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CAT CORA
Food Network  /  AP file
Iron Chef Cat Cora puts the finishing touches on a dish.
By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com
updated 2/23/2006 7:09:30 AM ET 2006-02-23T12:09:30

As with any reality show, viewers speculate endlessly about “Iron Chef America's” mechanics.

When do chefs learn about the secret ingredients? Can they really cook such a huge menu in just one hour? How do the judges eat so fast?

Ingredients: The network has acknowledged that challengers receive a list of five potential secret ingredients , though by some accounts that list may be shorter, with perhaps three possibilities. Chefs are given the list of potential ingredients between a week and a month in advance, according to Bruce Seidel, vice president of program planning for the Food Network and the executive in charge of the show. Every effort is taken to prevent challengers from discovering the ingredient, Seidel says, though clues have occasionally been uncovered, as when a food distributor revealed to a challenger it had received inquiries about a certain ingredient. 

One reason for the multiple possibilities is that an ingredient will occasionally arrive unfit to cook, which at least once has prompted Food Network staffers to canvass the city for a replacement.

At the same time, challengers are encouraged to strategize based on the possible list and to stock their pantries as necessary. The standard on-set pantry includes more than 200 basics, but chefs are allowed to spend another $500 on extra ingredients, and can submit lists based on the type of food — poultry or seafood, for instance — they might have to cook.

“We do everything we can to make [the ingredient] a secret,” Seidel says. “But we also want to challenge them to make visual television.”

By the book: Food Network culinary staff are on hand to enforce a rule book based on the original Japanese show. Each chef gets $500, which must be used on a range of ingredients, not just one extravagant item such as truffles. The cash also can't be used to purchase a higher-quality version of the secret ingredient.

Chefs are allowed to bring special equipment not found in the show's Kitchen Stadium, but their pantries are checked to ensure they haven't snuck in any last-minute food items. “Don’t think they haven’t tried before,” says Seidel.

Take two: The “reveal” of the secret ingredient isn't quite as much of a scramble as it looks. As with many elements of the show, it's taped until the right level of drama is caught on camera. During one taping, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto and challenger Homaro Cantu are given several chances to repeat their choreographed lunges toward the just-unveiled item until the right dramatic effect is nailed. “This time,” the stage manager genially tells Cantu, “act like it's a secret.”

Much of each episode is left on the cutting-room floor. A single episode is just 35 minutes without commercials, pared down from 10 hours of footage per battle.

On the clock: One unquestionably legitimate aspect of “Iron Chef America” is the 60-minute battle, taped in real time, with host Alton Brown recording “bumpers” where the commercial breaks will go. The hour blazes by fast, and I mean fast. But some kitchen basics are already in place before the clock begins. Simmering stock pots are already over the flame.

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Though both sides must complete a single version of each item on their menus before the buzzer, they receive extra time to plate their creations for the three judges and Kitchen Stadium “chairman” Mark Dacascos. That's understandable, since the goal is to serve each dish hot (or cold, if need be) and fresh out of the kitchen.

What's for dinner? The judging session actually unfolds over a painstaking 90 minutes, with each chef getting 45 minutes to present his or her dishes. It sounds like a lot of time until you consider how long it would take you to eat (much less evaluate) an 11-course tasting menu. Judges are free to eat their entire portion, but most leave room for the next course — and hungry Food Network staff are happy to help with leftovers off-camera.

The judges' verdict is ready soon after they finish tasting and tally up their scores, not much longer than the commercial break viewers see when watching at home.

No time to rest: The third season of “Iron Chef America” features 24 episodes, all taped over a 20-day period in January. With two episodes taped per day, there's not much time for winners or losers to hang out. An army of Food Network culinary staffers shuttles food and dirty dishes on and off set, and scrubs down countertops while the judges taste so that the studio will be ready for the next battle.

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