Whenever 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.
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.
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 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.