Next Iron Chef – Competition or Co-Operation

This morning while drinking my morning coffee I sat down to watch The Next Iron Chef (NIC) which I had recorded on my DVR Sunday 25 November 2011.  I normally record my shows and watch them later, and though I watch NIC ”live” (that is when it’s aired) about half the time (so it doesn’t take up space on my DVR) I was out of town Thanksgiving Weekend and not awake enough to watch it when I returned home.

I’m pretty sure most people will know what NIC is, but if you don’t it’s a competitive cooking show on Food Network to “choose” their next “Iron Chef” for Iron Chef America.  And yeah, I’m pretty sure they know from day one who they are going to pick, or at least have a pretty good idea — and the rest of the candidates are just there to fill in and make a halfway interesting competition show.  This year’s competition included chefs who had previously competed and had, obviously, not won the last man standing title.  However, it’s interesting to note that many seemed to end up with the consolation prize of their own Food Network show, or as a judge on a different competition show, or something.  And I wouldn’t be surprised if competing on  Next Iron Chef hasn’t led to other career-boosting perks that we, the audience, don’t see.

However, this week, or rather last week, something unusual happened.  The show is in two parts:  the Chairman’s Challenge – a themed challenge for all the competing chefs; and the Showdown – the two lowest ranked, or least successful, chefs in the Chairman’s Challenge face off in a secret ingredient challenge.  Now, this season, to be honest, I’ve been extremely disappointed by the secret ingredient challenge… I mean, breakfast cereal, really?  That’s not a secret ingredient, that’s something to avoid at the supermarket.  Part of the point of watching competitive cooking shows is to see something you never see.  It’s sports for girls – and I don’t mean that in a demeaning sense.  But I watch NIC, Next Food Network Star, Chopped, the late, lamented Food Network Challenge (especially for cakes, sugar work, or chocolate), or occasionally Iron Chef America, not to get ideas for dinner but for the same, exact, reasons my Dad watches college or pro football or basketball.  So seeing professional chefs using Rice Krispies or Kikoman Soy Sauce, or canned tuna, is just not what I want to see.  That’s completely boring, and it’s almost an insult to the chefs.

However, this week they gave the chefs in the Showdown a real ingredient:  lobster.  I thought that was good.  And it’s a challenge-worthy ingredient.  Obviously, to win, the chef has to do more with the lobster than just boil it and serve it with butter, so yeah, good challenge.  Now, the two chefs in the Showdown, were old personal friends.  They had grown up together, worked together, and seemed close.  And throughout the program so far they seemed to almost be working as a team.  And seriously, that can be a strategy in any competition – no matter what the rules say.  I’ve seen other types of competition shows where two or three people “bond” or unite to knock off other competitors, but eventually become competitive themselves with each other after knocking everyone else off.  It’s a completely valid playing strategy.

The two chefs, then, each did their own thing.  They produced two completely different dishes, and each did their own work.  It’s not like one guy grated cheese for the other guy or something.  They both worked separately, and produced two completely different dishes.  But they decided to plate together.  I actually thought it was AWESOME!  There was definitely a sense of “we go down together, or we succeed together”.  I didn’t think it was arrogant or snubbing the judges or snubbing the idea of the competition at all.  After all, the whole “who will win” thing seems to be a bit of a farce, anyway, so what’s the harm Besides it placed friendship and co-operation over competition and I liked that.

So, when time was called, and the two chefs were called up in front of the three judges and Alton Brown… for the chefs it was a disaster.  The panel of judges spent most of their time berating both of the chefs — even calling the chefs arrogant. Arrogant, really?  Calling a chef arrogant tends to be about as redundant as calling a basketball player – tall.  The judges did, eventually, judge the actual food prepared, but even in their “closed doors” discussion of their decision – most of what they had to say was how angry they were that the two chefs had decided to present together, and that they just couldn’t handle the idea of these two friends working co-operatively.  But when they gave their decision, they gave the obvious one – one chef was dismissed from the competition and the other was allowed to stay, though he was warned against any further “stunts”.

So let’s examine this further.  Did these two chefs break any competition rules?  No, they didn’t.  Each chef prepared his own food.  Each dish was unique.  They didn’t consult with each other about their plans.  They didn’t help each other prepare the dishes in any way.  And they didn’t present a single dish. What they did do was plate together:  Chef A had a bowl of basically lobster soup, and Chef B had this molecular gastronomy thing that kinda’ resembled a salad – though a complex one.  The resulting plate was a nice bowl of soup, with a really interesting, bizarre side dish (mind you either would have been a filling lunch).  So, in a sense, the two items complemented each other in a Yin-Yang sort of way – comfort food of Lobster Soup and cutting-edge Lobster salad thingy.  In other words, you might get both together in a high-end restaurant.  But the two chefs didn’t plan it that way.

And, obviously, these two friends did not want to be in the showdown opposite each other.  Plating together was a way of trying a desperate “Hail Mary Pass” to get both of them through to the next round, despite the normal rule of an elimination.  It was more thinking “outside the box” and around strict adherence to the rules than any sort of slap in the face to the competition, Food Network, or the judges.

That the judges eliminated someone doesn’t surprise me – that’s what these shows do.  The cynical part of my brain almost thinks that before the chefs even step in the kitchen they draw lots and pre-determine who will get booted off when, and everything is scripted anyway.  Finding that out wouldn’t have me “up in arms” it would have me nodding my head and saying, “I knew it!” – it’s clearly entertainment after all.  But what I really didn’t like was the very negative almost mean reaction to what these two chefs did.

And I think it’s symptomatic of a problem in the US, where everything seems to be a competition of dualities.  It’s always:  paper books or e-books; Windows or Apple; Android or iPhone; Chevy or Ford; Kindle or Nook, etc.  Everything is always forced to be a choice between one or the other — and where that has it’s place, there’s also room for a broad smorgasbord or buffet of choices.  When it comes down to two choices only, often both have their drawbacks and one really wants a third option (American politics anyone?).  For example, my e-reader is a Sony, the third choice no one ever mentions, and though I buy my fiction in e-book form, I buy physical paper books for non-fiction.  Moreover, in the real world, a lot more is accomplished through cooperation than knock-down drag out competitive fights.  It does take more than one person to start a business, build a building or a road, and create civilization. When people work together a lot more happens than one person alone can possibly do.  Which doesn’t mean a single person has no worth, obviously when someone studies to be a doctor they need to learn by themselves and not cheat off their neighbor.  But they are not learning in a vacuum either, and that’s what we’ve forgotten as a society.  That med student is being taught by other doctors and teachers who were taught by those who went before them.  That med student is being taught in a building – built generations ago probably since the best medical schools are the older ones.  That building is supplied by power, from a local electric plant and other people work there.  That student drives to school on roads built by others.  Or he bikes to work on paths built by others.  And that student’s bike or car was made somewhere as were his or her clothes.  The self-made “individual” is the biggest myth out there.  But I digress…

What I meant to say is that by working together a lot more could be accomplished.  Yes, NIC is a competition.  And yes, it’s just a cable cooking show competition.  And yes, sooner or later “Team Bromance” would have been broken up anyway.  But the snarky comments of the judges were uncalled for.  The stage-whispered “what a mistake” comments of other competitors – not to mention what was said in the “post-game commentary” was shameful.  In my opinion, the two chefs should have been recognized for what they did.  That they decided to present together shouldn’t have been more the focus than the actual food prepared – and it definitely was.  And that, I thought was truly shameful.


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