‘Iron Chef: Quest For An Iron Legend’ is fun and campy and delicious, but where does it fit into the bloated food TV universe?
When we last tuned into the ‘Iron Chef’ universe, in the spring of 2018, hopeful chefs were running a “gauntlet.” They had to take on other chefs in ingredient challenges, and then the winner of the ingredient challenges would face three Iron Chefs in a row. If they defeated the Iron Chefs, then they, themselves, became an Iron Chef. It was all very confusing and not particularly popular.
Now Iron Chef is back, on Netflix, but the problems that plagued the “Gauntlet” edition also bother the admittedly superior “Quest for an Iron Legend.” The terms are confusing. Chicago’s Stephanie Izard, who was the first female winner of Top Chef, ran the gauntlet in the first Gauntlet season, becoming an Iron Chef. In the second season, she was part of the Gauntlet alongside Alex Guarnaschelli. But in the new season, Guarnaschelli and Izard are no longer Iron Chefs. Instead, Guarnaschelli is hosting “Supermarket Stakeout”. We last saw Izard as a guest judge on Top Chef and on Chopped.
Instead, our Iron Chefs include Curtis Stone, last seen by food fans as a “Legend” on “MasterChef Legends,” Chopped judge Marcus Samuelsson, longtime PBS cooking-show gadabout Ming Tsai, and actual culinary legend Dominique Crenn, who was a judge recently on Guy Fieri’s “Tournament of Champions.” None of the long-time Iron Chefs are anywhere to be seen. I understand why they’ve put Mario Batali out to pasture, and Bobby Flay certainly doesn’t need any more gigs. But I’m just wondering, at this point, what the terms are. Who are the Iron Chefs? What are the terms? It just feels like they snag who’s available during the shooting schedule. The current Iron Chefs are an impressive international array. But how did the show select them? And why?
Also, I’m not sure of the ultimate goal. The best-scoring challenger gets to face off against all five Iron Chefs in a Battle Royale. They win a trophy, which is a fake knife spray-painted gold, if they defeat the Iron Chefs. But what else do they win? Do they become an Iron Chef? Do they get to co-host Beach Barbecue Showdown with Tiffani Faison? It’s all very murky.
It’s all the more frustrating because the show itself follows the Iron Chef formula very well. Alton Brown is the perfect host, with his infinite knowledge of ingredients and techniques. Kristen Kish is a charming and game co-host/sideline reporter, a great foil for his wry asides. But, again. Kish is a former Top Chef winner in her 30s, a top-tier American kitchen wizard. Why is she a reporter and not an Iron Chef? Or a challenger to the Iron Chefs? It’s all very random.
Meanwhile, you couldn’t ask for a better panel of judges. Nilou Motamed is an excellent food critic, best-known to American audiences as Gail Simmons’s substitute on Top Chef during Gail’s pregnancy season. And then there’s a bearded Andrew Zimmern, the man who’s eaten everything. Of the three episodes I’ve watched, the third judge has been food critic Francis Lam, actor and taco entrepreneur Danny Trejo, and Nancy Silverton, who has also been a Tournament of Champions judge and a “MasterChef Legend.”
Cast confusion aside, the Netflix edition of Iron Chef has a lot of strengths that the Gauntlet edition muted. The show has unleashed the “Chairman”, played by actor Mark Dascasos, giving him crazier bits at the beginning and the end of the episodes. Dascasos is fully committed to his signature role. He steals every scene, even when he’s just pacing around in the background grinning like a madman. Also, Netflix means no commercials, so it’s just pure cooking content, and the episodes breeze by effortlessly. The challenges themselves feature the usual “secret ingredient,” so far things as simple as Lamb, Ribs, and Milk, but there’s also a theme. In the episodes I’ve watched, they have been Street Food, Tailgate, and Pastry. Food TV has evolved, so just cooking five dishes with sturgeon or veal or beets isn’t enough anymore.
The new Iron Chef reflects a profound change in food culture. When the original Iron Chef aired in Japan 30 years ago, it was almost all imperial Chinese, highbrow Japanese, classical French, and a smattering of Italian food. It was very “steamed whole fish served in a swallow’s nest.” In the first episode of this season, a hipster guy who was drinking a Coors while he cooked served the judges a “street taco” in a Fritos bag. To be fair, Curtis Stone sent that guy packing. But Stone himself was spit-cooking gyros the next station over. The winner of episode two, New York’s Esther Choi, served the judges a short-rib sandwich on a bun shaped to look like a football.
Episode 3, which featured Dominque Crenn versus Chicago’s Curtis Duffy, was more high-end molecular gastronomy. But even then, Crenn did a cursive milk mold of the work “milk” and served it to the judges on top of a dollop of yuzu ice cream. The food on Iron Chef now is more precious, but also somehow more accessible, and it’s definitely more international. I’m very happy to have Iron Chef back, and am gobbling it up faster than I eat a crawfish boil. Sometimes I just find myself wondering: Who are the players? What are the terms? Why are we still cooking? When it comes to the bloated world of televised food competitions, it’s hard to discern what’s going to be on the menu next.