The untold truth of Iron Chef

Many an American movie or television program originated in another country. The Office, The Departed, and House of Cards are just a few. Food Network drew its inspiration from a hit Japanese show to mold an American version. But adapted foreign ideas aren't always a sure hit. Iron Chef had a cult following prior to the American version hitting the airwaves. The shows are similar but also vastly different. So what was really happening? Let's take a look at Iron Chef and break it all down.

The chairman is an actor

Takeshi Kaga hosted Japan's Iron Chef. The actor played the role of the chairman, a host of what could be called a fancy dinner party serving dodo eggs and komodo dragon. The Japanese audience knew Kaga as an actor, and the host of the American version was of the same profession. The chairman of Iron Chef America is Mark Dacascos, an accomplished martial arts expert and actor. He is still an occasional guest on Hawaii Five-0, but first made his presence known to (a few) American audiences with an overseas cult hit. Dacascos played the Native American Mani in the French film Brotherhood of the Wolf. His martial arts skills and ability to speak French landed him the role. The film received a U.S. release and earned a respectable $11 million. But Dacascos remained virtually unknown as an actor in the U.S. until the role of the chairman came along.

Kaga was Jesus

The ruse wouldn't work in Japan. Takeshi Kaga was an actor, and everyone knew it. Kaga was best recalled for playing Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar on stage in Japan. He also played Tony in West Side Story. He wasn't a movie star, but he wasn't an unknown either. Part of the flair that caught American audiences by surprise was the over-the-top costuming Kaga wore. Often in a cape, Kaga played up his chairman with a stage actor's flair. To the unknowing U.S., he came off as a crazy Japanese guy with a ton of money who loved eating soft shell turtle.

Iron Chef USA

Iron Chef America, the Food Network re-imagining of the Japanese original, actually wasn't the first time an American production company tried to remake the show. The original Iron Chef took itself seriously: it was about the food and the presentation. Somehow, lost in translation, Iron Chef USA didn't get that message. William Shatner played the chairman. "Hokey" and "Over the Top" are Shatner's middle names, and Ole Bill came through in spades. Rather than a quiet, subdued atmosphere, Iron Chef USA was filmed in Las Vegas and it sounded like there was a five-drink minimum to loosen up the crowd.

Iron Chef featured actors who had a knowledge of food and provided color commentary on the dishes. By contrast, the Iron Chef USA judges were people you'd never heard of who were allegedly famous. It was as if Dancing With The Stars was renamed Dancing With Names You May Have Heard Before, except you definitely wouldn't have heard of the Iron Chef USA judges. Mercifully, Shatner's fluffy-shirted performance and incredibly bad line delivery only lasted two episodes.

Matchups are done in advance

Part of the mystique of Iron Chef, both Japan and America, is the majestic rise of the Iron Chefs. After the pageantry, the challenger chef stands before the Iron Chefs and measures them up. Which will he choose? One with a similar cooking style? A chef with a different specialty? The chef only has a split second to decide! Except none of that happens.

The podium rising with chefs is recorded long in advance, either during the first episode of the season or before cooking actually begins. The challenger chef picks the Iron Chef weeks in advance of the taping. The only chef that rises up the day of the taping is the one who is being chosen — the other "chefs" are stand-ins that look similar to the Iron Chefs. For example, if the producers need a stand-in for Mario Batali, they just find another rotund redhead not doing anything that day. That makes sense, as all the Iron Chefs have other jobs and can't just show up for every taping and wait around for someone to pick them.

Chefs can pick their ingredients

Well, if the podium rising isn't real, at least the reveal of the secret ingredient is, right? Well … kinda. On Iron Chef America, both chefs have an idea of what the ingredient will be. Sometimes, it's as blunt as "it's either buffalo or bass"; other times it's literally decided between the chefs. In addition to the available spices and seasonings, the chefs are given a $500 budget to spend on any specialty ingredients they want for their dish. Then they'll write different lists for each possible secret ingredient. But obviously those lists are different. The producers go out and purchase what the chefs need and when chefs show up at the taping, all they have to do is look at their ingredients to figure out what the "secret" ingredient is going to be.

The show is super fake

OK, but the rest of it is real, right? Well, you might want to sit down for this one. First, it's a television show. It's not a live sporting event or some spontaneous action captured and shared on social media. Sure, some actions will probably be repeated, like Iron Chef Morimoto and his competitor repeatedly reaching for an ingredient to get the timing and angle right. Before any cooking begins, the crew can spend up to an hour getting the required video of the Iron Chef, the challenger, the chairman, and Alton Brown. And once the cooking begins, the one-hour time limit seems to be more for television than anything else. There's no rushing around as seen on TV, except specific hurried shots. Once the chef, Iron or not, presents the dishes to the judges, the actual presentation can be shot up to three times to vary the angle. The judging can take up to 45 minutes. So, what happens if you're batting second with your food sitting around for an extra hour? The sous chefs or sometimes even the producers just re-cook a fresh, hot meal! That's right, the judges aren't even tasting something prepared by the actual chef competing. A proposal for the name of the show: Here's Two Chefs and Some Food They Stood By.

Bobby Flay's Iron Chef run

Of all the Iron Chefs, Bobby Flay is unique. He is an Iron Chef and appeared as a challenger on the original Iron Chef. He had quite the experience. He cut himself and was electrocuted when water dripped to a wire on the floor and shocked him. But the most memorable action happened when stood on the cutting board to encourage the crowd. That greatly offended Iron Chef Morimoto, who snapped that Flay "is not a chef," for disgracing the cutting board and knives by standing on them. Flay lost that matchup and it led to a real rivalry of sorts between the two chefs.

A grudge match between the two just had to happen, so it did. Flay returned to Japan to once again challenge Morimoto with spiny lobster as the secret ingredient. Flay got his revenge taking down the Iron Chef. The original match is seen as a turning point for both the show and chefs in general. "That's the moment that brought Food Network into pop culture," Flay said. Flay once said in an interview that he played up the brash New Yorker a bit for the Japanese crowd, but it worked. Both Flay and Morimoto became Iron Chefs on Iron Chef America.

The empire of Morimoto

Masaharu Morimoto has made more of himself from Iron Chef than many of the other Iron Chefs. On the original Iron Chef, the first Iron Chef was Kaishoku Michiba, who gave way to Koumei Nakamura for only a brief time. Morimoto followed them up as the Japanese show neared the end of its run. Coming all the way from Nobu in New York, Morimoto may not have been as well known to Japanese audiences, but he springboarded into super-chef stardom from there.

In addition to joining Iron Chef America, Morimoto operates restaurants all around the world, including Disney Springs. (That's the former Downtown Disney, and it serves excellent meals, including street fare quick dishes. It was awesome, but I spent $38 on lunch for two, so bring your charge card.) He also licenses his own beer produced by Rogue Brewery of Oregon. He sells knives and grapeseed oil … the guy is everywhere! And he can trace it all back to being on the original Iron Chef.

Cat Cora's downturn

Unlike Morimoto, Iron Chef Cat Cora hasn't experienced the flood of success that sometimes comes with television fame. She's had the kind of luck reserved for gypsy curses. She burst on to the scene as the first female Iron Chef, and that got her a lot of exposure that led to some newfound fame and star power. But after the initial "Hey, it's Cat Cora!" died down, the wheels came off.

How bad has it been? Well, she got a DUI in 2012, divorced her wife of two years (and longtime partner before that) in 2015, her Disney restaurant Kouzzina closed in 2014 (I ate there; it was unspectacular), and her other brands aren't exactly getting rave reviews. To add insult to injury, a reality star dragged her name through the mud and said the two had a fling. And when she was on Iron Chef America she had a record of 21-12-1 and seemingly disappeared from the show without much fanfare.

In 2017, things got a bit more odd for Cora. According to an October 2017 filing, Cora sued Fatbird restaurant located in the hip meatpacking district of Manhattan, a restaurant she previously backed. The suit alleges that Cora is owed $400,000 plus a 10 percent equity stake of the joint. The Fatbird reviews were, sadly, about as great as her other establishments and by December 2017, the restaurant flew the coop for good and permanently closed. Good luck with that 10 percent stake… 

It was never officially canceled

In Japan, Iron Chef premiered in 1993 and ran until 1999; it was still quite popular at the time of its end, but traditionally in Japan, TV shows will end while still generating ratings, unlike in the US where we beat every horse dead. Iron Chef America, however, just sort of… stopped showing up. That led most to conclude that Iron Chef America was cancelled. In 2014, Food Network flatly denied Iron Chef America was being canceled, but there weren't any new episodes airing either.

A few years later, we finally learned what was happening. A new Iron Chef program premiered on the Food Network: Iron Chef Gauntlet. Alton Brown served as the new "Chairman" but there was a twist — the show was just a limited series. Stephanie Izard won the six-episode competition, defeating the combined powers of three Iron Chefs to earn herself the title of Iron Chef. Which… doesn't mean a whole heck of a lot without a show to appear on, but hey, it's still technically not canceled, so she's got that going for her.  

Finally, the show made yet another comeback in it's original form in 2018 with a 10-episode season… but there's no word on there's another season in the works.