Organic Iron Chef

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Organic Iron Chef at MIT is a team cooking competition, loosely based on the Japanese TV show Iron Chef (and the newer series Iron Chef America). Most of the ingredients we use are organic and locally grown; the idea is to show people another way that environmentalism can be part of everyday life. It’s held annually as part of Earth Week festivities-- Xiaomin Mou was the fist to organize it, in 2004, and Jessica Lee continued in 2005.

Here’s my best advice for how to run a competition:

1. Get funding. (see budget below) LEF is a great source.

 Organic Iron Chef Budget, 2005
 1st prizes		 59.61
 participation prizes	 49.75
 ingredients		226.69
 publicity		  5.00
 total			341.05

Don't forget to recruit volunteers!

2. Find a venue and a sponsor (start this at least a month in advance, preferably more). Each team will need a workbench and ample access to burners and an oven, as well as pans and cooking utensils, and someone who knows the kitchen to give a tour and supervise/ answer questions during the competition. And any staples the kitchen can provide, such as oil and spices, cut down on the things you have to buy. In 2004, the venue was the Simmons Hall dining facility, and the dorm even donated some money for materials. In 2005 the sponsor was Bon Appetit, the food service that runs campus dining, and they let us use the Next House dining facilities. They were a great sponsor for several reasons: the manager, Marietta Lamarre-Buck, is very enthusiastic and helpful, Bon Appetit has a pretty sustainable philosophy, and the Next House kitchen had everything we needed.

3. Find judges. Anyone in a position of relative authority who takes interest in food and has a creative sense of humor. Obvious choices include chefs from campus dining, well-known deans, housemasters, professors (keep in mind that if the competition is on a weekend you’ll have best luck with people who live on or near campus). I might try Anne McCants, a History professor who runs an Old Food cooking activity during IAP. Possibly try Dr. Patti Christie, who used to teach Kitchen Chemistry during IAP? But the best judges in 2005 were, in fact, just personal friends of mine who happen to be great gourmets. (email me to ask)

4. Advertise and have teams sign up (start this two weeks in advance). Try posters: poster1 poster1 and emails, hitching onto the Earth Day advertisement. Contact the Epicurean Club, and try living groups and co-ops that have a regular program of cooking together. Get each team to come up with a creative name and to give you all the names and email addresses of the group members. Ask for 4-5 members per team, though if a team wants to try with only 2-3 people there’s no reason not to let them try. In 2005 we limited it to 8 teams, which was just about as much as we could handle; teams 9 and 10 were put on a waiting list. see the 2005 signup list here

Find an Iron Chef team. If you can get the winners from last year to come back (see link), that would be wonderful! In 2004 was Gong Ke Chen, from Ping Ping Chai, led a team; in 2005 we asked people from the Epicurean Club to do it. There’s actually nothing special about the Iron Chef team except ceremony; it’s known as “the team to beat,” and you can ask them to write interesting biographies or something (click here to see the ones from last year).

Food Network, the TV channel dedicated to cooking that televises Iron Chef and Iron Chef America, has a pseudo-program called “how do you Iron Chef?” It’s a 5-minute spot broadcast during the commercial break that features regular people who have organized their own iron chef competitions. I expect they bring camera crews to your competition and interview the organizers, then assemble the video footage into this little thing. I get the feeling the only incentive is the chance to be on cable TV. You might try contacting them—they may be interested in MIT’s Organic Iron Chef!

5. Plan and buy ingredients. In 2005 we had a tabelful of communal ingredients, we gave each team a shopping bag of their own ingredients, and we had a selection of vegetables from which each team was allowed to choose 2 items. The secret ingredient was distributed in the shopping bags-- in 2005 it was lemon; in 2005 it was sweet potatoes and cashews. Here are lists of the ingredients we used in 2005.

 for each team’s own shopping bag
 1 red onion
 4 lemons
 6 eggs
 2 sticks butter
 1 can tomatoes
 1 lb tofu	
 1 can beans/chickpeas
 1 box/can vegetable broth
 1 head garlic
 on the communal table
 nuts: almonds
 dried fruit: prunes, apricots
 dried Chinese mushrooms
 2 bags unbleached flour
 1 bag whole-wheat flour
 1 lb each white rice, brown rice
 4 lbs pasta (different shapes)
 parmesan cheese
 salt, spices
 fresh herbs: parsley, scallions, ginger
 soymilk, milk, cream (cream was very popular)
 extra-virgin olive oil, vegetable oil
 condiments: mustard, vinegar, soy sauce
 vegetable selection (we had 2 of each of the following items—24 total)
 1 bunch beets
 1 acorn squash
 1 lb carrots
 ½ head red cabbage
 1 bunch arugula
 3 Portobello mushrooms
 1 bunch kale
 3 leeks
 3 cucumbers
 1 bunch celery
 4 pears
 4 apples

We also provided a bunch of snacks for people to eat while cooking or during judging. Things like cheese, crackers, fresh fruit, drinks, cookies, etc. The judges will need writing utensils and notepaper, preferably with team names and grading categories already on them.

6. Plan and buy prizes: participation prizes for everyone, and something for the winners. In 2004, I think, each person got a small cooking tool (I forget what) and an apron or something that had been donated by MIT dining—do try to get donations from a cooking supply or hardware store, or from Dining. It would be a great idea to be able to provide aprons during cooking. In 2005 the participants got packets of herb seeds (not such a great idea, I’m afraid) and the winners got a selection of cookbooks about sustainable food, as well as gift certificates for Bon Appetit (donated very kindly by Marietta).

The winning 2005 team came up with the idea of making a perpetual trophy, for instance a rolling pin with the names of each year’s winners. I like the idea, though there is no trophy yet.

7. On the day of the competition: bring all the ingredients and any necessary equipment to the venue. Some things that Next House Dining didn’t have (being a professional kitchen) included rolling pins, hand-held blenders, small pots and pans, measuring cups, and a normal can opener. LABEL any equipment you bring, because otherwise it WILL get mixed up. Plan carefully the introduction that you’ll give all the groups before allowing them to cook, because afterward you’ll never get everyone’s attention again. Things to say include: 1. general hello, introduction. mention SAVE, SfGS, sponsors. 2. introduce all participants. 3. environmentalist spiel: importance of buying organic/local, maybe a plug for sustainable fish 4. explanation of rules, in detail. overview of time scheme—make sure to mention that teams will have to clean up after themselves. emphasize that communal ingredients and shared equipment must be returned to the communal table 5. tour of the kitchen 6. 5 minutes of discussion/planning for the teams 7. choosing of vegetables (we drew lots and took turns) BRING A DIGITAL CAMERA! During cooking, your job is mainly to run around taking pictures, as well as to answer questions, fetch emergency ingredients or equipment if you think they’re necessary, and to enforce rules. And set up for judging: clear up table space for each team and make signs for them, prepare note sheets for the judges and water for the judges to drink.

Here’s how timing worked for us, in 2005 (it was a Sunday):

  • 10:00am: teams check in
  • 10:10am: introduction
  • 10:30am: start cooking
  • 1:00pm: all cooking and plating must be finished. judging begins. teams should be with their food to answer questions when the judges come around but they can also take off to clean up simultaneously
  • 2:00pm: judging, cleanup finished; awards presented

The Rules

  • Each team must produce at least 2 savory dishes and 1 sweet (but they may cook as much as they want)
  • There must be enough food for all the judges to partake. Dishes may be plated individually or presented in one main serving dish. (Leftover food may be eaten by contestants!)
  • All dishes must contain the secret ingredient in some form
  • Each team is entitled to all the ingredients in its shopping bag as well as the vegetables it chooses; it may also use any of the ingredients on the communal table. No ingredients may be brought from elsewhere. Bartering among teams is perfectly acceptable.
  • Teams may cook during the designated cooking time and dishes must be plated and presented by the deadline.
  • Teams must have cleaned up by the end of the judging period.
  • Food is judged based upon taste, originality, and presentation (allocation of points is up to you; you may follow the traditional Iron Chef rubric using 20 points per judge, 10 for taste, 5 for presentation, and 5 for originality)

TAKE PICTURES! In 2005 we took a picture of each dish created and of each group; see them here. See also a follow-up email I sent to participants.