Culture

The Iron Giant

Decades later, ‘Iron Chef’ is still defining the food TV landscape
How 'Iron Chef' Changed the Face of Food TV
Photos: Courtesy of Food Network

Allez cuisine!

With the crunch of an apple and a wave of his hand, the illusive chairman kicked off the battle of the Kitchen Stadium, pitting two talented challengers against each other in a competition of speed, agility and cooking prowess, and in the process completely captivated audiences across America.

It's the opening scene, of course, of Food Network’s Iron Chef America, a cooking competition that challenged successful chefs from around the country to compete against veterans like Bobby Flay, Cat Cora and Masaharu Morimoto. It's just one iteration in a decades-long legacy of food-focused television that began with Japan’s original and delightfully offbeat Iron Chef.

"I've said before that it's the Dr. Who of cooking shows: It's gone through multiple permutations, has been both kitschy and serious, and has had its ups and downs, but it's beloved. It's got a straightforward formula that works every time. Maybe it's even the Jeopardy of cooking shows," says Alton Brown, the original Iron Chef commentator and host of the series' new chapter, Iron Chef Gauntlet.

How, though, did a show with such a simple formula give rise to such an enduring legacy, launching the careers of chefs like Mario Batali and Michael Symon, and spawning one of the most anticipated revivals in Food Network history?

“While cooking shows were originally created for the daytime television spots, Iron Chef figured out how to make food exciting enough for prime time,” Allen Salkin, author of From Scratch: The Uncensored History of the Food Network, says. "The straight dump-and-stir cooking shows were a wonderful thing, but you wouldn't watch them if you weren't hungry. Iron Chef found a new combination of elements that had not been married together before, put them on the air, and people loved it."

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With its high-intensity challenges, mysterious ingredients and no-nonsense contestants who brought drama to every episode, Iron Chef quickly became a favorite among viewers who were interested in food but drawn in by competition.

Put frankly, it was like nothing anyone had ever seen before.

Iron Chef’s beginnings are abnormal at best, born from a wonderfully weird, campy 1993 Japanese cooking show with over-the-top costumes and an exaggerated battle stadium.

"The people behind the original show wanted to create a pressurized environment in which they would be able to show the brilliance and creativity of chefs," Salkin says. "At its core, it was about artistry and the celebration of creativity. That was the shining diamond nugget at the heart of this show."

When it gained a cult following in America, Food Network's Matthew Stillman decided to run with it.

Although the updated format nixed the famous dubbing, Iron Chef America somehow found that same special sauce when it began its nearly 10-year-run on Food Network. The show even secured one of the original Iron Chef's most popular and talented chefs: Masaharu Morimoto.

Chef Morimoto adds the finishing touches to a dish on Iron Chef America

"I felt no difference [between Iron Chef America and the original version of the show]," Morimoto tells us. "When I was on the show, I wasn't cooking for the judges, the audience or the opponents. I always thought of it as a challenge against myself."

When asked if there was a specific challenge he found most enjoyable, the original Iron Chef says, "Every time it was a new challenge, a new expectation. It was all very difficult. Enjoyable? No."

While Morimoto and his fellow challengers were revered for their skill, one star made the most lasting impression of all. He appeared on every episode of Iron Chef America and led the viewers through confusing, fast-paced culinary competitions with ease and grace. We're talking about none other than Alton Brown, whose role as the culinary commentator is one of the most memorable of the franchise, even if he has a hard time remembering the experience himself.

"After 300 episodes, I'm not gonna lie and say it's all precious memories," he tells us. "I was so busy studying, researching and trying to keep up that I hardly remember anything! We shot two shows a day, I'd be going through 600 pages of research a week, and I found that at the end of the day, I could barely remember the battle that had just happened. I was basically cramming for the SAT perpetually."

Every show brought surprises.

"Inevitably during a battle, someone would pull out something I'd never seen before, and I'd have to figure it out right away. I was actually on those computers in front of me trying to work things out on the fly," he confesses. "My goal was to never make it look like I didn't know what something was, but the truth is that I was learning along the way."

Who better than Brown to host the new show?

"I had never liked how it just stopped," he says. "I could tell that there was an itch out there for fans to learn more about ingredients and technique, and I knew this show could really work again. The audience was ready for that hard-core food aspect of the show."

Iron Chef Gauntlet pits a group of seven new challengers against each other before ultimately setting a competition between the season’s winner and IC vets Symon, Flay and Morimoto.

“There are two food battles in each episode," Brown says. "The new challengers fight against each other, and I judge the first-round dishes, so I can make the conversations very technical. I know what I'm talking about, and so do they, so that changes the overall timbre of the episode. We can have those conversations on a higher level, and the audience is elevated there with us. That one-on-one judging allows for more illuminating conversation.

"I'm the chairman now, so I can really make it about whatever I want, and I want it to be about food," he continues. "I believe it to be the most food-forward competition show I've ever made."

Though Brown's version of the show gets more technical than ever before, it hasn't lost the special combination that, as Salkin puts it, "married food, creativity and entertainment into one irresistible confection."

Brown adds, "Even as taste and audiences and the way we consume content has changed, it always seems to find footing. It keeps going, because it's great."

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