Chopped is a show on the Food Network where four chefs compete to win $10K. There are three knockout rounds/courses. In each round, the remaining chefs get some mystery ingredients and have 30 minutes to cook four portions of a dish. One chef is chopped each course by a panel of judges till one remains standing at the end of the dessert round.
In the show I watched tonight, the mystery ingredients in the first round were merguez sausage, broccoli and chives. Chef Ming from Le Cirque tried to make chive crepes with a sausage and broccoli stuffing and a milk-broccoli stem sauce. He used a fancy technique where he turned a frying pan upside down and cooked the crepe on the bottom of the pan. He ran out of time and did not make the sauce. Crepes turned out crap. Basically things did not go too well and he was “chopped”. Far weaker chefs made it to the next round. But Ming’s strategy was wrong: he was one of the best chefs. If he had not cooked a hard dish but a safe dish he would have made it into the next round. This got me thinking about the optimal strategy for the game. Here is my conjecture.
To win you have to cook at least one “home run” dish and two good dishes. The third and final final dessert round seems to be the hardest. This time the mystery ingredients were grape leaves, sesame seeds, pickled ginger and melon! It was very challenging to make something edible with that, let alone creative and delicious. If you are lagging (i.e. your opponent has had a home run in previous round and you have not), you have to go for a home run in the dessert round. Otherwise, just do the best you can: the random choice of ingredients will play a bigger rle in your success than your own effort. Reasoning backwards, this implies that you have to go for a home run in one of the first two rounds.
In the second round is where I would try for one. If the other two are going for home runs, I could still play safety and land in the middle. I might do this if I already had a home run in the first round. But if I played safety in the first round, I have to go for it now. And it is likely that I’m in the latter scenario because in the first round you (at least if you are one of the better chefs) should not go for a home run as the only way you’re going to lose is if you come last out of four people. Only the most mediocre chef should play a risky strategy in the first round as this is the only way to win (think of the John McCain picking Sarah Palin “Hail Mary Pass” strategy when he was lagging behind). The other three should produce a nice, safe appetizer. If they are truly the best three chefs they are likely to make it to the second round in equilibrium anyway. And all three will have safety dishes. And all three should go for home runs as the desert round is not a good time to attempt a great dish.
So, Ming did not get the game strategy right and he got knocked out earlier than he should have. So future contestants take note of this blog entry. I am also willing to provide consulting for chefs if they cook a free dinner for me.