Fans of Iron Chef America have probably noticed that there have been a couple of significant changes in the way that winners are selected in Kitchen Stadium recently.
No longer do the chefs get the benefit of a full hour of cooking before they are asked to present their first dish to the judges — the first dish is now expected in just 20 minutes. And to add to their discomfort, at some point during the 60-minute contest, the Chairman will also wheel out a small trolley to reveal a “Culinary Curveball” to be incorporated into the final presentation. Both of these new challenges carry with them significant points and how the chef performs can put them at a major advantage or disadvantage for the rest of the battle.
I can tell you that these changes have taken a bit of getting used to, both for the chefs and the judges. Now that I have taken part in a number of competitions under these new regulations, however, I can hold my hand up and say that I am a fan of the new format.
The 20-Minute Challenge
I particularly like this new element in Iron Chef America, as it serves to level out the playing field between the Iron Chef and their challenger. Many chefs can be intimidated by their surroundings upon their arrival to Kitchen Stadium, especially if it’s their first time. I have seen plenty of them freeze the moment the Chairman shouts, “Allez cuisine!” Some become incapable of producing the food we believe them to be capable of.
Here’s the deal: Because both chefs now have to create their first dish in just 20 minutes, that leaves little time for the challenger to encounter stage fright, so they can get straight down to the battle. It also means that the Iron Chefs can’t fall back on their normal game plans and have to be at their best from the get-go. If not, they can find themselves behind on points and playing catch-up for the rest of the contest.
A perfect example of this can be seen in the recent battle between Iron Chef Bobby Flay and Chef Viet Pham from Salt Lake City, Utah. The Iron Chef’s offering barely made it to the judging table in the allotted time and was so oversalted that it was marked down by all three judges. This gave Chef Pham a handy lead for the rest of the competition.
And, of course, there is one extra added benefit to the 20-Minute Challenge; in that it provides us with an all-too-rare opportunity to see Iron Chef Zakarian panicking, running and raising a sweat, all of which is surely worth the admission price on its own!
The Culinary Curveball
I was a lot less certain about the second change to the rules — the Chairman’s Culinary Curveball — as I thought at first that its only purpose was to disrupt the chefs just for the sake of it. As I have seen the chefs react to the ingredients or tools presented by the Chairman, however, it’s obvious that it gives them both added inspiration and new creative possibilities.
In her very first battle against Judy Joo, Iron Chef Guarnaschelli was given a Danish aebleskiver pan as her Culinary Curveball, and she used it to prepare small Mortadella dumplings that impressed all the judges. The points they awarded for this creativity definitely helped her on her way to victory.
There is also some entertainment value to this new challenge. Few people who have seen the battle between Iron Chefs Forgione, Symon and Zakarian, and their rivals from Chopped (Conant, Murphy and Sanchez) will forget the amusing look of horror on the faces of all concerned as the Chairman pulled away the cloth to reveal a canister of liquid nitrogen during the Battle Thanksgiving Leftovers. The fact that none of them would consider this tool part of their normal culinary repertoire meant they were well out of their comfort zone.
While I know that change is often difficult to come to terms with, particularly when you are dealing with something as well established as the rules of Iron Chef America, I hope that like me, you will all begin to see the value in these twists and enjoy the new levels of excitement they bring with them.
At the very least, you can join me in shouting, “Run, Geoffrey, run!” whenever Iron Chef Zakarian is called upon to deliver his first dish in only 20 minutes.