Iron Chef Boyardee

Our man Sietsema opens up a can of worms

As far as I could tell from the monitors, it didn't matter where the guests sat, since you can't see their faces anyway, enveloped as they were in fog. Only occasionally did a sweeping shot reveal the vague characters on the edges of the room, intended to make it seem like the stadium is thronged. As a TV viewer, I was under the impression that the fog was used only at the start of the show, but the fog machines kept cranking throughout the taping, concealing all sorts of details the network might not want you to see. As the taping progressed, we felt more and more like we were viewing the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Toto pulls aside the curtain and the wizard's tricks are revealed.

The taping began promptly at 9 a.m., with the first hour spent making shots of the challenger, the Iron Chef, and the Chairman. The latter is a character left over from the original Japanese series who doesn't have much to do in this version of the show, except to reveal the secret main ingredient with a wild-eyed shout. He also provide segues and arm thrustings here and there. In the original series, this character made more sense: Wasn't he the rich guy sponsoring the gladiatorial game show? The current Chairman—Mark Dacascos—is a minor martial-arts actor who claims to be a nephew of the original Chairman on the Japanese show, an assertion that's not difficult to disprove.

Nevertheless, he is always deferentially addressed by the director and other production people as "The Chairman" rather than by his actual name. Other early shots are also attended by eruptions of fog. We soon found out why.

Morimoto makes quick work of the secret ingredient.
Alex Oliveira/
Morimoto makes quick work of the secret ingredient.
Someone trying to look like Mario Batali lumbers into view.
Staci Schwartz
Someone trying to look like Mario Batali lumbers into view.

As the cameras rolled, we saw three raised platforms at the end of the studio, one for each of the Iron Chefs: Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, and Masaharu Morimoto. ("Hey, where's the female Iron Chef?" one of the spectators murmured, noting that Cat Cora, a fixture of the 2005 and 2006 seasons, was nowhere to be seen.) The Iron Chefs posed on their raised pedestals enveloped by fog. Up bound the challenger, chef Fortunato Nicotra of Manhattan's Felidia, a restaurant that has recently been awarded a very rare three stars by The Times' Frank Bruni. He screwed up his face, stroked his chin, and examined all three chefs. This was the point at which he apparently decided which chef to challenge.

But despite the fog, it was obvious that his decision was far from spontaneous. The choice of Iron Chef had clearly been made much earlier, because two of the Iron Chefs standing on the pedestals in roiling clouds of fog were out-and-out imposters. One wore Batali's signature jams and orange plastic clogs, but jeez—this guy had more hair than Mario and was way fatter, with jiggling, pendulous breasts and a waterfall of fat at the gut level. He was like a parody of Mario, but he played the part with commendable swagger. The Flay impersonator had Bobby's nose, but a weaker brow and a slighter frame. He seemed reconciled to his sad lot as chef stand-in and wore a hangdog look on his raised platform as Morimoto and the faux Batali posed impatiently, while shots were fussily taken and retaken. A couple of audience members discreetly laughed into their handkerchiefs, perhaps worried about being thrown out for copping to the deception. (Nicotra's wife, Shelly, told the Voice that her husband didn't want to comment about the show or the observations that are made in this article.)

After the chef doubles dismounted the pedestals and skulked off, a tired-looking Morimoto—who blinked incessantly and looked bored by the whole proceeding—posed next to the challenger, with the Chairman between them like a boxing referee. The climax of the establishing shots was the revelation of the contest's main ingredient, which the chefs were expected to use in most of their courses. Heaped on a table, the mystery ingredient—supposedly unknown at this point to the chefs, judges, and Alton Brown—was concealed behind a panel featuring crossed cleavers. A stage-manager type called for more fog as the panel was raised and the product revealed: In this case, it was six handsome three-pound kanpachis, silvery fish heaped on ice. The cameras took innumerable porny shots from every angle—some of just the heads, others of tails—to be edited later. It was apparent that the clear-eyed fish were the real stars of the show.

At this point, the cry "Quiet on the set!" went up, because the actual contest was about to commence. We all sat expectantly on the edge of our seats. The wrangler handed out our last bottles of Fiji water and offered to take us on one last trip to the bathroom. The sous chefs crouched like high-school sprinters, ready to run up and grab the fish. An alarm went off and the battle between Iron Chef Morimoto and Challenger Nicotra began.

The audience watched, enthralled, for the first few minutes. But soon, the profound difference between the show as seen by millions of home viewers and the much longer taping as seen by a handful of studio guests became apparent. On the edited show, Kitchen Stadium is the scene of frenetic activity, with the shots carefully selected to make it seem as if the participants are running around at full speed. There is extreme urgency in their every movement, as chefs and sous chefs jog between appliances, prep areas, and larders. "How will they be able to finish up all the dishes in the allotted time?" is the question that dogs the viewer the most.

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