Iron Chef America is fake, in case you didn’t know

This season of Next Iron Chef has improved thanks to its cast of Food Network stars and well-known TV chefs, who are fantastic contestants especially when faced with the same kinds of challenges they judge on other shows, such as Chopped.

But one thing I can’t shake is how fake the actual show is that they’re competing to get on. I hesitate to use the word fake, because this isn’t The Hills, but while the chefs may cook dishes with a common ingredient for one hour, that’s about the only thing the show presents that’s real. It’s one thing for the universally credible Alton Brown to make us cringe when he talks about the “chairman” as if the guy is any more than an actor, since that’s part of the conceit of the show, even though we know producers are making all of these choices. But it’s more than that.

I was reminded of Iron Chef’s inauthenticity when I noticed that the chefs on the reality show prepare just one dish in their allotted time, but then suddenly there are four or more dishes for the judges. That’s similar to Iron Chef, on which they get extra time after the hour to prepare additional plates (more about that below).

That’s just one of the many things about the cooking competition that’s inauthentic, and while this hasn’t been a secret for a while now, I thought it was worth revisiting since the entire point of the reality series is to give a chef a position on a series that’s pretty much beneath their talents. Honestly, the competitors on Chopped appear face a greater challenge than an Iron Chef ever will.

The major source of beind-the-scenes details came in a revealing 2008 Village Voice article that declared, “Iron Chef America is more bogus than even I had imagined.” It details exactly what happens during a taping, and all of the degrees of fakery, such as:

  • All the Iron Chefs are stand-ins except the pre-selected one. That’s not a huge surprise and not a big deal; I wouldn’t expect them to all be there at every taping. But it is a big deal that:
  • The secret ingredient isn’t secret. A 2008 Nightline report went behind the scenes but it’s only major reveal was confirmation that the chefs have been told in advance that it’s one of three possible things. That’s so the show can buy pantry items they chefs will need. But it also means that they 1) practice in advance, and 2) know what the ingredient is as soon as they see what pantry items the show bought for them. The Village Voice story repeatedly noted “the predeveloped state of the recipes and foreknowledge of the main ingredient.”
  • That the secret ingredient isn’t a secret means that the chefs have to turn into actors, and whenever that happens, it’s not okay. msnbc.com reported that “During one taping, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto and challenger Homaro Cantu are given several chances to repeat their choreographed lunges toward the just-unveiled item until the right dramatic effect is nailed. ‘This time,’ the stage manager genially tells Cantu, ‘act like it’s a secret.'”
  • Dishes tasted by the judges are prepared by the sous chefs and, shockingly, producers. The Voice reported that, “In most cases, the recipes were being executed a second time for the judges, mostly by the sous chefs, but with help from the Oompa-Loompas. … What was the point of the race if the dishes were casually recooked for judging an hour later?”
  • A 2006 Amatuer Gourmet blog post about a taping of the show noted that “every action we observed felt the opposite of spontaneous. These people KNOW or at least have a very good idea of what the secret ingredient is going to be. And with all the stops and starts and editing and lack of music, a live performance of Iron Chef America is as tense as watching two 90 year olds play a game of hopscotch.”

That’s too bad, since the competitors on The Next Iron Chef have proven they have what it takes to compete under pressure. But maybe after doing this, they earn the paycheck and vacation that is Iron Chef America.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.