How to beat Bobby Flay: The Data Science Approach
Updated: Sep 4
Beat Bobby Flay is a food network classic. In each episode, Iron Chef Bobby Flay invites 2 celebrity guests to try to beat him in a cooking competition. Each guest brings along a Chef to compete against each other and then Bobby Flay in a series of 2 cooking competitions. With 316 episodes to date, Bobby has an impressive 63% win rate across a wide range of dishes and cuisines. Today, we are going to see if there are any trends that we can take away from the episodes to date. Any weaknesses in Bobby's cooking game that we can take advantage of and maybe give us a chance at beating Bobby Flay.
Thanks to Wikipedia, we have records of how each show turned out. This includes the celebrity guests, the chefs, what the star ingredient was, what the signature dish was, and who won. I have expanded this information to group star ingredients but food type (meat, vegetable, grain, etc), and add information like cuisine, protein, and meal type to the signature dish. Finally, in all cases below, I have only included a category that has appeared 5 or more times, this includes limiting celebrity guests, and signature dish cuisines and proteins. With this data, lets see if we can't beat Bobby Flay.
Who do you want as the Celebrity Guests?
Before you can beat Bobby Flay, you first have to get on the show. That means you need to be invited by a celebrity guest, but who would you want to invite you to the show? The guests play an important role, not only choosing who will go on to compete with Bobby, but distracting Bobby throughout his cooking. Lets look at how different guests do when on the show.
Win rates of celebrity guests who have an above-average win rate. The number next to the name is the total number of appearances for the celebrity guest.
A total of 12 guests have a better win rate than average (remember Bobby only loses 37% of the time). Of those only 2 have one more than they have lost. So if I was gonna challenge Bobby, I'd want Valerie Bertinelli and Giada De Laurentis to be the guests of the day.
The Star Ingredient
Once on the show, you have to win the signature ingredient. While the chef can't control what the ingredient will be, we can try to predict what it will be and prepare appropriately. In this case, I grouped the star ingredients into 8 different categories: meat (beef, pork, chicken, etc); Fish (including shellfish); vegetables; fruit; dairy (eggs, cheese, yoghurt); grains (breads, rice, pasta); beans; and other (everything from chocolate to vinegar).
A breakdown of how often an ingredient type appears as the star ingredient.
It's clear from this list that Bobby isn't trying to really throw you off your game with the star ingredient. While there are still plenty of weird ingredients in these broad categories, the focus being vegetable, meat or fish is comforting at some levels. It is really a test of cooking at that point rather than having to integrate something strange. This isn't necessarily the most informative other than it is really focus on being a good cook and what you can cook in the time limit.
The Signature Dish
The biggest strategic advantage of the show is the signature dish. This is the aspect that you can control. You choose what you and Bobby are going to cook, so let's try to make a good choice with data. As mentioned above the cuisines were manually assigned by me based on where google suggests the dish originates from, as such, there are some clear limitations (for instance a fried chicken sandwich I associated with southern American, but it could easily be Korean fried chicken), so take this with a grain of salt.
Breakdown of challenger win rates broken down by the signature dish's cuisine. the red line represents the average win rate such that dots to the right of the line have an above-average win rate and left of the line have a below-average win rate. Numbers next to the cuisine is the number of times that cuisine has been assigned as the signature dish.
Indian cuisine is a clear advantage here, with the challenger winning 73% of the time (across 11 appearances no less!). Chinese and Latin American (but not Mexican in this case) also provide an advantage while French and Italian are technically better than Bobby's normal rate, but not significantly. I also want to mention Jewish Cuisine, which while only appearing 3 times, has produced 3 wins for the challenger, so that is probably another to consider even with the small sample size. As far as what to avoid, Thai and Spanish are clear cuisines to avoid. I would add American (both standard like burgers and southern American like shrimp and grits) given the sheer volume of attempts and Bobby has come out on top more often than his average.
Breakdown of contestant win rates by the main protein source of the signature dish. The red line is bobby's average win rate and the numbers next to each protein are the number of times that protein has been chosen.
Most dishes are defined by their protein, so we can look across cuisines to see if there is a protein that Bobby is less confident in. The best options are lobster, general meat (things like meatloaf or meat tacos), and no meat (vegetarian). The vegetarian strategy really jumps off here with a 50% win rate across 34 appearances. I will also mention that these only consider lunch/dinner meals (no breakfast dishes like pancakes or desserts which we will look at in a sec) were included here. On the opposite end, I would avoid crab and pork dishes when possible.
Finally, let's look at meal type. Most people are coming in with a main dish (something you would eat for lunch or dinner), but sometimes people come in with a dessert or a breakfast item and maybe those provide an advantage?
Breakdown of contestant win rate by meal type
Desserts certainly provide an advantage, as they get back to a 50% win rate. I was expecting breakfast to also have an advantage, but that does not seem to be the case.
As I have mentioned, when we are analyzing the signature dish, this is based on my own quick research and it will not be entirely accurate. That said, there are some clear advantages to be gained by choosing our signature dishes wisely.
The other point to make is that at the end of the day, you still need to be an excellent chef to beat bobby flay. Even at his weakest he still wins about a quarter of the time, some of the trends we talked about here can help, but only to a point you still need to cook it. He also has a few advantages of his own. He is used to the stage where they will be cooking, knows the unique quirks of the pans and ovens there. He also has a lot of practice at knowing what can be accomplished in the set time limit, something many contestants struggle with. There is a reason Bobby wins about 70% of the time.
To sum it up, there are a few takeaways to follow if you want to beat bobby flay. First, try to have Valerie Bertinelli and Giada De Laurentis to be the guests on your show. No idea how you could arrange this, but they have a knack for winning. Second, focus on meats, vegetables, and fish when preparing for the star ingredient, this will allow you to prepare most efficiently. Third, if you can, try to force bobby to cook an Indian dish, maybe even an Indian dessert to really throw him off your game. If all goes well, maybe you will beat Bobby Flay.
All code related to this post is available on my github