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. Ray says:

    When will Food Network have Emily Ellyn back?

  2. etiquette says:

    Simon is smart, incisive, on point – he is at the Top Level of judges on FN.

  3. Tidewaterbound says:

    This is an excellent post, very insightful. Thank you.

  4. jln says:

    This is a good explanation of judging. My only hope is that the same point system is used on NIC. I also would like the judging to be blind, not knowing the creator of the dish would eliminate any preconceived notion of favoritism.

    On a different note, totally unrelated, I was disappointed to hear that Justin Warner's new show won't air until "winter next year" and not with him teaching us how to prepare his unique dishes, but as a travel show. I hope it's not like Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives! I've had enough of that type show!!!

    • Barbara says:

      Justin Warner? Who's that? It's been so long now that his name doesn't mean much anymore and if his show won't air until NEXT year everyone will have totally forgot what he was all about. I don't get this one. FN was all over him with his win of the NFNS and now are dragging their feet putting him on the air. Methinks there may be something smelly in the kitchen.

  5. Leiloni says:

    While all other judges were seemingly devastated at the elimination of Chef Falkner, I find it curious that Ironjavascript:%20id_polldaddy_plugin.id_show_polldaddy_creator(0) Chef Judge Geoffrey Zakarian had a faint but ever so telling 'grin' on his face. Why?

    • SMS says:

      One step closer to getting one of his chopped buddies on IC or could it be that he didn't want Chef Faulkner to get her redemption since he was the one to beat her. In either case, I don't see how he can be considered an impartial judge.

  6. SMS says:

    Well one way you shouldn't judge on IC is to vote off the best chef in the competition.

  7. Elizabeth says:

    My comment is about the Redemption ongoing contest in which in my opinion Judge Zakarian is so obviously biased about chef Guarnaschelli that he defended her when she took (in her words stole an ingredient from an opponent to enhance her dish). He called this action as risk taking. It is not his fault he was put in that position although most people might in my opinion recused themselves. It would be sad to have a possible win tainted by questionable judgements.

    • amandafan says:

      Alex is the worst contestant. She is constantly making pedestrian dishes home cooks could make. Donatella called her out on it again but incredibly Alex survives without going to the cook off round. This is out of control…

  8. George says:

    I cannot believe that chef Appleman was placed in the bottom when they praised his marriage of clams and strawberries and just disagreed on his serving the pasta al dente while chef Guarnaschelli made a dish in which they all stated that they could barely taste the second ingredient, the peppermint. If this had been Chopped she would have chopped herself. It must be nice to have friends (Zakarian) as a judge. Time and again Guarnaschelli dishes have been described as "safe" or mediocre and yet she continues to move forward ahead of chefs who in my opinion demonstrate much greater skill and risk taking; more appropriate for an iron chef. In my opinion something stinks in this kitchen.
    Report

    • amandafan says:

      AMEN!

    • etiquette says:

      All the other chefs are working at a higher level than Alex, but she schleps up to the judging table and looks hopelessly lost while Donatella has to lecture her again of not doing anything special. Alex is being a good sous chef but she is not stepping up and transforming ingredients.

      Alex has no inspiration and with Zakarian as a judge there is no expectation for her to do anything grand, just let Zakarian throw other chefs under the bus so Alex can escape.

  9. downnotout says:

    Simon is riding Zakarian hard to keep him honest. Zakarian is insulting the FN audience by openly supporting Alex who looks more and more like an unimaginative home cook than a professional chef competing for a coveted title. Pure corruption.

  10. keeter1967 says:

    I like Alex but she let herself be put in a no win situation. With Jeffrey as a judge (and a well known friend of Alex) it puts the credibility of Alex, Jeffrey and Food Network in question. Even if Alex wins, it will always be seen as a give me; regardless of her obvious talent. Jeffrey is my favorite chef and I don't like how this has compromised him. I believe he is very honest in his judging and this controversy is negative for all involved.

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