Pop Culture

Food gets its close-up on ‘Iron Chef America’

Another battle is under way on “Iron Chef America,” due to begin its third season Feb. 26 (Food Network, Sundays at 9 p.m. ET), and challenger Homaro Cantu has already snapped to work with his sous chefs, chopping up the secret ingredient as the one-hour clock dwindles away.

Chefs often bring their favorite gadgets to Kitchen Stadium, which in reality is a windowless, surprisingly compact studio in the Food Network’s Manhattan studios, located in the hulking Chelsea Market building.

But Cantu, of Chicago’s Moto restaurant, has brought what resembles a high-school chemistry lab. Cantu has gained a certain notoriety for melding haute cuisine, high-tech wizardry and Dadaist design, and his best toys are on display — including a Class IV laser that sears edibles at a blistering 2,800 degrees F, and an ink-jet printer that prints photographs on soy-based edible paper. Both will get a workout before the day is done. Cantu fires up the laser to add a creme brulée accent ... to edible packing material.

“It's FDA approved and static-free, and you can flavor it to taste just like about anything,” he later explains.

From a nearby riser, host Alton Brown squints for a better look at Cantu’s kitchen lab.

“He’s got the largest tank of liquid nitrogen we’ve seen in a while,” Brown quips. “It’s going to be hard for me to see past the leftover props from ‘Real Genius’.”

Across the Stadium, Cantu's competitor, Masaharu Morimoto — the only Iron Chef to hold the title in both Japan and America — directs his helpers in a frenzy of chopping herbs and pureeing vegetables as he deftly cuts pieces of Wagyu beef.

Morimoto has some modern implements of his own, though, including a much smaller dose of liquid nitrogen, which will be used to insta-freeze whipped cream. But more curious is his tinkering with cloth and some bright-red juices, which he uses to tie-dye placemats for the judges’ table.

“This isn’t a culinary competition anymore, it’s a craft fair,” says Brown as he shakes his head at what he’ll later call “Iron Chef America's” most frenzied battle yet.

Standing in the center of it all, Brown is the Food Network's resident nutty professor and the show's mile-a-minute narrative voice. While the original Japanese “Iron Chef” utilized a panel of studious commentators, the American incarnation relies on Brown to riff nonstop with minimal help. Standing in front of a bank of monitors, he relies on dense piles of research, an outline of possible menus, a detailed inventory of the chefs' pantries and some blindingly fast Google skills.

Brown's stream-of-consciousness commentary is a bit like Home Ec on speed. For food geeks, even for casual cooks, it is intoxicating.

Focus on the foodOn the surface, the domestic incarnation of “Iron Chef” resembles a mere cooking show the way “American Idol” resembles a high-school talent contest.

Translating it from the Japanese original, which was first launched by FujiTV in 1993, has been a highwire act. But the show clearly has found its groove and solidified its culinary cred.

Ironically, it accomplished that by reining in some of the celebrity dazzle of its four marquee chefs — Morimoto, plus New York superstars Mario Batali and Bobby Flay, and newcomer Cat Cora.

Courtesy of Food Network
Masaharu Morimoto from Iron Chef America.

Instead, the food is allowed to take center stage. Though the Japanese version's kitschier moments — cooks catching live octopi, or chef Hiroyuki Sakai's infamous trout ice cream — made for great television, the focus was more on spectacle. It would be a stretch to say “Iron Chef America” is choosing substance over style, but the belligerent approach been replaced by a tone of friendly competition.

“The original was more like a cooking battle,” notes Morimoto. “The American version is a little bit more casual.”

Showboating aside, each “Iron Chef America” episode now offers valuable lessons from the kitchen. It may have become Food Network's most serious-minded show, in part because it has transformed from mere spectacle to include a healthy dose of how-to.

“There was the drama, the tension, the humor and the campiness of it, but people were actually taking away food information,” says Bruce Seidel, the Food Network's vice president for program planning. “We were like, ‘How can we build on that?’”

Striking a balanceOne strategy has been to simplify the . When the series kicked off in 2004, Flay and chef Rick Bayless faced off over a side of buffalo. Now you're more likely to see simpler offerings such as potatoes or frozen peas, though kitchen staples are interspersed with thematic battles that play to both chefs' strengths, as when Mario Batali and Todd English went mano a mano over pizza dough.

More care is also spent on pairing challengers, with Seidel and his counterparts at Triage Entertainment, which produces “Iron Chef,” striking a balance between high-profile chefs, like Cantu, and regional talents. This season's contenders include both A-listers like Rick Tramonto of Chicago's Tru and rising stars like New Orleans' John Besh or David Bull of the Driskill Grill in Austin, Texas. Oh, and Ralph Pagano, runner-up on last summer's Fox hit “Hell's Kitchen,” who will face off with Flay.

While chefs on the original “Iron Chef” prided themselves on bizarre experimentation, TV's unblinking eye pushes U.S. contenders to stick to their strengths. “I've had better food on that show than I've had in some of those chefs' restaurants,” says regular judge and cookbook author Melissa Clark.

There are misfires, as when pastry chef Michael Laiskonis faced Batali in a puzzling sweet-vs.-savory battle. But when it works, it's dazzling television, as with last season's appearance by Wylie Dufresne of New York's WD-50. Dufresne, known for avant-garde practices, stunned audiences when he broke out so-called to create an unholy meat-fish hybrid.

“That was probably one of the weirdest things we have seen here,” says Kevin Brauch, the show's floor reporter.

Food Network shifts focusIronically, “Iron Chef's” just-the-facts approach comes as Food Network is trying to shift away from cooking's slice-and-dice mechanics and attract a younger, broader audience. Kathleen Finch, senior vice president of programming, has said she wants more “young viewers and male viewers,” which translates to more screen time for foodie vixens like Rachael Ray and Giada DeLaurentiis. (Both will appear this season on “Iron Chef” as sous chefs to Batali and Flay. Of that politically charged episode, Seidel will say only to expect “some surprises along the way.”)

The new emphasis is on comfort (Paula Deen's cholesterol-be-damned “Home Cooking”) and travel (Ray's “$40 a Day”), with fewer how-to lectures from chefs and more TV-friendly personalities. Fans of longtime on-air cook Sara Moulton were dismayed, for instance, when her contract was not renewed.

“Iron Chef” has largely stayed its course amid the changes, with one big exception: the addition of Cora, a telegenic Greek-American cook who apprenticed for two Michelin three-star chefs and held several West Coast kitchen jobs before the cameras called. 

The 37-year-old Jackson, Miss., native was meant to appeal to both male and female viewers. Reactions have been mixed. Though Cora has been praised for being the first female Iron Chef, some culinary types have sniffed at her credentials. Unlike the other Iron Chefs, who all managed large kitchens and received critical acclaim before their TV stints, Cora's on-screen debut came without having run a major restaurant kitchen.

Seidel is quick to defend her. “Chefs have become celebrities and personalities in our country and our show is about personality as well,” he says. “She's a chef, but she didn’t bring a chef empire with her, and that’s what we liked about her.”

Level playing field?Whatever changes have come, “Iron Chef's” most crucial element remains unchanged: two chefs in the heat of battle for a by-the-clock, nonstop hour.

When the clock starts, it's 60 minutes of uninterrupted cooking — and barely controlled chaos. This particular day, Morimoto flails away at a pristine hunk of Atlantic salmon (not the secret ingredient) with two knives to create a picture-perfect tartare while Cantu freezes balloons with liquid nitrogen and mutters instructions to his assistants via radio headset.

Since Iron Chefs are more comfortable with the timed battle, producers strongly counsel challengers to practice in advance. Some don't listen, like chef Roberto Donna, of Washington's Galileo restaurant, who suffered a stinging defeat last March when he couldn't finish his dishes on time. (Donna will return for a rematch.)

Thus “Iron Chef” steams on, living with its contradictions: overloading viewers with information as it blinds them with dazzle, trying to avoid the perils of celebrity chefs even as it offers them a national platform to hype themselves.

No one knows it better than Alton Brown.

“Chefs come in with their publicists and their handlers,” he says, “and I'm kind of like, ‘Oh my God, what've we done? What've we spawned?’”

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