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The culinary climb of University of Kentucky Iron Chef contestants

The culinary climb of University of Kentucky Iron Chef contestants

The culinary climb of University of Kentucky Iron Chef contestants

The Iron Chef competition is not just about seeing which team is best. It is about culinary growth.

Lexington, Ky.—

Four judges—one faculty member and three students—sat at a dining room table. Two groups of students were making a three-course meal, each with its own theme. Following the tasting, the judges peppered the students with questions: Why did they choose this theme? Why did you choose this garnish? How did you come up with this recipe? 

The kitchen was spacious and well-equipped, boasting a variety of cooking accessories and state-of-the-art appliances. A rainbow of colorful ingredients stood out against the clean room. Every semester, students gather here not only to expand their culinary knowledge, but also to hone and refine their food preparation abilities. Now, at the end of the term, they were competing in a lighthearted and fun way to see who was "best." 

Welcome to the Iron Chef competition. 

Iron Chef
Photo by Jordan Strickler.

Iron Chef is the annual culmination of weeks of cooking instruction by University of Kentucky Chef-in-Residence Bob Perry and lecturer Emily DeWitt. The lab is part of the Department of Dietetics and Human Nutrition, a division of the UK Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment

While not graded like a normal final, the competition is a chance for sophomores, juniors and seniors to showcase both their cooking skills and creativity. However, Iron Chef is not just about the food and the competition. It’s also about the fun and the learning experiences from the past several weeks. 

“In this kitchen, we don't just cook; we create, we experiment, and most importantly, we learn," Perry said. "Watching these students evolve from their first hesitant steps around a cutting board to confidently presenting a dish they designed themselves—that's the real reward of teaching." 

Throughout the semester, students focused on different themes like cooking eggs, preparing vegetables and pasta-making techniques. The students tackled each challenge learning not just the how, but the why behind each cooking process. 

Iron Chef
Photo provided by Annika Francke.

"Each week, we focus on a different group of foods, and students learn not just how to cook them, but why we use certain techniques from a nutritional standpoint," DeWitt said. "In the beginning, we have students who’ve never used a knife or even boiled water. By the end of the semester, these same students are able to not only navigate the kitchen with ease but also apply their preparation knowledge in practical, food-related scenarios.” 

Now the peak lab experience was upon them—a three-course meal competition. The task extended beyond showcasing individual cooking skills, requiring effective teamwork, innovative creativity and utilizing a semester's worth of culinary knowledge.  

Teams were formed, and the kitchen buzzed with activity. The groups decided menus reflecting their personal taste preferences and the nutritional knowledge they had acquired. Students served their dishes with hope and pride, explaining the rationale behind each serving choice, such as the selection of spices for optimal flavor, the cooking techniques that preserved nutrient integrity and the presentation styles that made each dish as visually appealing as it was delicious. 

The Iron Chef competition transcends mere culinary battles; it symbolizes a transformative journey of growth, creativity and self-discovery for all those involved. 

“It’s about pulling together everything they’ve learned over the semester," Perry said. "Iron Chef isn’t just about being the best cook in the room; it's about pushing boundaries, combining flavors in new ways and really putting your heart on the plate. It’s the essence of what we try to instill here: innovation and passion." 


The Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment is an Equal Opportunity Organization with respect to education and employment and authorization to provide research, education information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function without regard to economic or social status and will not discriminate on the basis of race, color, ethnic origin, national origin, creed, religion, political belief, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, pregnancy, marital status, genetic information, age, veteran status, physical or mental disability or reprisal or retaliation for prior civil rights activity.

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