Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Irony Chef: When to "stir the pot"

Sandeep at Cheap Talk has a delicious scoop that is one part economics, one part risk and one part delicious entertainment:
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.

I love Sandeep's take on the show. I'd like to add one observation on the actual outcome of the bidding (mild spoiler alert). Here's what happened. While bidding on the fourth item (tuna jerky), Chef Alex had the option to bid 20 minutes on it after Chef Elizabeth had already bid 25 minutes. Alex did not bid, essentially taking the "mystery ingredient #5" for 20 minutes, giving Elizabeth 25 minutes to cook something amazing with tuna jerky.

You might question why it stopped there (or whether it was optimal to stop there). Given the rules of the auction, Alex was guaranteed to have 20 minutes or less to cook whatever ingredient she won. If she didn't bid 20 minutes on tuna jerky, she got "mystery ingredient #5" for 20 minutes (5 minutes less than the lowest bid). If she did bid, she put the ball in Elizabeth's court, essentially saying "You have 15 minutes or less to cook whatever you win." If Alex put Elizabeth in this position, would Elizabeth bid 15 minutes on tuna jerky? Isn't there a situation where it would be optimal to bid 5 minutes (forcing the other chef into the bottom two)?

I think a lot depends on the chef's willingness to "stir the pot" by sabotaging another chef and the chef's confidence in beating the other chef in round two. Five minutes with tuna jerky might lead to a passable salad or it could lead to a rematch in the secret ingredient showdown. If I were in Chef Alex's shoes, I'm not sure what I would prefer.

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