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The new "Iron Chef America" series follows on the heels of last April's "Iron Chef America: Battle of the Masters." That five-part miniseries featured top American chefs (Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali and Bobby Flay) against chefs from the original series in Japan. "Iron Chef Japan" has been in reruns for years, but is still a strong ratings performer for the Food Network.

"Iron Chef America: Battle of the Masters" turned out to be a ratings powerhouse, too, convincing the Food Network to go ahead and produce the 10-episode "Iron Chef America" series, which debuted this January.

The new show's format is the same as the original: Two chefs duel each other, having one hour to produce five dishes featuring a "mystery" ingredient that is only revealed to the chefs at the beginning of the show. (As it turns out, the chefs know the "mystery" ingredient will be chosen from a list of just two ingredients. So they are ready to go, no matter which of the two items is the actual choice.)

The finished dishes are presented to a panel of celebrity judges, who rate them and declare the winner. The chefs are big stars; some of the "celebrities" (James Michael Tyler, who played "Gunther" on Friends; Vincent Pastore, "Big Pussy" from the Sopranos) are lower-wattage.

Mario Batali
But at least the chefs and celebs are real people. Iron Chef America is presided over by "The Chairman." Described as "martial artist and actor" Mark Dacascos, he seems a little uneasy with his role. He's not the show's host-Food Network personality Alton Brown is. Dacascos is pretending to be someone; everyone else is for real. Why they didn't just have an actual person do this job is beyond us, since it makes parts of the show seem a little off-kilter. But there's no denying the intensity of the cooking action, in which the chefs juggle multiple preparations against an unforgiving time frame.

So who's winning these battles? Let's just say that, to date, there's a high correlation between having your own cooking show elsewhere on the Food Network and being judged the winner of an Iron Chef battle. Who knew?

But enough about the Iron Chefs. Who will be the next great American chef?

That's what the new PBS series "Cooking Under Fire" intends to find out. This 12-episode show, set to premiere on April 27, touts itself as a national cooking competition that brings together culinary school grads, everyday gourmands, short-order cooks and seasoned restaurant talent. Anyone can win.

The show will travel cross-country, with each leg of the tour eliminating a contestant. How will they be judged? A series of challenges will test culinary acumen, business skills, artistic sensibility, purchasing prowess and endurance. Hey, at least this show knows enough to address the business side of the chef's job.

Who'll do the judging? Todd English, Ming Tsai, Michael Ruhlman (author of Making of a Chef and Soul of a Chef), plus guest chefs from each competition city. Those cities include Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami and New York City, with the winner being announced during the NYC finale. The triumphant contestant wins a chef position at one of Todd English's restaurants in Manhattan. Nice, but small potatoes next to the prize in Gordon Ramsay's Fox series, "Hell's Kitchen," which awards the winner a restaurant valued at $2 million (see the Feb. 2005 issue of Restaurant Hospitality for more details on the Ramsay show).

English and Tsai say they see their show at the antidote to Rocco DiSpirito's NBC prime time reality fiasco, "The Restaurant."

"A lot of chefs were a little bit miffed because it really portrayed the restaurant business as a negative place to be, which it's not," Tsai told the Associated Press. "I mean the buzz that we get as chefs is like the sports high when you run a marathon."

"It was an attack on our business in a way that I think...took it down the wrong path," English chimed in. "For some reason, they thought that it would be good TV. I think most people saw through it, and that's why it's not on anymore."

Hey, if "The Restaurant" is the standard to which these shows are going to compare themselves, they can't lose. Expect both of them to stir up plenty of interest in high-end full-service restaurants among both your potential customers and your job applicants.

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