Iron Chef Boyardee

Our man Sietsema opens up a can of worms

Several things slowly dawned on us as we watched the taping. The participants went about their tasks methodically but unhurriedly, as if they had all the time in the world. There was none of the huddling and dialogue among team members that we expected, even though they had to develop a menu from scratch using an unknown ingredient. Like a lightbulb coming on over our heads, we realized that the chefs had known the identity of the main ingredient all along, just as they had known ahead of time which Iron Chef would be paired with the challenger. How else to explain the utter nonchalance displayed by the sous chefs, who fetched ingredients and blended them; toasted, fried, and roasted them; then plated them like they were enjoying a relaxing holiday in the country. The Food Network has admitted as much, saying in the past that the contestants are given a short list of possible secret ingredients ahead of time so the reveal isn't a total surprise. But I wonder if that list is really longer than one or two items.

It became obvious that, knowing the main ingredient all along, the chefs had developed a series of recipes the way chefs normally do—through ideation and experimentation, trying and discarding recipes before settling on the collection they intended to make during the show. Hence the self-assurance and lack of mistakes that we saw unfolding before us. We'd been promised moments of brilliant creativity, but what we saw were drones going about their appointed tasks with well-tested recipes, while swooping cameras, flashing lights, smog, and frantic commentary on the part of Alton, the judges, and the floor reporter distracted us from the true nature of the situation. This was no contest—it was a culinary fait accompli. How hard could it be for three chefs, recipes in hand and some ingredients pre-prepped, to turn out five dishes in an hour? It would be a cakewalk for any true professional.

At one point, with only minutes in the real-time hour to go, one of Nicotra's sous chefs—an attractive and poised brunette named Lara—was seen kneeling next to the ingredient table, stacking and restacking the spice jars so that the one she had used would fit perfectly back in the shelf. Urgency, indeed! Meanwhile, an omniscient and vaguely Japanese-sounding female voice counted out the minutes remaining in the contest, which ended in a blaze of flashing strobes and frenzied commentary. Then the entire operation went slack. I expected the dishes to be whisked over to the judges for tasting, but where were the judges? The finished concoctions—many involving raw fish—languished on a side board as the judges ambled around and production people wiped their brows and relaxed. At one point, one of the judges—Queer Eye guy Ted Allen—strolled over to our bleachers and chatted up the guests like he was running for political office.

Host Mark Dacascos does flips for no apparent culinary reason.
Staci Schwartz
Host Mark Dacascos does flips for no apparent culinary reason.

There were still three hours left in the taping. What could possibly take up the rest of the time? I wondered. Though they clearly weren't invented during the show, the roster of dishes was impressive. I'll recount them based on what I could see from the bleachers, but don't expect my descriptions to be particularly accurate, since I never came close to the food, and the information provided to the spectators was incomplete and sometimes contradictory—all misinformation and false descriptions on the part of the commentators could later be fixed in the editing room.

I sat worrying about how fresh the dishes would taste to the judges, who seemed in no hurry to get the judging started. Eventually, after 45 minutes or so, they took their seats for the next part of the taping: Kelly Choi, the statuesque host of local TV show Eat Out New York, wearing an astonishing quantity of make-up; John J. Nihoff, who is described on the Food Network's website as "Professor of Gastronomy" at the Culinary Institute of America, though the institute's website styles him an associate professor of liberal arts; and Ted Allen. It was announced to the audience that the tasting of dishes for each chef would take about 45 minutes, and, I wondered, wouldn't this give the Iron Chef—whose dishes would be tasted first—a tremendous advantage?

I'd felt that Morimoto had something of an advantage all along. The judges were seated much closer to Morimoto's kitchen area, and the lion's share of the comments being made by Alton, Kevin Brauch, and the judges seemed to be about Morimoto's dishes. Meanwhile, the efforts of the challenger on the opposite side of the room garnered far less attention. As the evaluating began, Morimoto was directed to stand next to the judges and give a short introduction to each dish, which was shot from different angles, then ostentatiously tasted by each member of the panel. All the comments from the judges were overwhelmingly positive and fairly nonspecific, as if they really didn't have much to say. As a restaurant critic, I was infuriated that the comments were so adulatory and repetitive. As the dishes were presented one by one, with much fuss made over each, I noticed activity on Morimoto's kitchen set. Then it dawned on me: In most cases, the recipes were being executed a second time for the judges, mostly by the sous chefs, but with help from the Oompa-Loompas. I was shocked. If the actual dishes produced during the contest weren't being tasted, the competitive validity of the whole show was further undermined: What was the point of the race if the dishes were casually recooked for judging an hour later?

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