From The Next Iron Chef to Iron Chef America, Simon Majumdar is no stranger to a judges’ table, but the difference between the evaluations on those shows and those on Cutthroat Kitchen is that with the latter, he isn’t aware of all that led to the chefs’ finished dishes. Round after evilicious round, Simon and the other judges are introduced to seemingly innocent plates, and they’re unaware of the oddball products and the perhaps inferior utensils and tools used to create them; it’s then up to Simon and the other judges to review chefs’ offerings as simply as the food they are, not as the results of sabotage. FN Dish checked in with Simon recently to chat about his experience judging on Cutthroat Kitchen, plus his memorable dishes from the show and the process of being hidden from the competition.
What are you most looking forward to as Cutthroat Kitchen continues to evolve into more seasons?
Simon Majumdar: Alton’s getting into his stride with it, so I think he loves the fact that it’s getting more and more evil .… There’s a lot more [that's] elaborate coming up. I mean there are fat suits, there are mini kitchens, there are – I mean it’s getting seriously crazy. I walk out of the studio sometimes to the trailer where they put us and I walk past the challenge producers — the ones who devise all this eviliciousness — and I have no idea what they’re doing. There are carpenters out there, bouncing table-tennis balls, I mean, and it’s basically becoming like Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and I think that’s what people love. Because I think people were worried at first; they were like, “It’s not a cooking show, and how can you eat that food?” but the thing is that some of the food is really good.
Has there been one dish that sticks out as surprisingly great, given the fact that it was likely sabotaged?
SM: There are one or two dishes. And, in fact, the reality is that in the past, there were some dishes that if I hadn’t known they had been sabotaged I would have gone, “Wow.”
There are a few strategies to approach the competition: saving money versus sabotage and elevating a dish versus making the basics. What do you think is the best approach?
SM: Well, obviously I’ve been thinking about this .… But there are those that spend all their money and still end up going out. There are those who spend no money and end up going out. So I don’t think there’s one hard and fast rule. But what I do think it comes down to is when they ask us to judge on our top-three criteria: Does it taste great? That’s number one. Does it look great, and does it remind you of the dish that Alton has asked them to prepare? … The key, I think, is to really try to trigger some memory in the judges of that dish. So even if you’re forced to do something really different, which shows your creativity, at least try to capture some of the essences of the dish. So even if it’s not structured the same, you can go through.
Are you surprised by the kinds of dishes you end up enjoying and, in turn, by the chefs you save from elimination?
SM: When I came out, I talked to the culinary team and the producers, and this is the thing people should know: The producers don’t come and go, “Oh, this person is the biggest star and we want more noise and more character. We want them to go through.” They come out and go, “Who’s won?” And so they leave it to the judges; we make the decision, and we don’t know any of the challenges, and sometimes the producers are like “Yes!” because they know that the person has been through hell and has still produced something really, really good.
For fans, that’s one of the best parts of the show — knowing that judges haven’t any clue what the chefs have endured.
SM: I am locked away, and I can tell you that they are really strict about that. I go and hide away in my very comfortable trailer, but the guys in makeup don’t tell me a thing, because they want to see my reaction on Alton’s After-Show, the Web series. And those episodes are really great fun.
Is there a sabotage you haven’t yet seen that you think would make a particularly great challenge?
SM: I’m sure Alton’s made enough for everybody, because he really messes with people. But I think that you’ve really still got to allow them to cook, and what I said to the producers when they chat to me is, like, “Look, I love all these challenges, but if it gets to the point where it becomes impossible for them to do anything of a dish, then I think you’re failing, because the base of it is still a cooking show.” So I don’t have any specific ideas; I just hope that they keep it to a level where the chefs can still cook. Because otherwise, apart from anything else, I still have to eat the stuff. So there’s a bit of self-interest there.
Tune in to an all-new episode of Cutthroat Kitchen on Sunday at 10|9c.