If you’re like me, you didn’t have high expectations for the first annual Iron Tigers Showdown at High Noon, the chef’s competition and inaugural Frist Fest 2008 event based on the Iron Chef television franchise. I thought that the teams of chefs from the University’s six dining units could put on a good show, but when I turned the title over in my head, I was sure that it was the brainchild of student government. In my mind’s eye, the dean of students and USG higher-ups would exchange hours of knee-slapping banter, and the event would culminate in the raffling of an iPod Touch with several seasons of Iron Chef America preloaded.

As it turns out, though, no students or deans were directly involved in Iron Tigers. The spectacle on display outside the Frist food court was a well-oiled publicity stunt run by Dining Services and the Princeton Communications Office, which meant that there was no room for well-meaning amateurs.

Of the three judges, two were freelance food writers for major American publications and the third was a restaurant owner.

And the secret ingredient was an equally imposing, farm-raised Australian fish called barramundi.

I felt nervous for the first team, the Graduate/Catering unit, as their clock ran out. One of the judges hovered over their table and pursed her lips as if she were holding back judgment.

And then the head chef added the syrup around the perimeter of his elegantly-plated appetizers: coffee- and tea-smoked barramundi egg roll served with assorted dipping chips, Himalayan red rice cakes, and tamarind dipping sauce, and a steamed chayote bowl filled with mango coulis and blackberry caviar.

The judges tasted, nodded in approval and marked their sheets. My palms stopped sweating.

Reality, however, soon crept back into the room.

The MC decided to work the crowd and asked Yoon Won Song ’11 what she thought. He received a statement of the obvious: “The food looks very different from the food we have in the dining halls.”

The MC promised her that she, too, would get to sample these delicacies if her residential college won in the final round.

Whether or not they get to try the winning dish, students are, after all, the motivating factor for holding the competition. This seemed clear as the judges tasted the final dish. One of the cameraman hovered over them, craning his neck, in what appeared to be an attempt to fit a group of eager young students into the background of a shot that is surely destined to appear on the university’s homepage.

Look for this same photographer when he tries to take the perfect promotional image on May 2, when first place finisher Rocky/Mathey faces off against runner-up Frist on the campus center lawn. The multicultural kitchen staffs will be in the foreground, students sporting Frist-Fest t-shirts will crowd the sidelines. A moment will come when a cloud passes in front of the sun and the last orange beam catches the grease on a plantain pancake in mid-flip. Everyone will be smiling when camera aperture clicks. For Princeton University’s publicists, this is the stuff that dreams are made of.