What I Can Tell You About The Taping I Attended of “Iron Chef America” Without Having To Pay The Food Network $1,000,000

January 26, 2006 | By | COMMENTS

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The Food Network really doesn’t want me to tell you what I witnessed on Monday, January 23rd. Upon arriving at The Food Network studios in The Chelsea Market, they had my companions and I sign a piece of paper that made us swear we wouldn’t reveal any secrets from the episode we were about to see taped of Iron Chef America. Especially: which Iron Chef would do battle; the identity of the challenger and, most importantly, the secret ingredient. The penalty would be–according to the document–$1 million. Plus they’d send Mario Batali to walk on you in his orange clogs.

What follows, then, is a carefully guarded account of our experience there. Please don’t ask me any questions like “What was the secret ingredient?” because answering that [fennel!] might cost me my future livelihood. [Just kidding, it wasn't fennel. Stop asking.]

News of the Iron Chef tickets reached my e-mail box a few weeks earlier. My wonderful agent, who plucked me from nowhere and placed me on the road to somewhere, informed me that she had two tickets: one for me and one for my editor at Bantam/Dell. The taping would be Monday at 2:30, we’d meet out front at 2:25. She also attached a letter from The Food Network that ended thusly:

“DRESS IS BUSINESS CASUAL. PLEASE REFRAIN FROM WEARING JACKETS, AND TIES. NO LARGE LOGOS ARE PERMITTED. SOLID DARK COLORS ARE PREFERRED. NO CAMERAS OR RECORDING DEVISES OF ANY KIND PERMITTED

ALSO, YOU WILL BE REQUIRED TO SIGN A COFIDENTIALITY AGREEMENT WHEN YOU CHECK IN FOR THE PRODUCTION. ALL GUESTS OF THIS PRODUCTION ARE REQUIRED TO DO THIS.”

As you can see, they are VERY serious about this confidentiality agreement. I don’t know why you keep bugging me to reveal things like who the Iron Chef was [Sakai!], they’re seriously going to sue me. [Just kidding, Sakai isn't on Iron Chef America. You got so rocked.]

Tickets for “Iron Chef America” are invite only, which is why attending the taping is so special. We gathered in a room on the ground level of the Food Network studios in the very back of the market. Sandwiches and cookies from Amy’s Bread were available and of course I couldn’t refuse a cookie. On a TV screen they showed previous battles as Food Network employees collected the signed forms and began to herd people into an elevator.

Before we got on, we were asked to turn our cellphones and pagers off. “You’ll have a chance to turn them back on after the battle’s over, before the judging.”

The elevator took us up six flights and they led us into another waiting room. From here, you could kind of see into the Iron Chef studio. The feeling was similar to that of waiting for a Disney ride: fog from fog machines rolled in through cracks in the curtain, and you could see bright spotlights up ahead.

While we waited, we could watch what was going on in the studio on a TV monitor placed before us. We watched the challenger (who, I didn’t recognize and never learned the identity of anyway!) choose his Iron Chef for combat. We then watched him do it again. And again. These things, you see, require multiple takes.

Just then, some fanfare as a curtain parted to our left and the secret ingredient was wheeled in on a prop-like tray that looked like something from a poor man’s production of “Pirates of Penzance.”

“It looks like there’s a body in there,” said my agent.

“Maybe there is and that’s the secret ingredient!” I suggested. A woman to my right sneered.

Eventually they led us into the studio. The space was surprisingly small and fake-looking. Kitchen Stadium in Japan looks like a real stadium or at least a space that has some significance, even if the whole mythology is made up. Here: the room was a giant black box with a wheeled-on set. This is the same room, we later learned, where Emeril tapes “Emeril Live!” and (gag!) Rachel Ray shoots her show.

There are two sets of seats for audience members. The VIP seats, where we weren’t sitting, and the not VIP seats where we were sitting. These faced the Iron Chef directly; the Challenger’s side faced no audience.

To my right they pushed on Alton Brown’s set piece: the panel with computers where he does his color commentary during the show. And then out came Alton Brown, looking just like he does on TV only a tiny bit sweatier. What follows is a glowing paragraph in praise of Alton Brown.

Alton Brown is a genius. Or, to rephrase: he’s a genius at what he does. He’s a brilliant television personality. Whenever they shot a segment with him, he told them to turn off the teleprompters: he didn’t need them. And then he’d say something funny to make the director laugh or the crew laugh and each time he was a consummate professional–never fudging a word, always crisp and clear and smart. And then there’s the fact that for the entire one hour battle that ensues he speaks the ENTIRE time. It’s truly remarkable. The Iron Chefs are talented men and women, but for my money the show wouldn’t be watchable without Alton’s quick wit and intelligent observations of what’s going on. He’s the glue that holds Iron Chef America together.

[However, his earring is awful. Yes he has an earring. So does that useless sidekick Kevin. They both have the same earring. Are they in a cult? Or did they go through a joint midlife crisis?]

Alton aside, the experience of watching Iron Chef live is a bit like the experience of a child who believes with all his heart in tooth fairies catching his mother put money under the pillow. The whole thing’s a sham!

No, it really is. I’m sorry. When we sat down, both chefs had pots already boiling: sure it’s probably chicken stock or other kitchen essentials, but there was something very predetermined about what was going on. When they revealed the secret ingredient–ooh! ahh!–the chefs looked like they were being read the serial number from the side of a library book. There wasn’t a nerve in the air. And every action we observed felt the opposite of spontaneous. These people KNOW or at least have a very good idea of what the secret ingredient is going to be. And with all the stops and starts and editing and lack of music, a live performance of Iron Chef America is as tense as watching two 90 year olds play a game of hopscotch.

However, with that said, there is something wonderful about observing a brilliant chef in action. And in this case the Iron Chef was a pleasure to watch. The assistants too. Watching them buzz around the kitchen, grilling, sauteing, setting things on fire: it’s quite entertaining. That hour goes by very fast.

At the end, they have the five plates they’re required to finish by the time the buzzer sounds. Then they have an opportunity to plate the plates for the judging. Here’s where I was confused: the Iron Chef went first. Didn’t the Challenger’s food get cold? It takes 45 minutes to get through the judging. Doesn’t that put the Challenger at a huge disadvantage? Especially with foods that need to be served right away?

I don’t have an answer. I actually couldn’t stay for the Challenger’s judging, I was late for class. [My agent informed me who won over e-mail.]

The best part, though, came during the Iron Chef’s judging. Without revealing anything, the judges were ambivalent about a few dishes and then they raved over one particular dish. As they raved, one of the Iron Chef’s assistants came out to the audience with a plate of this particular dish. When it passed my way, I lifted a sample of this expertly prepared secret ingredient and placed it in my mouth. It was truly divine: a taste memory I’ll never forget. I can’t tell you more ’til the episode airs.

And that’s essentially what the Iron Chef taping experience is like. Oh, but there are smells too. I forgot to mention that: the smells that waft over you as you watch are really wonderful. If Smellovision is ever invented, Iron Chef America will be the show to watch. In the meantime, I can’t tell you anymore. I’m sorry. Unless you send me $1 million and a picture of you in a Speedo. Then I might consider. Otherwise, in the words of my uncle: Allez cuisine!

Categories: Essays

  • http://www.joeyinisrael.com Joseph

    Couldn’t skip class to see the whole thing? And Rachel Ray rocks!

  • http://mylittlekitchen.blogspot.com Cathy

    When does it air? Or to put it more precisely, when do we get to hear the rest of the story?

  • mizburd

    Thanks for a great account of your experience. Hard to believe Rachael Ray, Emeril, and Iron Chef are all taped in the same room. The sets look so different. In any case, your experience sounded wonderful, and we’re anxiously waiting to learn when it airs.

  • http://www.foodite.com Gerald

    That’s awesome. I saw Emeril being taped in that studio and it was just like watching the show, they didn’t do any extra takes or anything, I guess that’s why it’s called Emeril Live. I understand what you mean by a big rolling set though. The weird thing I noticed was that all the cameramen walked the cameras right up to people’s faces and egged them to grunt and yell BAM and Gaahlic. Needless to say, it was creepy.

  • http://magiccookie.blogspot.com/ CM

    I read in a newspaper article (NYT?) about Iron Chef America that the chefs are told ahead of time that the secret ingredient will be one of two things, so they have time to prepare for both.

    ICA isn’t bad, but the supposed nephew always makes me roll my eyes. He’s no chairman Kaga.

  • http://somethinktochewon.blogspot.com/ Harlan

    What I’d heard from a knowlegable friend is that they ask the challenger for some ideas for possible secret ingredients, then, yes, the chefs are told it’ll be one of two things.

    There was an ad on the Food Network yesterday for a “behind the scenes” show to be aired I think this Sunday. I wonder if any of these secrets will be revealed there…? Doubt it.

  • http://www.foodienet.com coglethorpe

    That is so cool. Do they owe the old Battlestar Galactica show a million for stealing their logo? :-)

  • monica Jo Tomaszewski

    Oh, I am so glad that Alton comes off normal in public…my husband thinks that I am his long lost sister. While I am a real scientist, I spend more time cooking and making goofy videos on my mac (one of the reasons why I like this site so much). I think that he probably is so good as a commentator because he used to work behind the camera, so he has a grasp of what a director/crew is looking for.

  • http://blog.foodienyc.com joe

    very jealous! sounds like a good experience. in watching each show, it is very obvious that it is entirely planned out. the assistants don’t talk to the chef – they already know what they doing.

    iron chef proper gave chefs a list of a few secret ingredients that they could face in advance. i am sure the chefs prepared for each option. i just hope IC america doesnt actually tell the single ingredient straight out – definitely takes away from the magic.

  • http://andreayaya.typepad.com/rookie_cookery/ Andrea

    I am so jealous you got to see Alton (genuflect) in person. Great story about your experience, as usual!

    Now TAG–I am inviting you to participate in the “Common Cold Cure” meme! I am sure you can come up with something brilliantly entertaining on that subject!

  • Allison

    I just wanted to let you know that last night, in honor of Iron Chef America Battle Pork (which I just watched on TiVo), I made roasted pork chops with your (or rather The River Cafe’s) Orecchiette with Pancetta and Broccoli.

    It was scrumptious. Pork-o-licious.

    Congratulations for seeing the action in person.

  • Dave Carver

    It’s common knowledge that in advance of taping, the chefs are given two secret ingredients, knowing that only one will be chosen in competition.

  • http://www.technocutie.com Emily Jean

    Sounds like a fun day!

    Did you see that Rachael Ray has a new MAGAZINE out? I almost screamed out loud in the middle of Barnes and Noble.

  • Liz

    Why the Rachel Ray-hating? You’re just jealous you can’t talk that fast.

  • http://www.fromourkitchen.blogspot.com From Our Kitchen

    I’m so jealous! Alton Brown is my hero, I’d love to be in the same room with him!

  • http://paulfrankenstein.org/ Frankenstein

    If I could talk as fast as Rachel Ray, I’d be worried.

  • Jonathan

    I thought the iron chef was Sakai! I got so rocked.

  • http://www.deependdining.com Eddie Lin

    Adam,

    Your next task is to become one of the Iron Chef America judges… yum, yum.

  • Michael P

    The show would be great without the fat guy judge, If he ever walked into the restaurant I work at I would probably just tempura fry some bacon, and he would claim greatness!!

  • http://undelicious.blogspot.com/ Jeff

    Discovering that the Iron Chefs have a good idea of what the secret ingredient is before the show starts is like discovering that there is no Santa Claus. Some kids figure it out quick and it takes longer for others. As you watch, certain things just don’t add up. The assistants know exactly what to do without even talking to the Iron Chefs. You never see them get togther in a huddle and discuss a plan of attack. They have already scripted exactly what needs to be done. Look at the episode with Wylie Dufresne. He knew exactly what types of chemicals and gadgets he needed to bring to convert fish into noodles. You also could tell by the types of other ingredients that are available to the Chefs that they had to have an idea of the secret ingredient. I guess I always thought that the producers of the show just told them the type of ingredient without being too specific. Something along the lines of saying “the secret ingredient is a delicate flaky white fish” so they could figure out what to do.

    As a side note, I am going to be in NYC for 5 days starting tomorrow and I am using many of your posts for ideas of where to eat. Much more entertaining and cheaper than buying some Fodor’s guide.

  • http://hereandthere123.blogspot.com Deb

    Adam,

    You are the coolest! Thanks so much for sharing your experience in such a descriptive way. Wish the ingredient was fennel — I could use some new recipes for it. Glad I read this today, it kept me laughing during an afternoon of sad news.

    Best,

    Deb

  • http://musicalchef.blogspot.com musicalchef

    What an interesting commentary! It sounds like a wonderful experience. Maybe you can post more about it once the battle airs.

  • http://thepearlonion.blogspot.com/ Kristin

    Thank you for sharing this experience with us! I am quite jealous that you got to watch the chefs in action like that. Hopefully you were able to learn something about their technique, but if not, I guess there is always the airing that will show you what you missed!

  • http://monkeyseemonkeychew.blogspot.com MonkeyBites

    Please accept this meme challenge.

    The topic? “10 interesting things you didn’t know about me”

    Give it a whack if you get a chance.

  • g_wizz

    I was lucky enough to attend a discussion group by Alton a year ago–a private, reservations only event following a public book signing. While we, the ‘the select few’, were waiting, we could see the seemingly endless line of people waiting to have their books signed. He treated every single fan as if they’d been the first in line and he’d been there hours! Then he came in and treated us to an exhuberant, fun and informative class.

    I aree, he’s brilliant. In person he’s smart, funny, quick-witted, professional and utterly charming (and even cuter than he is on TV.) There’s no way he could use cue-cards, they’d definitely cramp his style.

    And he’s definitely the only reason ICA is still on the air.

    He didn’t have the earring then. Ugh! Alton, ditch the earring!

  • winda

    you don’t think Alton and Kevin are an item, do you???? (sorry, I just saw Brokeback Mountain last night…)

  • wincey

    Cool story! I’d figured out that the “secret” ingredient is not secret to anyone but the studio audience, if them, but a million bucks? Anyone who watches the ads knows ahead of time what the ingredient is; my Tivo tells who the challengers are gonna be; and Entertainment Tonight told us that the horrifying matchup of Batali and Ray v. Flay and DeLaurentis is going to be Battle Cranberry. Does ET owe them a million bucks now?

    Another question: I’ve never seen the challenger choose the opponent. The TV tells me that the Chairman does the choosing. So what up with that? Is this a new thing?

    On the other hand, I’m all for Alton Brown in an earring. He’s the reason I watch the show to begin with, and I generally like his accessories. Anyway, I’m willing to give it a chance.

  • http://lick-the-spoon.blogspot.com chan

    so jealous. i love that show but have always known they must have SOME help… hell it takes me almost an hour just to make spaghetti with meat sauce..

    and cheers on the rachel ray hating… good lord that woman makes me cringe everytime the word yum-o come out of her mouth. ugh. and EVOO… what is that? just say olive oil for christ’s sake… can’s stand that show.

    chan

  • icfan

    thanks for sharing your experience. its obvious you’re not an actual fan, but its all good. a few things, though, mainly to your commenters:

    1. I’m fairly sure the chefs are given five possibilities for the secret ingredient before the battle, not two. I’ve read that countless times on the iron chef board.

    2. the “supposed nephew” really IS the nephew of the actor who played chairman kaga. a simple trip to imdb.com will confirm that one.

    3. the reason they already have water boiling before the ingredient is revealed is so they can get to the cooking right away. it was the exact same way on the original iron chef. right before kaga says “allez cuisine!” they’re standing right in front of two boiling pots of water…or did you think that was a fog machine too? no.

    take care.

  • http://drvino.blogspot.com Dr. Vino

    Um, I guess the Chicago Sun-Times owes somebody a million dollars:

    Chefs Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand of Tru and Homaro

    Cantu of moto were in New York over the past two weeks

    taping episodes for the show’s third season, which

    begins Feb. 26.

    Team Tru, consisting of Tramonto, Gand and executive

    sous chef Stuart Davis, battled Iron Chef Mario

    Batali, the robust, pony-tailed Italian chef from New

    York, in a fennel-themed contest. Cantu was up against

    Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, the stoic Japanese chef

    of Nobu fame, and beets.

  • http://www.cartsnob.com Justin H.

    Why? The Chicago Sun-Times didn’t sign the NDA.

  • Mel

    I interviewed the challenger from the Monday taping (I don’t know if they taped more than one) a couple days after he taped, and while he wouldn’t tell me if he won or not, I get the feeling he didn’t. It’s for a piece that publishes in April in a magazine, but since the show could air as late as May … any chance you could e-mail me and tell me? I wouldn’t publish, I just want to know for myself ;-) The challenger was a Southern cook from North Carolina, and the Chef was Cat Cora. I can tell you the guy’s name and what restaurant he works for if you e-mail me, too.

  • WittyOne

    I think icfan is truly confused. I know I am supremely jealous of your trip to the taping of that ICA!

    1. On the original IC, the chefs were given a list of five possible ingredients, from which one is selected. ICA provides two.

    2. Mark Dacascos (who plays the Chairman’s nephew) is not related to Takeshi Kaga (who played the Chairman). If that is still listed at IMDB, I’d be surprised, as the inaccuracy was pointed out to them quite some time ago.

    3. If you believe that the original IC was done all in one take, rather than performed for television the same wasy ICA is…well, I’ve got some swampland for sale that would probably interest you. The reason all those pots were bubbling away on the original IC and the reason things are already going on ICA is quite simple: watching a pot until it gets to a boil is not very good television, and tapings would take that much longer if absolutely nothing was ready. There’s a lot of setup that goes into production of these shows.

  • fatboy44

    Think Alton and Kevin are an item!!! They are working on their new show. ‘BROKE BACK KITCHEN STOVE’. To be aired on the Disney Channel costarring Rachel Ray and Martha Stewart.

  • Shannon

    When will Homaro Cantu be on Iron Chef America? The Schedule on foodnetwork.com includes Tramanto and Gand, but doesn’t mention Cantu.

    Thanks

  • Sarah-Jane

    I live down under but accidently aquainted myself with Rachel Ray when I saw some of her poxy show on the Food Network. Let me just say – I want to kill her with fire.

    p.s. I hope Iron Chef US takes off enough for a network here to contemplate Iron Chef Australia! That’d be a hit. And at least then the Aussie nature of being total USA followers would have an advantage.

  • Billie

    I saw a taping as well and though Alton is great, he’s obviously being fed information and being told what to talk about next through an earpiece. I still give him a ton of credit but don’t think that he’s making it all up on the fly.

  • Kathy R

    I’ve seen Alton “speak” at a book fair in Seattle, where he took questions and cruised all through the audience for about an hour. He was incredibly entertaining and hilarious. He can speak off the cuff with the best, and I doubt he is being told what to say through an earpiece. After witnessing the real thing, the man is just brilliant and can think on his feet better than most people. What comes across is that he’s a total perfectionist.

  • Emily Greene

    I really enjoyed ready your article. You are funny : )

  • Johanna

    Sounds awesome — I’m jealous! How did you get the invite?

    Here’s an article that might help explain some of the things you saw…http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11500312/

  • Felix

    So when is Food Network going to realize your true potential and make you an actual judge rather than a Next [schmop schmef] Iron Chef judge. You would be great as a judge on it!

  • http://www.rookie-cookie.blogspot.com Whit. Ing.

    You have made my life complete.

    I can’t thank you enough for the details of your experience at “Iron Chef America”. That is my most favorite show on television. And I am really glad Alton is as great as he appears on TV. I love that man, even if he does have an earring.

    And yes, Rachael Ray bugs- bugs real bad.

  • Paige

    wow, i really wanted tickets to iron chef america and it really sucks that they’re invite only :( oh well, but that was so detailed and so amazing, I would’ve loved to be there! :)

  • Emily

    That was an AMAZING recap. :D

  • Marcia

    How can you get tickets to attend an Iron Chef taping????

  • Marcia

    How can you get tickets to attend an Iron Chef taping????

  • Marcia

    How can you get tickets to attend an Iron Chef taping????

  • Alex

    The Iron Chef and the challenger are given 1 days notice that the secret ingredient will be one of two things.

    So if the taping is on a Saturday, on Friday the chefs will be told it will either be tuna or salmon.

    Its all gotten so fake.

  • Alex

    The Iron Chef and the challenger are given 1 days notice that the secret ingredient will be one of two things.

    So if the taping is on a Saturday, on Friday the chefs will be told it will either be tuna or salmon.

    Its all gotten so fake.

  • Ben

    You make it seem like the whole show is farce. I was told by a chef that actually competed on the show that they are told a few “secret” ingredients ahead of time. They don’t know which, obviously, will be picked, but they have to prepare five dished for EACH of the ingredients. So, when they arrive, they have ten to fifteen dishes in mind. Then, when the actual ingredient is presented they have their menu. NO WAY could anyone think up and prepare five dishes in one hour with the ingredient being presented at one hour and fifty nine seconds.

  • Anonymous

    Why gag at Rachel Ray? Meow!