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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
From Morimoto came a simple kanpachi tempura served with doctored ketchup; a finely minced kanpachi tartare with dabs of five colorful garnishes that looked particularly delicious; a partly cooked sashimi with freshly grated green wasabi; a fish rubbed with five-spice powder, roasted whole while suspended from hooks in the convection oven—which provided a great visual, and elicited sardonic quips from Alton, who seems to have a taste for S&M (the quips didn’t appear in the final edit); seared kanpachi with daikon in braising liquid; and a kanpachi rice dish with raw egg yolk and shreds of nori. As portions of the whole fish were served, Morimoto grabbed a white truffle from his pocket and ostentatiously grated it over the top of each serving. Hey, anything would taste better with fiendishly expensive white truffle grated over it! And the truffle never appeared on the table of raw materials, of course. Were they afraid an Oompa-Loompa might filch it?
Several of Nicotra’s dishes were based on an odd fish-and-mascarpone mousse. In order, they were: a “saketini” served in a small martini glass; a tour de force tasting platter with several small dishes, such as fish-mousse crostini, raw fish crudo served on a warmed cedar plank (and flinging off a woodsy odor), and a California roll substituting bread for rice; seared kanpachi with fennel salad in yellow-tomato vinaigrette, goosed with a bizarrely expensive 25-year-old balsamic (which also didn’t come from the table); the same mousse wrapped in alternating slices of potato and sweet potato like an enchilada, and rolled inside a slice of speck skewered with a single piece of black squid-ink spaghetti; a dome of fish concealing a mozzarella motherlode dabbed with a white chowder sauce flavored with razor clams; and—most impressive of all—a roasted kanpachi tail served on a thick tile of pink Himalayan salt, sided with a bottle of single-estate virgin olive oil. The last two ingredients clearly never saw the surface of the ingredients table, either, and were further proof of the predeveloped state of the recipes and foreknowledge of the main ingredient.
The two hours of judging were a colossal bore, and several of the guests found ways of sneaking away. The only thing that kept me there was seeing who won. It was clear to me that in both enthusiasm, creativity, and raw talent, the challenger should have been the winner. Morimoto deployed recipes that seemed left over from the Nobu era; Nicotra took more chances. Need I mention that the “secret ingredient” was one that tremendously favored the Iron Chef? I should have had a premonition of the result from the judges’ commentary. Ted Allen had made two pointedly negative observations about Nicotra’s dishes, and had been overwhelmingly positive about everything Morimoto had done. The other two judges had been positive about nearly everything.
When the champion was announced, Morimoto prevailed. As I watched the show one year later, I learned that the contest had been a rout, with Morimoto receiving 59 of 60 points, including a perfect 20 for taste. Poor Nicotra got only 51 points; he hadn’t even come close. That afternoon in the studio, Iron Chef Morimoto stood impassively to receive his award, as if he couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there. The audience was never given the actual scores. Instead, it was ushered out immediately and unceremoniously, since a second Iron Chef contest was about to be taped.