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…