding day is a challenge for any caterer in any circumstance. Doing it all in less than 24 hours borders on the absurd. I already pity the exceptionally talented and enormously capable chef catering my wedding. And I have several months to plan! That said, the concept I have for my big day differs vastly from what you saw on this week's show: My rule of thumb is to keep it simple. Of course the pressure is intense: to make it special and delicious, to impress our guests and have terrific food. But I am trying desperately to consider the myriad factors and create a menu that does not stretch my caterer too thin in an already stressful situation. I am certainly not serving the sheer number of dishes that the Groom's Team attempted. Instead, I choose to spend my caterer's time and energy in creating a few really extraordinary ideas and perfecting them.

From my perspective there were two obvious reasons Nikki, Dale, Lisa, and Spike's Italian wedding menu failed. First, the phrase "Jack of all trades, master of none" comes to mind. They simply took on too much in too little time and were unable to control the quality of their product because of it. Second, no one was taking any responsibility for the meal as a whole, which Nikki should have done, being that she was the self-proclaimed Italian maven of the group. Or perhaps it should have been Dale, who spent the whole episode complaining that no one on his team could get anything done as well as he could. Either way, Nikki initiated the menu and connected with the groom. Bottom line: Not only were her specific dishes not good, but she purposely avoided taking charge, lest she take the fall if things went wrong. Her plan backfired for this very reason, which is why we sent her packing.

In fact, the whole team became so consumed with competing against one another that they lost track of their goals completely. This brings up an inherent problem that can occur on the show if our chefs are not careful to watch for it: As this is a competition, it can be very hard to differentiate between competing against members of your team and competing against the opposing one. The Groom's Team fell apart because, consciously or not, they chose to compete against one another instead of banning together in an effort to beat their opponents. Although a few items they served were not bad, their buffet as a whole showed a lack of cohesiveness and focus. This is a perfect example of why all kitchens have just one Chef. No matter how hard you may work on your own, the proof is, literally, always in the pudding.

The Bride's Team, led by Richard, took an entirely different approach. Richard, Antonia, Andrew, and Stephanie each had very designated roles and supported each other for the most part whenever needed. Their American comfort food meal was methodically planned and for that reason far more successful.

Meanwhile, what do you think I should serve at my wedding? I would love to hear your ideas and suggestions!

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