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Thanks to a winning combination of one of the best production crews in the business and the #Evilicious leanings of its host, Alton Brown, Cutthroat Kitchen has not only become a huge hit, but it has also provided me, as a judge, with one of the most-fun jobs I’ve had since I moved over to this side of the pond.
Dozens of people ask me what it takes to succeed on the toughest culinary show on television. So, just in case you’re ever called upon to stand face-to-face with Mr. Brown, here are my top 10 tips on how to win in Cutthroat Kitchen.
1. Shop Smart: As I found in my one appearance behind the stoves to date, you don’t need Alton Brown to ruin your day in Cutthroat Kitchen; you can just as easily do it yourself. A bad showing in the pantry can easily lead to an early exit. Be sure not only to make a mental list of basics for the dish you are asked to prepare, but also grab some staples like eggs and flour, ingredients that can get you out of a bind if the bidding goes against you.
2. Don’t Blow All Your Money in the First Round: One of the biggest mistakes I see in Cutthroat Kitchen is a chef becoming so determined to last through the first round that they panic and start a bidding frenzy. While this may help them survive in the short term, their over spending will often come back and bite them in the backside during the latter stages. On more than one occasion, I have seen the better chef lose because they had insufficient funds to counter their opponent’s bidding in the final round and were sabotaged to defeat.
3. Take a Deep Breath: Trust me, cooking in Cutthroat Kitchen can be a severe examination of any chef’s nerves, but it is important to know that all the sabotages have been tested thoroughly and that, whatever you may think, it’s always possible to complete a dish in the time you are allowed. Although it’s a competition show, there is little fun for either the judge or the viewer in seeing an empty plate. So just take a deep breath and think about all those culinary skills that keep you firing in your own kitchen.
4. Know Your Judge: Every judge has their own little quirks. Chopped judge Scott Conant, as we all know, hates raw red onion, and I, despite being of Indian descent, genuinely dislike most curry powders, which can so easily overpower a dish. Added to which, just about every judge I know, on any food competition, loathes truffle oil. So put aside your own preferences and play to your audience if you want to make it to the next round.
5. Go To Your Happy Place: Although chefs may be asked to prepare their dish under a severe disadvantage, such as the lack of a key ingredient or cooking utensil, those who come through most often are the ones who return to the safety of their happy place and rely on the tactics that have made them good chefs in the first place. Cutthroat Kitchen is definitely not the place to try your hand at new techniques, and deciding that this is the opportune time for your first attempts at molecular gastronomy will probably end in a disastrous outcome for you and for the judges’ digestive systems.
6. Taste Comes Before Presentation: Even if a sabotage robs you of some of the basics, that does not necessarily mean that you are doomed to failure. Remember that although the judges are looking at taste, presentation and a relationship to the chosen dish, they will want something that tastes good above all. If you still manage to deliver great flavors, you may well find yourself surviving. One perfect example was a young chef who was relieved of his bread while trying to make a sandwich. He somehow managed to create a soup with all the flavors one would expect from a great BLT, and I gave him the nod ahead of another chef who had made a very poor sandwich.
7. Keep a Low Profile: Obviously, it makes wonderful television to see two chefs calling each other out in Cutthroat Kitchen. It’s often those who keep a low profile, however, and stay out of the bidding wars, who find themselves sneaking into the final round as their competitors engage in a culinary war of mutual destruction. Not only does this stop them from being a target, but it also means that this chef may well have valuable extra funds at their disposal when it comes time to make a dessert.
8. Be a Seasoned Chef: A chef of any quality should never need to be told to season their food during the cooking process. Unfortunately, for many otherwise excellent cooks, the pressures of Cutthroat Kitchen can make them forget even the basics, and the times I have tasted bland, under-seasoned food on the show are too numerable to mention. At the same time, it’s just as displeasing to discover that the chef has thrown a handful of salt on top of a dish in desperation just before their cooking time is up. It is a mistake that they would never make in their own kitchens, and if you want to win, you need to bring those disciplines with you into our kitchen.
9. Listen to Mr. Brown: In Alton Brown, chefs have at their disposal the world’s only walking culinary encyclopedia, and, as we know, our host is never afraid to express his opinion on how the chefs are managing to work their way around the sabotages he deals out. It would be a foolish person indeed who did not take advantage of his sage advice. So listen up unless you want to become the one who has to hand over your cash as he sends you away with that withering “I told you so” look.
10. Sell Your Dish: Finally, as I have discovered in the many shows I have judged, the ability to sell your dish to the judge can be a life-saving skill. You may have lost your tortilla in an ingredient exchange, but if you can persuade me, Jet or Antonia that your lettuce wraps are a “low-carb taco” you might just find yourself surviving to the next round. It’s your one chance to influence the judges, so don’t be shy or the only apology you will be making is telling us, “Sorry I had to leave so early.”