The Secret Ingredient Is … Celebrity

Additionally, not only is there little to no theoretical advantage of having celebrity judges, there is even less advantage in practice. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a commercial for Iron Chef America in which a judge was featured. They … Continued

Additionally, not only is there little to no theoretical advantage of having celebrity judges, there is even less advantage in practice. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a commercial for Iron Chef America in which a judge was featured. They usually focus on some sort of “crazy thing” happening that, in context, is actually not at all crazy. I don’t know how many commercials for the show I’ve seen where they played up somebody struggling with machinery or what have you only to find out it was a mere blip in their cooking time and didn’t cause them much trouble at all. I’m going to guess I’ve seen in nine times. Thus, clearly Iron Chef doesn’t expect much boost in ratings from their celebrity judges. Besides, you only see commercials for ICA on Food Network, so you’d already have to be watching the channel to see the commercials anyway. Also, most of the celebrities aren’t particularly exciting. I know Tina Fey was on an episode once, but that’s about the high point of their celebrity judges. I mean, they had Lou Diamond Phillips on once. He was on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. You are officially slumming when LDP is your celebrity.

Resolved: Lou Diamond Phillips is neither a diamond nor a fillip.  Discuss.

Resolved: Lou Diamond Phillips is neither a diamond nor a fillip. Discuss.

Alright, so celebrity judges don’t help the show at all and their ability to rate food isn’t likely to be satisfactory, but do most people really care?

Well… no, they probably don’t. As I said, most of the show is the chefs cooking, and that’s what they emphasize in the commercials. Why? Because that is what people are tuning in for. I presume many people don’t even care about the results. They used to show the Iron Chef’s records on the show, but they don’t do that anymore. It’s likely only a select few people like me who care who wins, and probably an even more select few who worry that amateur judges compromise the results. Incidentally, if you will allow me a side bar, who do you root for when you watch Iron Chef? I personally root for the Iron Chefs, which I think might be in the minority. It’s a pattern of behavior I have. I used to root for Ben Stein on Win Ben Stein’s Money (this was before I knew what an utter jackass he is) and I would also root for the geeks on Comedy Central’s short lived Beat the Geeks. I also hoped the show would be on TV long enough that I could someday be on there as The Simpsons Geek. Tragically, this never happened.

However, by focusing on whether or not people care you would be missing the issue I have with celebrity judges i.e. that they negative effect the integrity of the show. This isn’t like American Idol, which is also decided by non-professional, and in many cases painfully stupid, people with little to no knowledge of what makes a good singer. American Idol is not about finding the best singer, it is about a record company using a television program to make a ton of money and also find a “musician” who registers with the teeming masses, thus making them more money. Talent is entirely irrelevant, and voting is left in the hands of the people who should be voting, no matter how uninformed their opinion is, and thus the show loses no integrity vis a vis putting the decisions in the hands of less than qualified people. Instead, American Idol lost any integrity it had through a multitude of other ways.

Iron Chef is about judging a chef on three things: taste, plating, and originality using the mystery ingredient. While a celebrity can still understand the aesthetics of good plating, in the other two categories they are out of their element. I’ve already discussed the likely limitations of their palette earlier in this article, but it is also important to mention that judging a chef’s originality, particularly with an obscure ingredient, is something I don’t think a non-professional is capable of as well. When a celebrity judge is on Iron Chef, the show’s producers are basically saying to the cooks, “We’ve decided to let an amateur (or two, occasionally even three) decide which one of you did a better job.” That doesn’t seem sensible, because it isn’t. How can a show claim to be a true culinary battle when they don’t even consistently do the chefs the service of getting them experts to taste their food? That said, it is still the preeminent cooking competition on television, if the one episode of Top Chef I couldn’t even make it all the way through was any indication.


In conclusion (as I was taught to begin final paragraphs with in junior high) celebrity judges do compromise the integrity of Iron Chef by calling into question the legitimacy of the voting. Most people, the kind who don’t over think things, will never have it cross their minds, but for me and folks of my ilk it will always be a blight on the show. I wish they would just allow people with professional expertise judge the battles, but that’s not likely going to happen. However, I think I can manage to still make it through the show, and even enjoy it. If a lifetime of watching sports has taught me anything, it is how to push aside minor annoyances (idiotic announcers, with a special shout out to Tim McCarver for ruining the World Series every year) in order to enjoy what I am watching. All that said, if the people of Iron Chef America are reading this, please, no more Mo Rocca. If I want bad puns, I’ll go with Bruce Vilanch, who, incidentally, was a judge on one of the two episodes of Iron Chef USA.

Yeah, it’s a real wonder why that show got canceled so soon.

Chris Morgan, to ensure he can spend all his free time watching television, is a huge sports fan, and you can find his writings on the Detroit Lions and the NHL over at

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.)


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