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!