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Dining Services: Students Dish it "Iron Chef" Style

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The winning team carefully cuts granny smith apples for an appetizer.<br />
Photo by: Sarah Gilarsky
The winning team carefully cuts granny smith apples for an appetizer.
Photo by: Sarah Gilarsky

Students Dish it "Iron Chef" Style

Five teams arrive in the Dining Center sunken lounge, each with five members. They put on their red competitor’s T-shirts, and as a sign of their allegiance, one group chooses to wrap their shirts around their heads. The announcer speaks.

The secret ingredient is…apples. Apples, apples. What can we do with apples? The teams huddle and discuss their options. Not too close though. Don’t want the other teams to hear us.

The announcer halts them: Alright, teams. You have 30 minutes. Get ready, set, go!

Like the breaking of the balls at the start of pool game, the teams disperse into the DC kitchen, bouncing to the fruit rack, to the salad bar, to the chicken strips in the lunch line. They gather their ingredients in bowls. And what a motley group of ingredients it is. Apples, yogurt, onions, feta cheese, cayenne peppers, granola, curry, nutmeg. Wait, there’s no nutmeg? Are their sunflower seeds? Good, that’ll do.

Back to their tables in the alcoves of the dining room. Knives, spoons, cutting boards, peelers, spatulas, burners, sauté pans all there for them to use. Convection ovens, microwaves, and freezers at the other end of the DC.

Now to preparing the ingredients. Alright, you cut the apples, I’ll get the pan heated up. Wait. I need salt. Where’s the salt? So-and-so, grab me some salt would you? And get more plates while you’re at it! How much time is left? 20 minutes. Good. Still, no time to waste. Is the water hot enough? My finger says yes. Add the tofu and the peanuts to the sauce now. Add the chicken to the Italian spices. I’ll stir. Okay, I’ll finish getting the apples ready. Someone looks up at the clock. 10 minutes left. Do we have a masher? No? Use the bottom of this cup then. Sliding food from one plate to the next. Some of it got on the floor. Oh well, too bad.

As an observer, Haverford’s Iron Chef Competition seems so breakneck, so hectic, you might wonder why the contestants volunteered to do it at all. One student was bluntly materialistic about her motive: she was in it for the free T-shirt. Another admitted he had his eyes solely on the 300-dollar prize. But most of the competitors said they joined in simply for the sake of cooking.

Faye Strongin ’10 said she would have participated even if no awards were given out. “I live in E-Haus [Haverford’s vegan dorm],” she said. “I love to cook.”

Andrew Lipstein ’10 signed up even before he knew there was a prize! No matter what the motive, demand for contestant spots in this year’s Iron Chef competition far outweighed supply.

Mary Welsh ‘08, a leader of the Haverford club ‘Fords Against Boredom and an organizer of the event, said that when she posted advertisements for the competition online, 13 teams applied for the 6 possible spots. But what else would you expect, insists Welsh. “Everyone loves Iron Chef, right?”

The announcer: 5 minutes! Hurried movement is taken over by forced meticulousness. Can’t have the dish all jumbled together, you know. Gotta have it look nice. Radiating the chicken strips around the applesauce, gently ladling the milk into the cored apples. Don’t let it run down the sides!

With so much enthusiasm for Iron Chef, it’s surprising that the competition took a three-year hiatus since its first occurrence. The competition, based on the hit TV show “Iron Chef” from Asia and the US, started in 2004 when several students approached Director of Dining Services, John Francone. The first go-around was a success, attracting over 70 spectators.

The challenge? Each team must prepare an appetizer, and entree, and a dessert using food straight from the DC, including one surprise ingredient that is not announced until just before the competition—all within a half hour. The secret ingredient of that year’s competition: mangos. Francone says he was blown away by what the students came up with. Tofu cheesecake with mangos. Mango lassies.

I asked Francone how good it all was. “Good?” he replied incredulously. “It was phenomenal!” But a lack of student initiative put the event to rest for the next several years. Before now, says Francone, several students had brought up the possibility of holding another Iron Chef, but their notice was too short given all cooking supplies and T-shirts that go into a proper competition. This year Welsh approached him just in time, he says.

The announcer beckons: 30 seconds! …and a cherry tomato on top… Francone expressed his hope that the competition will stimulate more interaction between the student body and DC staff. “You guys [students] have your community. We [the DC staff] have our community,” he said. “But we are also part of greater community, and when you combine things together it makes for a better place.”

Francone added that Iron Chef also embodies the role the DC plays in students’ social lives. He says many students don’t realize how often they meet with their friends over DC food. Still, Francone, who was one of this year’s judges along with students Jake Ralston ‘10, Tovak Tripp ‘10, Mike Fratangelo ’07 and Professors Fran Blase and Indradeep Ghosh, admits that his favorite part of the competition is the food. And apparently the students don’t have a reputation for disappointing.

“The students are incredible,” says Francone. “Extremely creative for the challenges we give them. There are of lot students that can cook!”

Announcer: Time’s up! Is it good? Do you think it’s decent? The teams gather their culinary regiments: appetizers, entrees, deserts—who will win the judges’ taste buds? One by one the teams go forth. Now the acting comes out. Long flowery descriptions of the preparation. Dainty verbs. Residual heat softened the apples and brought out their sweetness. We crusted the chicken slivers with sesame seeds and sautéed them lightly. We minced, we sprinkled, we drizzled, we garnished…

The judges take their sweet time, smacking their lips, nibbling, rolling the food in their mouths. Wait, did that first judge just nod approvingly? Did she just grimace? The judges’ pronouncements: overall…good! The contrast between the granola and the apples was nice. The toast with sautéed apples and cheddar cheese was good. However…the chicken in yogurt curry could have had more taste. The teams take the judges’ comments in stride. Nobody’s perfect. The judges liked it mostly, right?

After 75 dishes, the judges must confer. Their no sure answer on this one…this year’s competition is a tough one. Who should win it? …And the winner is: Team #5. 300 bucks to winning team! High fives at the center of the room. The other teams admit disappointment with their faces. And what did it take to win? Appetizer: Granny Smith apple boats filled with feta cheese, toasted walnuts, and raisins. Then drizzled with honey and garnished with banana slices. The boats were chilled in a bed of ice. Entree: Chicken sautéed with Italian spices served with applesauce that was spiced with cinnamon and a touch of cayenne pepper. On top, drizzled a balsamic reduction and then garnished with cherry tomatoes. Dessert: A base of crunchy granola followed by a layer of vanilla ice cream and then topped with apple slices that had been caramelized with butter and brown sugar. Then drizzled with a little melted chocolate on top.

And all that with DC food? You betcha. Of course, there can only be one Iron Chef team. No losers, though, insists Francone. This year he provided ten-dollar gift certificates to the Coop and Blockbuster as consolation prizes.

These smaller prizes also make Francone’s job as a judge a little easier. He says the decision for who would win this year’s Iron Chef was much harder than in 2004.

This reporter is still mesmerized with the fact that so many delicious-smelling dishes came from the DC, making him think twice about complaining about the food here at Haverford. And if one day you find you don’t like the DC menu? Then Iron Chef reminds us: make your own!

-Brian Johnson '08