Iron Chef’s legacy and influence is indisputable: It brought food competition to television in Japan in 1993, one year after The Real World premiered, and to the United States when a dubbed version came to Food Network in 1999, one year before Survivor premiered.
Almost three decades later, TV is now overrun with food reality TV competition shows.
Even Iron Chef reproduced with abandon: There were five cable versions or spin-offs produced in the United States, starting with the short-lived UPN show Iron Chef USA, which was followed by Food Network’s long-running Iron Chef America and its spin-offs Iron Chef Gauntlet, Iron Chef Showdown, and The Next Iron Chef.
That means Netflix’s reboot of the format, Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend, arrives into a landscape that is oversaturated, but has also many examples of the original idea that’s been developed over the years and taken in creative new directions.
We now have a range of cooking competitions, from charming bake-offs in a tent to talent-free people attempting challenges that guarantee failure. There’s even a show where challengers battle an Iron Chef.
Bravo’s Top Chef is the place where talented young chefs test and prove themselves; Food Network’s Tournament of Champions is where the best chefs and TV personalities compete against each other.
That’s why, when Netflix announced this reboot of Iron Chef, I was skeptical: I love a food reality competition show, but we’ve already seen this and been here so many times, so why return?
Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend ditches the most-recent American Iron Chefs for five new ones: Curtis Stone (ugh), Dominique Crenn, Marcus Samuelsson, Ming Tsai, and Gabriela Cámara.
Their talent is evident, but several of them are familiar presences on other cooking reality TV shows, as competitors and judges, which grounds them rather than elevating them.
The same is true of the challengers. I didn’t recognize Curtis Duffy and Yia Vang from any reality TV food competitions, but the other five were quite familiar to me:
- Mei Lin won Top Chef;
- Claudette Zepeda and Gregory Gourdet are Top Chef alum (and Gregory just won a James Beard award);
- Esther Choi has guest-judged Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay, on which she was a contestant;
- and Mason Hereford has been on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.
These chefs—Iron and challengers—are certainly talented, and I’m glad to watch most of them cook. As is now required by reality TV law, time is given to bio packages that trace the chef’s journeys, and they’re well-constructed.
There’s also time for the chefs to reflect during their presentations to the judges’ table, which is the best part of the episode.
“I get a little taken back because I’ve cooked all over the world, and for the first 15 years of my life, I had to hide the story of African food,” Marcus Samuelsson tells the judges at the end of episode two. “I felt it belonged, but there wasn’t a language and a place in fine dining. And now to be able to serve it at Iron Chef, which means people all over the world is going to see it, it makes me cry. It’s a long road.”
Netflix’s reach has the ability to give Marcus Samuelsson’s food, and moments like that, in front of millions of people.
Alas, Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend has been drained of any evidence that it’s “the king of culinary competitions,” as Alton Brown says in the first episode.
It’s just another cooking competition, and definitely not a great one.
There is a considerable amount of Netflix money on the screen. The Chairman’s presentation of the secret ingredient doesn’t just involve a cover being lifted off a table, but massive walls sliding apart to reveal a three-dimensional set designed to match that week’s theme. Chocolate appears in a Willy Wonka-ish factory; the street food challenge has a streetscape with lights and carts and billowing steam.
Alton Brown and Kristen Kish’s station slides apart to create a fog-covered path for the Iron Chef’s entrance, although clearly the Netflix money ran out when it was time to create the digital audience behind them, because they look like the 2D people who are dancing in the party scene on Universal theme parks Fast & Furious: Supercharged. (If you’ve been on that shabby excuse for a ride, you know what I mean.)
While the set design is beautiful, the actual editing is a mess. It cuts rapidly between a series of close ups, extreme close-ups, and maybe a medium shot if we’re lucky.
We almost never see the entirety of Kitchen Stadium, and it’s hard to have a sense of what’s going on, or who is where.
In the actual kitchen, there are not just six people to follow—the chefs and two sous chefs each—but also three judges and two hosts.
We watch as the camera frantically searches for a subject, zooming in and out. Throw in shots that start out of focus, plus unnecessarily showy things like split screens, all creating unnecessary visual chaos.
As talented as Alton Brown and Kristen Kish are, their narration is not a sufficient to make this mishmash of images make sense.
Alton, by the way, is back to old form here, as he narrates, comments, and shares insights from his wealth of knowledge. Despite his skepticism about a co-host, he and Kristen have immediate chemistry, and she offers similarly engaging commentary and wit.
The format they preside over is bizarrely constructed. Each episode is a one-off battles, but Alton Brown explains that “Our most-successful challenger will return for a final showdown against all five Iron Chefs, to compete for a chance to be crowned the next Iron Legend.”
What does that mean? Compete for a chance? Later, Kristen Kish gets more specific and says the challenger with the highest score—but not necessarily a win?—will return for the final episode.
Somehow, with only eight episodes, including that finale, there are just six face-offs yet seven challengers. That’s because Gregory Gourdet and Mei Lin are paired together for their face-off against Ming Tsai.
Then, there’s a mid-season break that pairs two Iron Chefs to collaborate and compete against each other. It’s actually the most-interesting episode because it’s the only one that’s doing something new.
What does manage to emerge from this schedule and the chaotic editing is enthusiasm for cooking, and some considerable creativity.
“We’re on freakin’ Iron Chef,” the first challenger, Mason Hereford, says, clinking Coors cans with his sous chefs. His approach includes serving one course in plastic lunch boxes, and another with Squirt in squirt guns—rather playful considering the fussy food of past Kitchen Stadium.
The props he uses, and that other chefs use in future episodes, are so specific that I wondered how much preparation the chefs had done.
On the original Iron Chef, the chefs were told three possible secret ingredients, so they could order a pantry of ingredients, and when they showed up for filming, they already knew what they were cooking because they saw what’d been stocked for them.
In other words, this is not Guy Fieri’s randomizer.
Meanwhile, like the old Iron Chef, the chefs serve one course after 30 minutes, but for the rest of the courses, they only create a single plate of food, despite later serving five plates (three judges, two hosts).
On Iron Chef America, sous chefs—and producers!—actually cooked the dishes long after time expired. Is that happening here, too?
On Food Network’s Tournament of Champions, the chefs plate four dishes, which are served just five minutes after the time expires, while the second chef’s plates are stored according to their specifications, and then served to the judges about 10 minutes later.
Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend’s judges—Andrew Zimmern and Nilou Motamed, plus one guest judge—assign 75 points based on taste, presentation, and secret ingredient use, having given 25 points earlier. But we are not told how the points actually break down, like we are on Tournament of Champions.
I keep bringing up Food Network’s Tournament of Champions not just because I think it’s currently television’s best all-star cooking competition, but because it challenges its chefs in more creative ways than Iron Chef did or does now in this Netflix reboot.
While Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend has dropped the contrivances of its most-recent Food Network incarnation, it has neither recaptured the freshness of the original nor brought something new to the genre it gave birth to.
Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend
Netflix’s Iron Chef reboot is an average showcase for talented chefs that has been eclipsed by better competitions, and struggles to literally show us what’s happening. C-
What works for me:
- Talented chefs who seem to be having fun, when we can actually see them
- Kristen Kish and Alton Brown’s commentary and chemistry
What could be better:
- The editing and cinematography
- Doing something new, or at least catching up to how better shows have evolved this format (i.e. blind judging)