Changing the Game: New Rules on Iron Chef America

by in Shows, January 19th, 2013

Iron Chef AmericaFans 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.

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Comments (75)

  1. chris flores says:

    i would like to have more iron chef international,so we can find and get the best in the world

  2. Ruth Goldbloom says:

    Ye culinary gods!!! You nailed it, John–ICA meets (or rather, has a head-on collision with Chopped. Whereas those tactics work on Chopped (with candidates who are trying to survive the "chopping block" and aren't necessarily presenting themselves as the "best of the best", I can see the point–but NOT for challengers and reigning Iron Chefs! For them, I think the changes are somewhat demeaning.

  3. uldihaa says:

    To all those complaining about the new rules, I think I need to point something out: Iron Chef America is a competitive cooking show. It's not a "teach you to cook" show, it's not "here's some interesting food-facts" show, it's not a "here's a difficult task, complete it" show. It's a direct competition show. Chefs compete directly against each other, with the results judged.

    I suspect that the primary reason that they made these changes was due to the overwhelming evidence that the Iron Chefs (especially Morimoto, Flay, and Symon) have a virtually insurmountable advantage in Kitchen Stadium. They know where everything is, they know all the quirks of the machines, they know the likes and dislikes of most of the judges, they are almost as familiar with KS as their own restaurants' kitchens. Homefield advantage is true in all competitions, but most competitions aren't as effected by it as competitors are in KS.

    These new challenges helps to offset those advantages by introducing a short-duration time goal and a random addition. The time challenge forced them to act swiftly and plan well. As was recently pointed out, the Chef has to rely on their brigade to get things going while they focus on that 20 minute dish. This shows something that you don't see all that often: how well did they train their brigade and how well they lead it. I'll also note that there have been far more mistakes and near-disasters since this was introduced, which lets you see how they deal with those problems.

    The CCC is a Sword of Damocles hanging over both chefs' heads. They know it's coming, they know it'll (so far) be after the 20 minute challenge, they don't know what it will be and they certainly don't know how they'll integrate it. And you know something? It's made things interesting again. I'm no longer 80% certain that the IC will win, and in a show about a competition, that is incredibly critical.

    THAT adds to the drama and tension. You are here for the drama and tension, right? If not, why are you watching a COMPETITIVE anything?

    • Randster7 says:

      Something they could try is to have the judges do blind tasting. That means the judges don't watch the chefs while they are cooking and don't know who cooked what dish. I can't get away from the idea that the judges automatically score the Iron Chefs higher just because they are the Iron Chefs. They probably want to stay in the good graces of the show's producers and chefs. Yes, each dish will be judged on its own but it seems more fair that way when the judges aren't allowed to make their assessments with iron chef favoritism. The highest combined score wins!! If the Iron Chefs won consistently with this type of format, any praise given to them would be truly earned! What do you think?

      • uldihaa says:

        That's not a bad idea, though the judges would probably be rather bored until the food is served. Another idea is to broaden the number of judges and stop bringing back the same ones over and over. Even the Chefs admit that they know who likes what when it comes to the repeat judges.

        • Randster7 says:

          That is a great idea too! Anything to really even up the playing field and let the food do the talking for each chef would be great! I'm sure there would be no shortage of potential judges for the show to keep the chefs on their toes!

  4. Jeremiah comer says:

    The best change for me is seeing the chefs actually make every dish for the judge. Before, they made one of each dish and had other chefs replicate these dishes off camera. This adds more realism to the show and makes the timed clock more relevant.

  5. Jeremiah comer says:

    The best change for me is seeing the chefs actually make every dish for the judge. Before, they made one of each dish and had other chefs replicate these dishes off camera. This adds more realism to the show and makes the timed clock more relevant.

  6. TERESA says:


  7. These new rules were game changers and were right in time to be implemented to add a new challenge for the participants. The show won't stall with fresh challenges in the mix. Question now is who are the best chefs if compared season by season.

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  9. Frank says:

    I watched with an open mind when the rules changed but my first impression was that I didn't care for the 20 minute first dish. After a few episodes now I really dislike it. We have Chopped for that and that is a great show. The curveball is fine but I sure would like to see the 20 min meal go away.

  10. I hope you are not making the show harder just to make it harder! As a chef, these new added twists after years of the same formula would piss me off. Old school with always beat new school. Why change the game plan, when it is what made you successful? Remember when McDonald's tried to sell pizza? It failed miserably. Stick to the game plan.

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