‘Iron Chef’ isn’t quite as challenging as it looks

/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Wondering about how a certain reality show pulled something off? Have a question about a certain contestant?

Whether it's "Survivor," "American Idol," "The Apprentice," "Real World" or another show, send in your questions. Andy Dehnart, msnbc.com's Television Editor and creator of Reality Blurred, will try to answer them.

Q: On The Food Network program "Iron Chef America," does the Iron Chef know in advance that he/she is going to be selected by the challenger, and do they know what the secret ingredient will be before it is revealed to the audience?— Janine, Houston

A: The chefs aren't completely surprised by the secret ingredient because they have been given a few possible options beforehand.

And on the day of the challenge, they can probably figure out which ingredient it is based upon which shopping list has been purchased for them.

The matchups are also planned in advance, with challengers choosing their opponents weeks earlier. All of that makes it possible for producers to order the right ingredients that the chefs will use to prepare their dishes with the secret ingredient, but it also makes the show somewhat less challenging than it comes off on TV.

Both of these facts were confirmed in a fascinating behind-the-scenes piece in The Journal News' Rockland Magazine by Peter Kelly, who defeated Bobby Flay during an episode of "Iron Chef America." He says he chose Bobby Flay in part because "beating him would be a big deal" and that in Kitchen Stadium, the other Iron Chefs are "actually silhouetted stand-ins," not the real chefs.

As to the secret ingredient, he says producers gave him "three possibilities: swordfish, pork or cowboy steak. So I come up with three separate ingredient lists — only one of which they'll actually purchase for the battle." Kelly also revealed that they actually knew the secret ingredient before taping on the episode began because they could see which ingredients had been purchased for them.

But as is clear from watching the show, cooking that much that fast offers plenty of pressure and drama.

Q: Regarding "The Amazing Race," I've wondered how the teams already have the tourist visas in their passports for some of those countries that require them ahead of time without already knowing where they are going. If the production team gets the visas ahead of the start of the race, then couldn't the contestants just look in their passports and see what stamps are in there and then know where they are going on the race? Then from where they are at in the world, they can kind of guess where they are going next and do some advance research at their hotel before they even open the departure clues, yes?— D. Tucker, Los Angeles

A: Not exactly. Visas are obtained prior to the start of the race, but the producers get visas for many countries beyond just those nations that the teams will actually visit. Contestants may sign 20 visa applications but only actually go to 10 countries.

Perhaps most significantly, some countries don't require visas to be obtained in advance, while others don't require them at all for brief tourist stays.

While you may be right that smart teams would focus their research during the race to some degree, they also have extremely limited time to do so. On the ground, they're usually focused on their most immediate next destination. During flights, when teams actually know where they're going, they can research locations to the best of their ability and try to get a handle on the local language from other passengers.

Pit stops offer perhaps the best occasion to research possible destinations, but are only 12 hours — or, in a few cases, 36 hours — which includes time for long interviews with producers about the previous leg of the race, never mind necessary things such as doing laundry, eating and sleeping.

So if you're in Italy and know you have visas for half a dozen countries that are within, say, a 12-hour flight, which ones do you choose to research? And what about those that may not require visas? And what if the producers decide to take you halfway around the world next? In other words, it might almost be counterproductive in many cases to try to predict where you're going.

Host Phil Keoghan offered further explanation about the visa situation in an interview with USA TODAY, during which he noted that the show doesn't necessarily give teams their visas before entering the country. "Anybody who's selected sends a passport in, and we get visas," he said. "But we make it confusing. They get extra visas for countries they're not going to. Even if they get a visa for China, they don't know where in China they're going. And some visas are not necessarily given right away. Even the crews (accompanying contestants) don't know where they're going."

Q: What was James' excuse for not playing one of his two immunity idols on "Survivor: China"? That has to be one of the worst decisions on a reality show ever!— Anonymous, Wilsonville, Ore.

A: It was indeed amazing that someone who had the ability to remain immune all the way to the final four did not opt to protect himself. But the reason comes down to the social game, and that's what makes "Survivor" such a fascinating show.

Following his elimination, James explained that he, too, was shocked at his stupidity. "I have the two idols and I guess I should have played them. I am kind of disappointed in myself because I could have caught a feeling but I still didn't do it. You can't be angry with anybody because it's a game and they played their best hand and they did what they were supposed to do. I rolled the dice too many times and I just got caught up," he said during his final words at the end of the episode.

During the live reunion following the finale, he told host Jeff Probst that his decision basically came down to trust: He considered playing one of his not-so-hidden immunity idols, but had enough faith in his alliance that they would not vote him off. (That may have influenced his final vote; as a member of the jury, he was one of just two people to vote for Courtney, who was less of an obvious strategist than the other two finalists, Amanda and the winner, Todd.)

We don't know much more than that because James wasn't interviewed in detail by the media following his elimination. But that's because he was getting another shot at $1 million. Besides the $100,000 James won for being viewers' favorite contestant, he'll have a second chance at the show's prize, as he's one of the 10 "all-star" contestants returning for the new season "Survivor: Micronesia," which is subtitled "Fans vs. Favorites." That series taped while "Survivor: China" aired, and thus James was unavailable to explain his actions.

Andy Dehnart is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.