Iron Chef Boyardee

Our man Sietsema opens up a can of worms

About a year ago, a friend called to say he'd scored a pair of tickets to a taping of Iron Chef America. His company provides cookware used on the show, so it was possible for me to go as a guest without revealing my identity.

That, I figured, was an important consideration. I had been told that the Food Network threatened anyone who attended with a million-dollar fine if they revealed anything about the episode before it aired. But there are no worries now; the episode finally showed up on TV a couple of weeks ago, and it only confirmed what I'd realized as I sat in the audience last year:

Iron Chef America is more bogus than even I had imagined.

Local hero Fortunato Nicotra emerges from a foggy dimension.
Staci Schwartz
Local hero Fortunato Nicotra emerges from a foggy dimension.
No contest: Masaharu Morimoto seemed to have a distinct advantage over Nicotra.
Alex Oliveira/
No contest: Masaharu Morimoto seemed to have a distinct advantage over Nicotra.

In case you've been living under a rock for the last decade or so, here's how the show works: Three chefs—dubbed "Iron Chefs" by some unseen but absolute authority—are called out for cooking contests by upstarts. Each episode is a one-hour duel between a challenger and an Iron Chef in which about five dishes are prepared from scratch, supposedly using ingredients heaped in sumptuous display upon a pair of trestle tables. Each contest focuses on a main ingredient, which is revealed for the first time at the beginning of the show. The contest takes place in a television studio grandly dubbed Kitchen Stadium.

The televised hour is filled with much rushing back and forth against a backdrop of learned discourse and puckish observation from commentators as the dishes are cooked and assembled. Each chef has a pair of sous chefs working under him; we are led to believe that these teams invent their recipes on the spot in an amazing display of culinary creativity. At the end of the hour-long contest, the dishes are rushed to a panel of three judges, who taste them, make studied quips, and then score the collection for taste (10 points), appearance (5 points), and originality in use of the secret ingredient (5 points). Each judge is thus responsible for 20 points of the score. Whoever scores the most points out of 60 is the winner.

We arrived at the ground-floor lobby at the designated time, 8:30 a.m., to find a room full of fidgeting guests sipping Fijianese bottled water. My friend was typical of the live audience that the show attracts, which includes publicists, sponsors, cookbook editors, and other culinary hangers-on. Iron Chef America is one of the few shows that originates in the Food Network's Chelsea headquarters on the West Side of Manhattan (others have included Emeril and Rachael Ray), and it's the most ambitious production the network undertakes. At 8:45, we were given numbers and ushered into a freight elevator, but before we zoomed up to the sixth-floor studio, the big doors on the other side of the car opened unexpectedly, and we were treated to a view of the loading dock and the overpowering smell of rotting garbage. It was an inauspicious start.

Kitchen Stadium is a large studio with twirling spotlights pointing down from the ceiling. It had banks of fog machines and identical parallel kitchen set-ups for the two contestants: range tops, convection ovens, food processors, blenders, refrigerators, and ranks of miscellaneous kitchenware neatly assembled—all of it gleaming, as if newly purchased, or at least newly donated. There was a pair of supply tables lushly appointed with vegetables, fruits, and spices in clear plastic containers. Food Network employees scurried around like Oompa-Loompas in matching denim blouses, and one severe-looking gal with her glasses down her nose seemed perpetually engaged in keeping an inventory of the ingredients on the tables, scurrying out of the way when the cameras pointed in her direction.

The studio also contained a raised dais for the three judges and a podium for Alton Brown, the kooky and well-spoken commentator who offers factual observations about the ingredients as the show unfolds, and generally provides a running commentary as he poses behind twin monitors that let him examine the dishes being prepared via one of several omniscient cameras that pan around the set. His favorite shtick involves referring to the cameras in the ceiling as if they were operated by monkeys. The joke goes something like this: "Monkey Camera No. 9—zoom in on that plate of turnip greens so we can see it better. Somebody, please give that monkey a reward!" Alton adds zing to the show. He is assisted in his efforts by Kevin Brauch, the Canadian host of The Thirsty Traveler, who leaps into the action on the cooking floor, gathering grunted interviews from the participants and seeking answers to questions posed by Alton.

As we entered Kitchen Stadium, a nearly impenetrable fog swirled around us—the kind that normally bedevils sailors. Our first thought: "My God, they've really burned something." The audience wrangler—a female dressed entirely in black, and whose black ponytail tumbled over a black fur collar, like a character out of de Sade—treated us like blind people, helping us over the snaking black cables that ran between pieces of equipment, then finally seating us at a bleacher in a dark corner. There was a similar bleacher on the other side of the room. Together, they held about 30 spectators.

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