Watching the fourth episode of "Top Chef" Season 5 last night felt a little bit like watching an after school special about a failure to follow directions. It reminded me of when I was in third grade and my teacher Mrs. Melon gave my class a list of instructions that we were supposed to read through in its entirety before beginning. Of course, most of the students (myself included) would start completing the tasks as soon as we read them rather than waiting until we reached the last instruction telling us to disregard the other steps and sit quietly at our desks. Much to the amusement of our tricky teacher, we'd be frantically drawing triangles, completing sums and calling out random phrases that we weren't even supposed to be doing. 90% of the class would fail the task due to our inability to follow specific directions. We thought we were being model students by working as quickly as we could, when all we needed to do was sit at our desks.
The cheftestants in this week's episode of "Top Chef" seemed to be suffering from a similar fate -- failing to follow directions over and over again. In the Quickfire Challenge, the chefs were asked to create an amuse-bouche breakfast for Rocco Dispirito, who sheepishly admitted to a fondness for bacon. Despite the clear instructions - make a bite-sized breakfast that includes bacon -- most of the chefs failed to execute their dishes correctly. Fabio, my favorite tool from Los Angeles, produced a dessertesque brioche and espresso cream that clashed with Dispirito's preference for a savory breakfast, and many of his counterparts presented dishes that were more than one bite. While Dispirito enjoyed Stefan's clever interpretation of chilaquiles (served in an exquisitely cut egg shell), and was fond of Jamie's take on a breakfast sandwich, ultimately, Leah's quail egg breakfast sandwich won the challenge because it was only one bite. She listened to the instructions and as a result, received immunity.
The elimination challenge also required the chefs to work within a specific set of perimeters. They could create any dish of their choosing, but only had one hour of prep time, and needed to be able to present and demonstrate the recipe in two minutes and 30 seconds. The guidelines and time constraints should have made it clear that simple dishes that don't require a lot of time to cook/make would be the best strategy for successfully completing the challenge, yet several of the chefs failed to think this through. Prior to her presentation, Jamie admitted that she was concerned about the egg cooking through during the short presentation, but did nothing to address the problem. Instead of changing her cooking method to ensure the egg's doneness, she went with her original conceptualization and served Dispirito and judges a runny egg. She reserved herself a spot on the chopping block before she even approached the skillet -- regardless of how good the rest of her duck salad tasted.
Alex, who ultimately went home for his transgressions, suffered from poor planning as well. By selecting creme brulee, a dessert that requires much longer than an hour to prepare, he essentially shot himself in his kitchen clogs. The creme brulee didn't have time to set, and Alex was unable to walk the judges through the recipe in the two and a half minutes allotted. It was a disaster from start to finish, and as a result, led to his early exit from the competition.
The dish that won the competition, while irritating to the other chef's for its simplicity, was the one that was conceptualized to meet the specific perimeters of the challenge. Ariane's watermelon, beefsteak tomato and feta salad won over both the judges and the "Today Show" hosts because it was approachable, easy to demonstrate within the short time frame, worked on camera, and didn't send anyone rushing over to the sink to spit it out. Ariane listened to the instructions, and as a result, got to be the smug kid in the class who sits quietly at her desk while the rest of the dunce students are clapping their hands and reciting the "Pledge of Allegiance." Everyone hates her, but can't help but feel jealous that they didn't have the foresight to follow the directions and read that final line on the page. Today, the "A" stands for Ariene.