"Iron Chef America," one of the most popular food shows in history, is part cooking show, part reality TV and part steel cage match. That irreverant mix has millions of viewers tuning in every week to see elite chefs throw down in Food Network's hallowed cooking ground: Kitchen Stadium.
"Nightline" was allowed behind the scenes to discover the secrets that make "Iron Chef" so palatable.
The premise of the show is fairly simple: start with the best chefs, the "Iron Chefs," then add a guest chef who challenges one of the regulars. What follows is a duel -- a race to make five dishes in just one hour.
The twist, and there is always a twist, is the secret ingredient, revealed at the start of each battle.
Sometimes it's a hearty protein, like fish or Kobe beef, and other times it's a vegetable, or even a root such as ginger. Regardless, the chefs must incorporate the theme ingredient into each dish, even the dessert -- which explains the corn and sea urchin custard and trout ice cream served during past challenges.
This degree of culinary competition is not an American invention. The original Kitchen Stadium was in Japan.
"This is, I think, more of an athletic event," said Alton Brown, "Iron Chef" master of ceremonies. "The original was more of a 'Godzilla' movie. You know, it had such strange pomp and circumstance. And the food was just sometimes plain revolting. I think the first I ever saw an original 'Iron Chef' episode was on a Japanese station in San Francisco, and I remember they had live eels. And they skinned the eels. This one guy nailed its head to a cutting board and skinned it while it was alive."
It takes an army of people and supplies to get it all just right. One hundred and twenty-seven crew members and 10 cameras dodge about in the stadium. There are thousands of feet of cable and 160 moving lights. Then there are the deluxe kitchens and the overstuffed pantries stocked with 800 pounds of food for each episode, everything from the basics to the bizarre.
The chefs also get $500 per episode to buy specialty groceries so rare they are impossible to get in the Kitchen Stadium pantry.
And just to make it all a little more fun, 150 pounds of dry ice is pumped through the studio all day long. The fog makes for dramatic moments but also hides some of the secrets.
At the beginning of the show, the chefs you see standing under the spotlights aren't actually all iron chefs. Two of them are stand-ins because the real contender is chosen ahead of time.
And what about the "chairman," who introduces the secret ingredient? According to legend, he's the nephew of the original chairman from the Japanese series and he insists that everyone call him "the chairman" -- all the time. But it turns out that he will answer to another name: Mark Dacascos. He's actually an actor and martial arts master.
Despite all the show biz flash, the competition and the desire to win are very real.
Cat Cora is the only female iron chef on "Iron Chef America." Cora, who stands 5 feet 2 inches tall, describes herself as small but mighty, and says during each show she feels like an athlete gearing up for battle.
"We joke around, we get ourselves pumped up … and we get ready to go and we come here to win," she said. "We don't play around. I mean, it's really serious."