How to Judge Like an Iron Chef Judge

by in Shows, December 9th, 2012

Next Iron Chef Judge Simon MajumdarWhenever people stop to chat with me at airports, in restaurants or on the street, they usually have the same two questions.

The first is about how I managed to land one of the best gigs imaginable, eating dishes prepared for me by the finest chefs in the United States. The second is how my fellow judges and I go about the seemingly impossible task of deciding who will emerge victorious from Kitchen Stadium.

To answer the first question, you will have to ask Food Network. As long as they keep asking me, I’ll keep showing up. Heck, I’ll probably keep showing up even if they stop asking me.

I can, however, offer a slightly more detailed response for the second question.

While I suspect I shall never be accused of being on the fence about the dishes presented in Kitchen Stadium and The Next Iron Chef set, I also think that it’s important to be able to articulate to both the chefs and the audience watching at home why I think that a dish was successful or otherwise. During my appearances on Iron Chef America and The Next Iron Chef, I have developed a series of criteria that I hope help me do just that.

APPEARANCE

The old adage about eating with your eyes may be cliché, but science has shown just how important visual stimuli are to preparing the palate for what it is about to experience. See a steak sizzling on the grill and your mouth will begin to water in anticipation. See a lemon being squeezed and your mouth will pucker in response as it dries.

How a dish looks when it is presented will have a definite impact on how it tastes in the mouth. This is far more than just looking pretty. It’s important that the dishes in Kitchen Stadium should highlight the Secret Ingredient, as well as be pleasing to the eye.

One should always remember, however, that looks can often be deceiving. In The Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs, Anne Burrell presented a dish in the Improvisation Challenge that looked like a very ordinary bowl of ravioli and red sauce. One bite proved that it was far from ordinary and she won the challenge. All of which proves that looks are important, but that you should never judge a dish solely on its appearance.

AROMA

It goes without saying that a great dish should smell good and, as with appearance, it has been scientifically proven just how important aromas are to the enjoyment of food. If anyone doubts this, just put them in proximity to a pan of sizzling bacon or a chicken roasting in the oven and see how long it takes before they start drooling.

I can often be seen placing my rounded nose directly over plates of food as they are placed in front of us. Of course I am checking to make sure the dish offers up a pleasant aroma, but I also find it is a very useful way to see if any one of the ingredients used by the chef has overpowered the others.

In Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs, Chuck Hughes presented an Asian fusion dish that gave off such a heady whiff that all three judges knew immediately he had been too heavy-handed with pungent Thai fish sauce. One bite confirmed this and his dish was declared a failure.

CREATIVE USE OF THE SECRET INGREDIENT

Creativity accounts for a quarter of the points available to the judges in Kitchen Stadium and while we are definitely looking for something from our competitors that you would not see in the home kitchen, I am definitely of the “just because they can doesn’t mean they should” school of thought. Creativity is important, but it’s equally as vital that any treatment of the Secret Ingredient is as respectful and appropriate as it is new and imaginative.

That does not mean, however, that there is no room for real surprises. In a recent battle between Iron Chef Symon and Chef Takashi, Michael placed a dish of ice cream topped with crisp, salty chicken skin in front of the judges. There is no way it should have worked, but it turned out to be one of his best efforts of the day.

But for the record, if I ever see a chef walking towards the ice cream machine with a duck breast, you can be pretty sure they are going to lose.

TASTE

Taste carries the highest numbers of points in Kitchen Stadium (this is food we are talking about, after all).

If you can bear to watch closely when I eat on Iron Chef America, you will see that I try to do it in a number of stages. First, I try and eat each of the components individually to see if they have been cooked correctly  to make sure vegetables are not mushy, proteins are not overcooked and sauces have not separated. Then I will try the dish as a whole, looking to see how well the ingredients go together. You can tell from that one bite if a dish has the perfect balance or if it is lacking seasoning, and you can tell immediately if one ingredient overpowers the rest.

For example, I am often critical of dishes topped with truffles. It is not that I don’t like truffles; I adore them. They are, however, a very powerful ingredient and need to be used in a particular way. While shaving them over the top of a plate before serving can look impressive, their taste and smell can often overpower an otherwise accomplished dish.

Judging any creative endeavor is always a subjective matter. Judging in Kitchen Stadium is no different. We are human after all, and that is why there are always three of us to help balance out any of our individual prejudices. I do hope that this post will show you that as much as you may want to shout at your TV screen when you disagree with my opinion, there is at least some method to my madness.

At the very least, I hope it will explain why I often shove my nose into a hot plate of food.

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Comments (43)

  1. Karen says:

    To win The Next Iron Chef, a chef must cheat on the challenges(worked for Zacharian) and must not highlight the secret ingredient(worked for what's his name that went up against Faulkner two weeks ago). As I stated then, I'm done with the Next Iron Chef. Besides, its just a fluff show. Too many "regular" chefs beat the pants off the Iron Chefs. Its obvious they don't take their position serious anyway. They all just like the title.

  2. Tish says:

    I like Simon he tells what he feel and is not biased.

  3. Hoosier Soozin says:

    The chef who should win is the one with "the fire in the belly" to win his/her ICA contests. NIC is like an audition for a Broadway show — the real contest only BEGINS with announcing the NIC because the point is that the IC's are expected to win their competitions. For instance, a few seasons ago I was rooting for John Besh because he's cute, entertaining and the judges declared his food was good. What I missed noticing was that winner Michael Symon was the one with "the fire in the belly" to win, win, win AFTER the IC title is conferred. And that's just what he's done. This season I think I see more long-term "belly fire" in Nate Appleman than in the others — although I very much like the final 4 chefs (and awfully glad of this week's elimination of that creepy guy).

  4. CarolAnn says:

    Wow ,I must be watching a different Next iron Chef program. I have not seen all that negative stuff about Chef Zakarian , We all do have our favorites , but unless you can taste the food you have no idea who is best. it looks to me like the judges have something negative about most dishes by most Chefs. So they have to have at least 2 judges to pick the winners and losers. Chef Alex is a great Chef , so are all the others. But the judging is by Taste. It's unreal how there are them that sit at home and know whose food is best.

  5. Eli says:

    I am tired of seeing how Alex is going to win when there are so many well qualified contestants that are being eliminated.Clearly, they do not deserve to be taken out while Alex is told she is doing better. One cannot judge the person who you work with especially if you are friends. Winning on the other hand would elevate Chopped by having two Iron Chefs as judges.

    • sue says:

      Chef Alex goes into panic attacks and can't concentrate one her cooking skills. The cook off With Alex she should of been out. As the secret ingrient was chocolate which she shaved on a salad. Not only that she works with Judge chef Zakarian as a Sue chef. I think the show wants Alex to win because that's all you see on the foodnet work is Alex ..Alex.. She is a very weak chef.. I think it will be either Amanda or Appleton.. Alex needs to be voted off…

      • Nicole says:

        I agree that Alex gets way too stressed when she's being timed. I think she is a good chef, however I don't think cooking under a time limit brings out the best in her. She already has a cooking show on the food network, too. I honestly hope Chef Appleman wins. He is an amazing cook, very creative and obviously passionate about cooking. I also like his focus on his family. I don't know why he doesn't have more fan votes.

  6. fastalk says:

    I read the biographies listed for the judges on NIC. Neither Simon nor Donatella have any credentials as a cook let alone as a trained chef. Their biased snobbery on every episode shows that they had already picked a winner before the cooking ever started!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    It is past time for new judges, and an apology to the dismissed chefs

  7. TheRealAlton says:

    I agree with fastalk. At one time I thought Simon and Mata were married since they both look like thumbs. Hmmm maybe they are. What a thought.
    Donatella R. Piehole not only cant cook and believes she knows Italian cooking. What a laugh. She owns a few class C food outlets. She cooks NOTHING!!! She only consumes. The people she employs cook. BTW Ms. Piehole your dresses are getting a bit small……..
    Simon admits he cant cook. He was born into money so he has traveled and eaten a few things here and there. Why is he there? I have traveled around the world and can cook, I should be a judge.
    The only judges that should be here are the other IRON Chefs!! Not these hacks who read a book and now spew what they have read.
    Dear Food Network lets see these judges and All-ton compete. What a wonderful show that would be.

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