July 25, 2008— -- "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."
Some of the rivalries are pretty intense. Once, Bobby Flay leaped triumphantly onto his cutting board at the end of a battle with Masaharu Morimoto (before Flay became an iron chef). Afterward, Morimoto said Flay was not a chef because he had disregarded the cleanliness of his cutting board.
The show is an hour long and the cameras never stop rolling -- not even when the Kitchen Stadium chefs have an accident.
"This season there's been a fair amount of blood. People have been cutting themselves, lopping off things," said Brown, who explained that the chefs are more likely to injure themselves because sous chefs tend to handle knives better.
"You know, [the chefs] become big on TV and they become sloppy with knife skills," Brown added. "It's like, 'Oops! I've cut the dickens out of myself.' You know, blood all over. ... Sous chefs are laughing."
The schedule can be grueling with back-to-back battles. The Food Network shoots 26 episodes in just three weeks.
Chef Michael Symon, the newest Iron Chef, said recently he was filming his ninth one in two and a half weeks.
"It is similar to what restaurants do every day of our lives … much quicker, but similar," he said. "But you've got all this smoke being brewed in here. How is it cooking on a stage that looks like it's made for Bon Jovi? I think it makes it great fun. It's theater, and we're here to put on a great show."
It's a show that turns chefs into stars. Symon, Flay, Mario Batali, Morimoto and Cora are household names and stars in the industry.
"You can come in from a restaurant in wherever, you know, Nebraska or something," Brown said. "This is life-altering. This changes careers. As for the iron chefs, they have got to stay on top, you know. They lose every now and then, but when their season starts looking bad, they worry about being traded. I mean, it is like being on a professional team."
And ultimately, it is a panel of judges that decides their fate. There have been 106 judges over the years ... and every one of them has an opinion.
One of the regulars is Andrew Knowlton, a restaurant editor for Bon Appetit magazine.
"I feel like [the chefs] really want honesty, and I owe it to them," Knowlton said. "I mean, this is what they're here for. It's part of the gig.
But sometimes, Cora said, it's easy to feel frustrated with the judges.
"You have to stand there," she said. "You have to grin and bear it. There are times when you want to put a chokehold on someone but, you know, you just stand there and take in their feedback and appreciation. Even if you don't agree, you have to be professional about it.
"You can hit them with a pan later," she joked.
Cora says the best judges come from the culinary world, because those who don't are out of their element.
"It's like me trying to judge an Olympic swimming event," she said. "You know, I'd be going 'Woo hoo, go, girl! Those are some nice moves! Hook me up with that bathing suit!' So it's really important that we have culinary people on [the show]."
Symon said his dream judges would be his mom, dad and grandfather.
"I've never cooked a bad meal for them!" he said.
The judges have their own frustrations, as well. Knowlton said sometimes he sees the chefs cooking food he'd rather not taste.
"When you have battle quail or battle turkey and you see the ice cream [machine] flip on," he said, "you're like, 'Oh great, here we go again. Some more turkey ice cream! Just had that last night.'"
Speaking of the "secret ingredient" -- just how secret is it? The chefs always seem so surprised. But are they?
It turns out the chefs do know in advance ... kind of. Before the show, they're told the secret ingredient could be one of three items.
"I think to just say you have no idea what the ingredient is when you come in is impossible, because you have to stock the kitchen," said Knowlton. "You have to have certain stuff that the chefs want. It's logistics."
The ingredients may not be a complete surprise to the chefs, but for the audience there's always that element of mystery. They're eating up all the drama and seem hungry for more.