Iron Chef America exposed?

Reader Matthew S. pointed out this Village Voice article called “Iron Chef Boyardee“, in which the writer, restaurant critic Robert Sietsema, details his experiences at a taping of Iron Chef America. The basic gist is that what you see on TV is not terribly reflective of how things actually work.

His next column will be titled, “Sun to Rise in East Tomorrow?”

Sietsema starts off on the wrong foot by claiming that the “chairman” in the U.S. episodes is an actor (true), while the “chairman” in the Japanese episodes was “the rich guy sponsoring the gladiatorial game show” (false, and easily disproven – the guy was an actor). But then he reveals several facts about ICA that should have been patently obvious to anyone who watched the show:

  • The chefs know the “secret” ingredient ahead of time. Food Network has acknowledged (on its behind-the-scenes show) that chefs are given a list of three ingredients that includes the secret one. I’m not a fan of the pretense, either, but let’s be realistic – for the chefs to come up with five complex dishes on the spot and then parcel out work to two sous-chefs doesn’t seem remotely realistic to me.
  • The challenger isn’t choosing the Iron Chef against whom he wishes to compete. Again, it’s a silly pretense, but it’s not a surprise, either.
  • The frenetic activity seen on the broadcast is a product of editing; the actual cooking on the show is far more methodical. Again, I’m not sure why this is news. If you’ve ever seen a real restaurant kitchen in action, you know no one’s running around like a maniac, because that’s a good way to screw up a dish, fall, or impale yourself on your chef’s knife.

Sietsema discusses one pretense that’s a real problem, which is that the dishes prepared in the hour of the contest are not the ones presented to the judges. I always wondered how they got around the issue of having one chef’s dishes wait around for a half-hour during the other chef’s tasting period, and the answer is that they don’t: Both sides prepare the dishes anew shortly before the tasting. That’s the one point Sietsema makes that does undermine the validity of the contest.

He also makes the very valid criticism that the “judging” is, at least when Jeffrey Steingarten’s not there, insipid. He mentions Ted Allen making two pointed criticisms during the taping, which floored me, because on the edited shows Allen is the biggest chef-apologist on the planet. The judges are charged with rating two sets of dishes against each other, so the onus is on them to identify the small differences that allow them to rate one set higher than the other, yet the commentary on the show (and apparently in the tapings) is almost uniformly positive. That’s an easier problem to solve, of course – find some judges who aren’t afraid to speak their minds and piss people off. I wonder where they might find someone like that…


  1. When you watch the show the chefs only plate one dish of each entree. Then go back and plate the rest. This may have been revealed in their “behind the ICA” show. They know the “secret” ingredient 15 minutes before.

    For me, most of the show is watching them work and seeing what ingredients they pair with teh secret ingredient; it certainly isn’t to see Ted Allen.

    If they were to improve one aspect it would be to get better judges.

  2. I’ve always taken ICA at face value, until one day I was going through the channels. I quickly went back, as something seemed oddly familiar. Sure enough, it was the chairman on some action movie on SpikeTV. He played the bad guy.

    As for harsher criticism, Top Chef says things like “awful”, “worst, and “terrible”. Of course, just how bad can these dishes be? Is this done for TV? Or are these adjectives relative to the standards of Tom C? Who knows. The next season of Top Chef has a contestant whose bio says he is a sous chef from New York. It later comes to light that he is the sous chef at Le Cirque (one of the stops on last season’s trip in New York).

  3. For a long time I have suspected each and every point that the Voice revealed.

    -Its pretty obvious that it would be impossible to have those three chefs show up and then have two go home.

    -There is no way given the 30 seconds of prep you see them do that these dishes could have been composed. Batali is a genius but he is not psychic. Of course given that they know ahead of time would it be too much to ask for Flay to use something other then blue corn, chipotle or cilantro oil?

    -How many times have we seen the chef prepare a single serving of an item and then magically have 5 for judging?

    -Its no secret that the judging barring Steingarten is generally awful. Read his books and it becomes obvious really quickly that the man knows his stuff.

    -One more gripe, the ingredients have become pretty damn tame of late.

    I added the Japanese channel to my programming so I could go back to watching the original Iron Chef. At least the ingredients on that show are crazy and the preparations unique. If I have to watch Bobby Flay get lauded for grilled meat and blue corn again I just might cancel cable outright.

    Oh and can someone tell me what Cat Cora is even doing on the show? Talk about the B Team. Have you noticed that the weakest opponents always draw her? The women is mediocre. I have zero interest in going to one of her restaurants. At least Messa grill at its peak was quite good. I feel like a good home chef could stand a chance against Cat Cora.

    Keith- If you have not experience Batali’s cooking, you should do so the next time you are in NYC. Babbo is the best, but you cant go wrong with Po or Lupa or Casa Mano. Del Posto is overpriced and Otto is a little light on Batali’s touch. Forget Iron Chef go see this guys work in person. Its so worth it.

  4. I remember discovering the original Iron Chef show in college one night while drinking. We developed more than 1 drinking game based on the show. We watched it purely for the unintentional comedy, not the food preparation secrets.

  5. One more thing- I feel a little betrayed by Alton Brown. While I have always had my suspicions, having them confirmed has somehow undermined my trust in him.

  6. PhillR,
    Which of Batali’s restaurants is the one which specializes in offal? Have you tried it? Any favorites?

  7. Patrick: I think you may thinking of another Chef. Otto is a wine bar/pizza/small plate restaruant. Lupa is a Roman Tratoria, Babbo is upscale/twisted Italian, Del Posto is very upscale/expensive somewhat family style Italian and Casa Mano is Spanish tappas. Casa Mano is only partially Batali, he is part owner and had influence on the menu but it is primarily a former chef from Babbo who is in charge.

    I have not been to Del Posto but it is possible they have do some interesting things with Offal there. I have read that tt does show in various places at Babbo thought not when I was there.

    Babbo is my favorite though I have only been once. For more affordable meals Lupa is also fantastic. Otto is great with a group of friends but the food can be inconsistent. This is NYC, if a guy like Batali makes a restaurant heavy on pizza then it had better be amazing. At best it is very good but on occasion it has come cold and unimpressive.

    The problem with Babbo is that if you want the pasta tasting meal then the whole table has to get it. Last time I was there we had a dissenter which made me very sad. Its really a strange form of torture. Ideally my fiancee could order the regular tasting menu and I could order the past and then I could try both but this is against the rules. Its cruel.

  8. PhillR,

    I thought I heard somewhere that one of his restaurants served cockscombs, and the rest of the menu was similar; a true foodie’s offering. I guess I hear wrong. My apologies.

  9. Is it possible you are thinking of that crazy Brit that looks like a serial killer?

  10. to his credit, though, I bet most of Sietsema’s audience who read his article were all blown away by his ‘revelations’ because more people are dumbasses who believe all sorts of bullshit they see on tv.

  11. “…crazy Brit that looks like a serial killer?”
    Fergus Henderson


    There’s a picture of Fergus. I tried to insert the photo with HTML, but no dice. Is there any way to do this?

  13. At least to me, the new Iron Chef’s have lost their luster compared to the Japanese version. The Japanese chefs as a whole and culturally had so much more respect for each other, and you could see that with the cooking and the judging. The new format basically allows any damn chef on the food network to become an Iron Chef. Lord help us if that lose that does the diners and drive in shows gets on there!

  14. Thats the guy.

    Lets try this:

  15. You really want to be a judge don’t you! How do we sign you up?

  16. Oh my gosh!! Wrestling’s not real!!! And there’s no Santa Claus either! The horror…. the horror….

  17. What is this about Santa Claus?

  18. I used to watch the Japanese version a lot on late-night TV in middle school and early high school, mostly for the ridiculous unintentional comedy, as noted above. I wish I had discovered it in college so I could have done the drinking games thing. I always like drinking games based on TV.

    I see the American one every so often with my Dad, who’s a big fan of the Food Network (and other cooking-related shows like Bourdain’s) and it seems to me to have captured none of the good parts of the Japanese show. Then again, I don’t really care about Mario Batali dealing with lentils or whatever.

    The one thing I have seen some of the chefs do is make weird ice creams as a nod to the original. Though nothing will beat squid ink or salmon roe ice cream for pure disgusting, I think.

  19. I used to work with Ted Allen on his show ‘Queer Eye’ and he is not at all like his nice guy image. Very aggressive man, very sarcastic and mocking towards people he sees as being beneath him, especially the inexperienced men being ‘made over’ and the young female fans who would come to the Queer Eye book signings. Obviously the editing on Iron Chef is simply because of his TV persona.

  20. Come On!! Are we really expecting that much from 1. A reality show and 2. A reality show that was based on a Japanese reality show? The original was the definition of over the top obnoxious corn! The show is fun to watch, and in the end the competition is pretty legit, all things considered. The only thing that bothers me is that every once in a while they need to let a fan be a judge on ICA. Despite the fact that this show was designed to be kitsch the food still has to be pretty dang amazing.

    As to the Japanese version having some out there ingredients. ITS JAPANESE!!!