Next Iron Chef is much better than Iron Chef. The latter almost always has Bobby Flay matching his Southwestern style cuisine against some hapless contestant who usually loses. Next Iron Chef has more uncertainty, some new faces and some better chefs. Last night’s episode had fun twists and turns coming out of the mechanism design and a tragic-comic outcome.
First, the chefs had to “bid” for ingredients in a Dutch auction with time allowed for cooking as the “currency”. There were five chefs and five ingredients. The lowest bid won for each of the first four ingredients. The chef who “won” the last ingredient was by the rules of the mechanism left with a cooking time of the lowest bid on the first four ingredients minus 5 minutes. The ingredients were revealed one by one. That was the first twist. The second was that the Chef Anne Burrell had “won” the previous episode and had an advantage coming into this one (more on this below).
Equilibrium analysis for the first twist is not available but instinct suggests very aggressive bidding towards the end since you begin bidding on the fourth ingredient knowing the maximum time you will have with the fifth. This will trigger aggressive bidding all the way through. This was true for all ingredients except sardines which Anne Burrell won for a bid of 50 minutes. Chef Alex Guarnaschelli got the last ingredient, lamb chops, with 25 minutes to cook. Since, Chef Anne had about 20 minutes more than the other chefs, she made three sardine dishes. It is always an error to make multiple dishes in this competition. The judges seem to use a lexicographic criterion. They compare your worst dish with the those of the other chefs. If your worst dish is tied with others’ dishes, then your best dish comes into play and you win. So, doing multiple dishes typically backfires because you cannot spend enough time perfecting each of your dishes so you invariably end up with the worst dish and your best dish gets ignored. The First Irony is that having more time made Chef Anne think she had to do more dishes (she did three) and one of them was Yuk.
Now the second twist: Chef Anne’s advantage was that she got to taste the other four dishes and decide which was of them was the worst. The theme of the episode was “Risk” and she decided, in my opinion voting honestly according to her preferences, that Chef Jeffrey Zakarian had the least risky dish. The two worst chefs from the first part of the competition face off in the second part. And the loser gets eliminated. Chef Anne got to chose one of the two potential losers. What if Chef Anne had voted strategically? The first instinct is to put the best chef in the knockout round but this is wrong. This chef will face one of the worst chefs in all likelihood, beat them and come back the next episode. It is is better to chose the chef you would like to face in case your dish ends up at the bottom. That chef is Chef Alex in my opinion. But Chef Anne chose Zakarian who is a star. And he defeated her in the knockout round. This is Second Irony.
Who would the judges have chosen if they had leeway? It seems Chef Alex would have been in the knockout round and probably Chef Anne would have dealt with her. This is Third Irony. This episode was Shakespearean, as Chef Alex pointed out.