Long before the television cavalcade of culinary competition shows such as “Master Chef,” “Chopped,” “Hell’s Kitchen,” “The Great British Bake Off” and so many others, there was “Iron Chef.”
The gladiatorial-style battle series took place in an arena called Kitchen Stadium and saw chefs duking it out in head-to-head matches against the designated “Iron Chefs” with their recipes centered around a secret ingredient.
The original Japanese show catalyzed several spin-offs, starting with a poorly rated American version in 2001 called “Iron Chef USA.” A second attempt, “Iron Chef America,” started out as a miniseries in 2004 and was titled “Iron Chef America: Battle of the Masters” before going on to air for 205 episodes across 13 seasons. More spin-offs emerged within that time, including “The Next Iron Chef” (2007-2012), “Iron Chef Gauntlet” (2017-2018) and “Iron Chef Showdown” (2017).
Unlike the iron wielded by its chefs and carried across its various titles, the franchise is one that will seemingly never rust. With Netflix reviving “Iron Chef” once again on June 15 with “Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend,” NextShark spoke with the show’s Chairman Mark Dacascos, co-host Kristen Kish and new Iron Chef Ming Tsai about the legacy of “Iron Chef” and what it means to be a part of this new era.
Japanese tradition has taken root in American, Netflix soil
Few actors get to play a role for over 13 seasons of a show in addition to its multiple spin-offs. Still, Dacascos has been the nimble Chairman across all of the American “Iron Chef” shows since 2004.
“It was very emotional to come back. It was an honor, and I’m extremely happy to be sitting with these two and our wonderful cast and crew,” Dacascos says.
But one thing is new for him: This time around, he isn’t seated at the judges’ table tasting the food.
“I am sad about that,” Dacascos jokes, “because I do get to watch it on the screen and the food looks incredible. I hear Alton and Kristen talking about it and the judges talking about it. I want to go down and sneak, you know, maybe I’ll do that next season.”
Old school, new school
For Kish, a Korean adoptee who grew up watching “Iron Chef,” “Iron Chef America” and Ming’s show “Simply Ming,” being a part of this new reboot was “incredibly humbling.”
“I grew up watching all of these people as a young cook coming up, and to be sitting in this position is just unreal to me,” she says.
Kish, who now runs Arlo Grey, her restaurant in Austin, Texas, started her epicurean education at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago. In 2012, she started working as chef de cuisine at legendary Boston chef Barbara Lynch’s Stir, a cookbook store and demonstration kitchen. Kish later went on to become chef de cuisine at Lynch’s Italian-French crown jewel, Menton, from 2013 to 2014. She describes Kitchen Stadium as “culinary school on hyperactive speed.”
“Honestly, to watch five Iron Chefs from five different cultural backgrounds, five different cooking styles and then we have all the eight challengers come in, the amount of stuff I learned was incredible. If you can’t go to culinary school, I’d highly recommend having my job,” says Kish.
With such intense action in Kitchen Stadium, she prefers having this role and the downtime it brings over battling it out, culinary style, like in her “Top Chef” days from 2012.
“When I got the call before anything was ever said, I said, ‘I’m not cooking.’ I said, ‘I cannot do it. My anxiety cannot handle it anymore. And I’m done. That envelope is sealed, signed and delivered in the ocean somewhere.’”
“What audiences may not be seeing is that there’s a lot of time where Alton and I are just talking about the most random things,” she shares. “We’re having live talks, therapy sessions, the whole thing and so having a friend, not just a colleague or a counterpart, is really nice because the cameras aren’t always on us. So we find time to get to know one another.”
The rules of the game
In every iteration of “Iron Chef,” the setup for a battle typically involves a challenger chef competing against the defending Iron Chef. With the help of a team of two sous chefs each, they prepare five dishes that highlight a designated secret ingredient within 60 minutes. One chef wins, one chef loses, end of the episode.
But in “Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend,” the amount of allotted time may be switched up. Not only do the chefs have a secret ingredient, but they also have an overall theme their dishes must follow. The biggest change is that the challenging chef with the highest score in the season is given an opportunity to come back, but they’ll have to face off against all five Iron Chefs for a swanky gold knife and the coveted title of Iron Legend.
When asked to design their own “Iron Chef” challenge, Chefs Tsai and Kish propose some unique scenarios.
“I would love to see some really short challenges like 5-minute and 10-minute challenges, it could be the egg challenge, it could be the celery challenge, something out of the box, you truly get five minutes with that ingredient and no time even to think about a dish because by the time you think you’ve already lost a minute,” Tsai says. “You literally have to cook with blinders on instinctually. I think that’d be cool.”
“I think it’d be entertaining to have to cook without sous chefs,” Kish adds. “There’s a lot that we need our teams for. You walk away feeling stronger, better and more educated in so many different ways when you have to just do it by yourself. You realize what you’re capable of. That’s a position that is terrifying but also sounds fun.”
Fun fact: A battle without sous chefs did occur on “Iron Chef America” when challenging chef John Fraser decided to cook without a team for “battle cauliflower,” prompting Iron Chef Michael Symon to do the same.
Meanwhile, Dacascos tells a brief story as his answer, saying, “I went trekking in the Himalayas, and I saw these Sherpas cooking these amazing meals on a little campfire. I would love to see our Iron Chefs cook on a log fire a campfire just with natural heat.”
He then looks over at Tsai and uses his Chairman voice to say, “Prepare yourself, Iron Chef Tsai,” to which Tsai quips back, “Why I always carry a lighter.”
With an open heart and empty stomach, kindness is the secret ingredient
Iron Chef Tsai, who opened his iconic restaurant Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Massachusetts, in 1998, bested Iron Chef Bobby Flay in “Battle Duck” on Season 1 of “Iron Chef America” before competing in Season 3 of “Next Iron Chef.” He says that he initially thought he’d “hung up his knives” and was “done with competitions.” But being asked to be an Iron Chef is “a literal dream,” he says, comparing it to pitching at Fenway against the Yankees.
“Then the icing on the cake for me was these other four chefs I get to be with,” Tsai says.“That’s one of the things that’s so cool about this Iron Chef for me, [it’s] that we truly are good friends. We really do have this mission as a group of Iron Chefs, which is to win, win, win and do it however we can.”
When asked which of his Iron Chef colleagues he’d like to face in battle, Tsai jokingly says, “None of them.”
“I wouldn’t want to go up against KK either,” he adds, referring to Kish by the nickname her former classmates gave her.
Born and raised in Dayton, Ohio, Tsai first learned to cook at his parent’s Chinese restaurant, Mandarin Kitchen. He then went to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu during the summers while attending Yale for mechanical engineering. He helped introduce audiences to Asian cooking with his 1998 Emmy Award-winning show “East Meets West,” which ran till 2003. Currently, he hosts the longest-running PBS cooking show “Simply Ming,” which is in its 18th season.
On the topic of Asian representation, Tsai opens up about what being an Iron Chef means to him during a time when COVID-19 has brought about a surge of anti-Asian hate and also decimated restaurants, including Blue Dragon, his own establishment.
“It’s such a humble position to be in to be able to represent all Asians, not just Chinese… To be able to be in front of the world, I mean, Netflix is the world… and to be literally at the exact same level as the other four Iron Chefs just raises the bar for all of us from Asia.”
He also reflects on how food can bring people together, no matter whether it’s from Kitchen Stadium or the world: “One of the best ways to show kindness is actually through a plate of food. When you actually are making a dish for, of course, your friends and family that you love, but for people that maybe don’t see eye to eye with you – there’s an opportunity with a plate of food because you’re giving a part of yourself every time you make a plate of food and that makes you a little bit vulnerable.”
“When you have the intention of making that plate of food say I really want you, to discuss what our differences are,” he continues. “That’s the first step to changing what’s going on. We just got to change one person, and maybe that person will change the next person. We have to crush these problems with kindness. That’s the only secret ingredient: kindness.”
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