The Secret Ingredient Is … Celebrity

(Guest writer Chris Morgan returns with an examination of the celebrity judges on Iron Chef America) Once upon a time, there was a Japanese cooking based competition show called Iron Chef. In said show, an esteemed chef would challenge one … Continued

(Guest writer Chris Morgan returns with an examination of the celebrity judges on Iron Chef America)

Once upon a time, there was a Japanese cooking based competition show called Iron Chef. In said show, an esteemed chef would challenge one of the titular Iron Chefs in a battle revolving around a secret ingredient. The show found a foothold in America because (1) It was a good show and (2) There was a bit of a kitsch factor to it, because, after all, anything than is dubbed is totally hilarious am I right? Although, truth be told, I was always endlessly amused when they would show the dishes and explain them in unnecessarily florid language as easy listening music played in the background.


An American version was tried in 2001 by UPN, one of the parents of The CW along with the WB, called Iron Chef USA. Unfortunately, the show decided to focus on the kitschy aspects of the original, as evidenced by the fact the chefs had nicknames such as “The Italian Scallion” and that William Shatner was the host. It lasted a whopping two episodes, just like the Mike O’Malley Show.

Fortunately, the Food Network decided to give it another go with Iron Chef America. Wisely, they focused on the food based competition and brought in host of Good Eats and all around awesome guy Alton Brown to host. The show has found quite a bit of success, and I personally am a big fan of it.

However, there is one thing all three variations have in common I’ve never been a fan of. In fact, I would go as far as to say it compromises the integrity of the show. For you see, in Iron Chef America the winner of these battles is decided by a panel of three judges. Often they are people who work with food professionally. Cooks, food critics, what have you. But sometimes the judges are celebrities.

Additionally, in the original Iron Chef the celebrities, which included Jackie Chan and former Seattle Mariners closer Kaz Sasaki, not only helped choose the winner, but provided oh so interesting commentary. This often consisted of bon mots such as “What is that?” and “Oooh, that looks good” the latter of which was often spoken by a female judge and thus always sounded the same because the same woman dubbed pretty much every voice.

Anyway, while they were there for commentary in the Japanese version, in every version they taste the food and then judge it on the parameters of the contest. This is what sticks in my craw. I don’t feel that people without professional experience with food have the ability to judge the quality of the dishes well enough to make the results fully legitimate. It compromises the results. Now, there are a few counterarguments I can imagine one coming up with, so allow me to address some of them.

They may not be food experts, but celebrity judges still have taste buds. Isn’t that qualification enough?

Well I have a vague knowledge of human anatomy, does that qualify me to perform surgery? As my bargain appendectomy business taught me, no. Now, obviously my example is more serious than a television food competition, but the principle is the same. The vast majority of us have the ability to taste. However, few of us have a truly honed palette, at least one good enough to judge foods in a nuanced fashion. The food critics and chefs of the world have spent their lives immersed in the world of food. They can decipher between different spices. They can tell the doneness of a piece of meat with tremendous accuracy. They’ve eaten many foods the average person has never heard of. When Masaharu Morimoto pulls out some obscure Japanese fish, is your average celebrity going to know what it’s supposed to taste like? Sure, they can tell you whether or not they think it tastes good, but their opinion hardly has much merit.


It’s like voting in an election based on the political party of the candidates. By using such a small amount of information, your opinion is still uninformed. When experts chefs are putting together elaborate, elegant dishes that are likely ten times better than anything you or I will ever eat, I’d like a discerning palette making the decisions. There’s a reason on The Next Iron Chef all the judges were professional food experts. Why should they treat their regular episodes with any less importance?

OK, so maybe the celebrity judges don’t have the proper expertise to really judge the competition fairly. However, doesn’t their renown make up for that?

Basically, the question I have posited to myself here is: Does Iron Chef gain anything by having celebrity judges? I am going to have to go with “no” for several reasons. One, even in this celebrity worshiping “culture” of ours, is anybody going to tune it to Iron Chef to watch them judge a cooking competition? The judges are only one screen for a small portion of the show, it is mostly cooking. A few minutes of screen time may have won Judi Dench an Oscar once, but it probably wouldn’t be enough to entice more viewers. Unless you are interested in watching two chefs cook, or interested in food in some way, you probably won’t watch Iron Chef.

3 Comments on “The Secret Ingredient Is … Celebrity”

  1. Vec #

    I have to respectfully disagree. Food preparation is, after a fashion, a performance art. And like many performance arts, its critics are not necessarily representative of its intended audience.

    A highly trained and experienced critic runs the risk of becoming enamored with the fact that Dish A is more complicated, or more innovative, or more difficult, or more skillfully executed, to the point that they can lose sight of the fact that Dish B just tastes better to the people intended to consume it.

    The untutored impression is valuable precisely because it is untutored. It should not be the only opinion, or even the most important, but having one untrained voice on a panel does add something tangible to the value of the judging.


  2. Tom P #

    Iron Chef is judged entirely on three subjective categories. This is very important. They’re not rating taste against everything they’ve ever tasted… they’re rating taste on whether or not it tastes better than the other guy’s. Same thing with plating. Originality is so vaguely subjective that it’s almost meaningless. Even in that case, if something is done so infrequently that only someone like Steingarten has eaten it, is it any less original? I don’t think so. If the categories were things like “technical merit” and “degree of difficulty”, I think your objection would hold more weight.

    While I do love Steingarten and Knowlton, their comments are going to fly over the heads of most everyone. Most of the audience isn’t going to care that a chef’s potato dumpling doesn’t approach a particular one they ate at an obscure hole in the wall in the mountains of Austria. And besides, the bulk of who chefs (celebrity or otherwise) are going to cook for are not food critics, so their input is just as important.


  3. Lisa #

    I disagree, Chris. The audience of the show will never taste the food they are seeing. We can judge on how the presentation looks, but we cannot actively taste the food or and feel its texture or whatever else. An educated judge with experience in food may be able to convey the tastes, but likely they are going to rely on a different language to do so. They are the experts, after all, and they likely have a dialectic that they use that they share only with other experts (and foodies, I guess).

    So, we have an audience watching a show where we cannot judge the results ourselves and might not be able to understand why the experts chose the way they did. I would argue that, while the celebrities might compromise the value of the final results, what they do is provide the audience an “in” to the show. No, they probably have no more understanding of why they think something tastes good than I do. But that’s what makes me want them there. Unlike in other situations, when theirs is the glamorous lifestyle I cannot comprehend, in this case, they are like a friend who I can relate too more than experts in a field I don’t have much experience with.

    I agree that the judging and results might thereby be compromised. However, in order for the show to continue to survive as a TV show, it needs to have this “in” for the audience. Otherwise, only experts and foodies will watch it, which will likely not get in enough money to justify it, relegating it to the sad fate of so many good-idea shows that just didn’t quite work. If the show were a pure competition that happened to be televised, sure, get the celebrity out or confine them to the hosting. But since it’s entire premise is to be a TV show, the needs are different, justifying the presence of a celebrity.

    What I would buy is that using D-list celebs weakens the appeal of the celebrity judge, and there won’t be as much audience recognition of and identification with that celebrity. That might be why the advertisers don’t focus on the celebs during the commercials. (Though frankly, I gave up on TV ads for shows since the first or second season of Numb3rs, when the ads made it look like it was just another stupid take on the same bad science other shows use, but the actual episode itself was much more intelligent and interesting.)


Add a Comment