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Food Network Next Iron Chef -- Ethical Problem

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I love Michael Ruhlman's work. His "Making of a Chef" series is a personal favorite, and I like his website as well. But how can he be a judge when one of the participants is Michael Symon, who was one of the primary subjects for one of his books and a follow-up in another?

I will agree that Ruhlman appears to be the best judge, far ahead of the long-haired Bon Appetit editor and "famous" restaurateur. I also think that Michael Symon has exhibited the most attractive TV persona and turned out the best food. But these two were and are friends. Their mutual success has aided one another. Hasn't anybody else noticed this or commented on it?

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  1. Noticed and commented on extensively at Mr. Ruhlman's own blog, ruhlman.com. Some critics there, but he's been dismissive (even flippant) about it.

    1. while i see your point, michael symon actually commented saying that he knows all the judges - and so do most of the other competitors - because it's a small and tightknit business (i think you can see that in the friendships between the chefs on the show). so that to find judges who DON'T know the contestants would almost mean finding less qualified or less famous for tv judges. just one other side.

      it certainly hurt symon in the first episode. since then i don't know. i do think that if it appeared that there was blatant favoritism it would be bad for everyone involved so i simply doubt that would happen. could be that's my wishful thinking or naivte though.

      1. I don't think this ''contest" or any other similar ones on TV has high ethical/scientific standards or else they would have a blind tasting by the judges. I would not rule out the whole thing being rigged like any other reality show. I am sure who ever wins is extremely talented, but personality will come into play as this is TV after all. That said, Michael Symon does make very, very, good and creative food and very likely could be the best chef there. Anyone who has not already,come to Cleveland and see for yourself!

        1 Reply
        1. re: lyn

          I loved seeing him on the AB show in Cleveland - what a laugh - and what great looking dishes.

        2. I think the real ethical problem for this show and food network as a whole is that there are no people of color on the network. I think there is a real, although most likely unconscious bias towards white males in this show and on the network.

          3 Replies
          1. re: karenfinan

            unfortunately the "chefing" world as a whole tends to have that problem - but i do agree that food network is especially afflicted.

            1. re: karenfinan

              I don't think you can accuse FN one hand of solely programming for the bottom line and then also accuse them on the other of prejudice against non-whites.

              I'll play devil's advocate here.

              First, find out how many non-white hosts FN auditioned in, say, 2006. If none applied, then none hired.

              Secondly, if FN did audition non-white hosts, were their performances on par with FN standards? Just because you're black or Hispanic doesn't mean you get your own show.

              Thirdly, what are the demographics FN wants? Say they want females aged 34-54 earning $48k - $129k as one possibility. If they think there are too few non-whites in that category and don't want to go to the expense of appealing to them, then that's their choice (and a stupid one, but I digress.)

              As for no people of color? What about Ingrid Hoffman? She's Hispanic. They also had Ming Tsai and Aaron Sanchez. The host on Food Finds is black.

              1. re: karenfinan

                what do you mean no people of color on the food network? aaron sanchez is latino, morimoto is asian, that other latina lady has her own show. most of the food show cooks (giada, rachel ray, paula, barefoot contessa et al) are female not male. do you just mean african american specifically? in that case you may have a point, but otherwise, you're just spouting an inaccuracy.

              2. I think the ethical problem assumes that Ruhlman can't set aside his friendship and judge the competition fairly and professionally. I believe he can.

                Also, I feel the final three are appropriate. It's not like Symon was performing poorly and via Ruhlman's influence got him through.

                It would be great if the final judging included the current iron chefs and Jeffrey Steingarten.

                1. I think this is nothing more than a tempest in a teapot. I've been a regular reader of Mr. Ruhlman's blog for quite some time and the Monday reports of the show have been a great treat - as long as I avoid the comments. It seems that the know-it-alls have come out with their Junior Mr. Inspector kits has come out of the woodwork to cry "favoritism!" and attempt to goad either Rhulman or any number of regular readers into defending the relationship as not being favoritism.

                  In the very first episode it should be noted that in the aired judging that their relationship actually hurt Symon. Rhulman knew that the bacon dessert wasn't new and was, in fact, a recipe of an employee of Symon's. While the dessert was good, he was called out for not being creative - the whole point of the challenge.

                  On top of everything else, you'll find that the judges all have relationships outside of the show with the chefs to one degree or another. You really think that no one had ever met or knew or ate or were friends with Traci Des Jardins? Or that Andrew Knowlton doesn't really KNOW these individuals or has helped them in one way or another via Bon Appetit magazine?

                  Besides, Rhulman is 1/3 of the vote - do you really think that Donatella and Knowlton would really just go, "yeah, you like that guy? Okay, we have no professional reputation to uphold here and you seem to really like this guy and we'll vote whatever way you want." They've already had one episode where the vote was split - even if Rhulman voted every single time for Symon to win, they'd simply be able to out vote him 2-1.

                  They all know each other - they're well-established individuals in the cooking industry. It's no conspiracy. If you simply look at the food that's been produced and the last few episodes, this has been a two-horse race for quite some time. In my opinon, anyone that thinks NIC hasn't been Besh vs. Symon (based on food alone) since episode 2 is not watching the show.

                  I don't think it would have been possible to get judges and chefs with an Iron Chef Pedigree together without anyone knowing anyone well. They would have either had to have gone with a) judges who were completely outside of the food world or b) chosen chefs that would have been of the Top Chef variety. Imagine that as Next Iron Chef and you won't care much about Rhulman and Symon's friendship.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Stephmo

                    In the comments on Ruhlman's blog, I've seen everything from outright accusations of favoritism, vote-rigging, racism, and sexism (not to mention bad hair), to more nuanced and reasonable questions about the relationship between the two men. Some of the comments have been insulting and over the line; what bothers me is that Ruhlman has treated all of these comments with equal contempt. I don't have any reason to believe that Ruhlman deliberately favored Symon in the judging, but I'm surprised that, given the close relationship between Ruhlman and Symon, FN thought it was okay for him to be a judge. And I'm also surprised that Ruhlman himself didn't anticipate these criticisms and prepare better for them.

                    As for the question of influencing other members of the jury, I've been a judge in a juried contest myself (nothing to do with cooking), and of course one judge doesn't just tell the other judges what to think. But what does happen is that, when you disagree on something, you make your case for your point of view. In the process, you may try to convince the other judges that something they thought was important isn't important, or that they're wrong about it. That's a natural part of the process, and there's nothing wrong with it, but it does mean that judges with particularly strong opinions on something or someone often get their way.

                    Again, I'm not accusing Ruhlman of anything. I am critical of him for agreeing to be a judge in these circumstances, which I think he should not have done no matter how fair and impartiat he thought he could be, and then getting offended when people question him about it.

                  2. Like my husband said to me before we saw who won..."I think the producers of FN will have the final say in who wins this deal".

                    1. I find it kinda perplexing that anyone would think the "judges" are bound by any standards of ethics at all. It's a fun charade but it is a television show. Calling it "reality" because it's in the form of a competition is charming but come on.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Grubbjunkie

                        Possibly it doesn't matter. But Ruhlman seems to want to have it both ways -- "It's just a TV show" when he wants to minimize the issue of ethics, and "I took my duties very seriously and was absolutely unbiased" when he's directly challenged about it.

                        1. re: Grubbjunkie

                          I agree with this. And I've heard that the term "reality tv" is slowly being abandoned in favor of "unscripted programming," which is much more accurate.