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Bruce Seidel, Executive Producer, Iron Chef America.

AC: Can you give our readers a brief overview of how Iron Chef America evolved from the original Japanese Iron Chef?

BS: In 1999, we [the Food Network] put the Japanese version on the air, and that eventually led to Fuji Television asking us if we wanted to take the rights for the format. At the time, we didn't think we could recreate the unique style of the show on American television, so we passed. And so Fuji sold it to UPN, and then the Food Network and UPN started talking about partnering together. We were invited to the taping in Las Vegas, and my boss at the time and I were sitting there going, "Why didn't we do this? We've made a huge mistake!" Eventually the rights reverted back to Fuji, and that's when we decided to move forward with it and create Iron Chef America. We set out not to mirror the Japanese show, but to create something that was truly unique for the Food Network.


AC: What is your specific role within the show?

BS: I'm the executive in charge of production. Everything that happens on the show, I approve it.

AC: Many readers might remember the old Food Network show "Ready, Set, Cook!" which also pitted chefs against each other in a timed competition. Was there any effort made to recreate the successful elements of that show?

BS: Well, we knew that competition worked, so it was kind of a natural decision, but the Japanese Iron Chef format is really strong, and really tight, and so we mirrored that. There is a show "Bible," actually, from the Japanese version, and we really followed that while tweaking the show in various ways.

AC: How large is the production team that creates Iron Chef America?

BS: There are about 150 people on the production team in one capacity or another. They're not all on set, but between all the editors and writers, camera people, directors, lighting directors, producers, travel coordinators, talent coordinators and talent, it's a huge production.

AC: Does it all happen here in this building?

BS: We originally started taping it in Los Angeles, in a sound studio, and when our studio was completed here in New York, two years ago, we brought this show to New York, where we made Kitchen Stadium smaller here than it was in Battle of the Masters.

AC: To be a challenger on Iron Chef America is a holy grail for some chefs. What makes a challenger qualified to be on the show?

BS: There really isn't one process. Calls go in to Triage Entertainment [the company that produces the show], and calls and packages come to my office. If someone is interested in submitting themselves to being considered, they are more than welcome to send a package to my attention. (See details at end of this interview.)

AC: What do you look for in a potential challenger?

BS: We're looking for chefs of a high caliber, with hardcore experience, who can do this in one hour. Most of the chefs we're putting on have been chefs for a number of years. There are some exceptions--there are these young guys out of Los Angeles who get called "the Food Dudes," Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook--they were kind of the bad boys of their culinary school, and they own a catering facility and lounge in LA. We put them on and they were great. And then we've had master chefs come on [who] didn't finish their dishes. We look for people who have the personality and the chops and the know-how to do this and make exciting television.

AC: How would a potential challenger communicate his or her abilities to you?

BS: When people contact me about being a challenger, I tell them to send me a bio, send me a photo of yourself. If you've done any local television or done an appearance anywhere, send a tape of that, so we can get a feel for your presence. And we want to see pictures of your food.

AC: Is there a formal audition process?

BS: No. What we do first is decide on the secret ingredients that we want to use for the season, and we kind of cast people for the ingredients, between the Iron Chefs and the challengers.

AC: So let's talk about the secret ingredient. Is it true that the chefs have hints as to what the ingredient might be before production begins on an episode?

BS: We do what they did in the Japanese show, which is the that chefs are told that it will be one of five possible ingredients. We kind of psych them out, but they don't know until the dome comes up which ingredient they're getting. There's a staple pantry on set of about 300 items, and then the chefs get a budget to supplement that, of about $500 each.

AC: I've noticed that the challengers often have special signature tools or service pieces with them on set--David Burke with his bed of nails, for instance, or Morou with the test-tube popsicle molds.

BS: Yeah, if they're smart, they'll have things on hand that they're comfortable with. Morou is very whimsical in his style and his approach and his plating. When we met him, at a competition to pick a challenger in Washington, DC, he made a topiary tree out of beignet, in a flowerpot with caviar as the soil. Pumpkin was the secret ingredient, so it was a pumpkin beignet rolled in a pumpkin sour cream. And he made a lobster broth with a pumpkin tea bag. He really impressed us with his creativity. That's the kind of thing we look for.

AC: Do you often hold regional competitions to choose challengers?

BS: That was the first time we'd done that. The mayor of Washington, and the city's Office of Motion Picture and TV Development, and the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington invited us to come. We're actually partnering with "Taste of Atlanta" and the Georgia Film Commission to do the same thing in Atlanta this summer.

AC: So getting back to the show's set--the chefs are allowed to bring their own tools and props?

BS: They're allowed to bring on certain things, and everything is approved beforehand by our culinary staff. Our senior culinary producer, Jill Novatt, she approves everything. She's the "no" man. She says no to the chefs all the time. They try to sneak things on. We've caught things in people's pockets that weren't supposed to be there. It's a true competition. People want to bring a special ingredient, or something that they forgot to put on their supplementary list. I'm not pointing fingers, but it's a serious competition and we want to keep it as honest as it should be.

AC: I understand that for every episode, there are about 10 hours of footage?

BS: Yeah, it takes about five hours to film each episode. The battle itself is done in one hour, but all the other elements of the show--the judging takes an hour and a half, 45 minutes per chef, so there's some stop time and resetting between, so that's about two hours. The battle's an hour, so that's three hours, and then we film the entrance into Kitchen Stadium and all that, so when you add it up, yeah, it's about five hours. And then there are ten cameras, so during the battle there's an hour of footage from each camera. So that's where you get 10 hours of footage. There's a lot to choose from, but even then we don't catch everything.

AC: Can you talk about the strengths or special qualities that each of the Iron Chefs bring to the table?

BS: Bobby [Flay] is known for bold American flavors, Southwest flavors. He does staple, hearty food and I think he always sticks to that. He loves breakfast foods. He might repeat some things, but he always gives a nice unique twist or a whimsical factor to it. He did green eggs and ham one day, funny things like that. Mario [Batali] is very serious, and he sticks to his Italian roots, although during a round of taping, I think he had just gotten back from Thailand and Vietnam, and I noticed he was using a lot of these different flavors and seasonings and different chilis and things that I hadn't ever seen him use before. Morimoto--he sticks to his Japanese and occasionally he takes something and gives it an American twist, which we think is fun and always adds to the show. On the Japanese [version], he did some type of pizza and served it on a New York Times. Cat [Cora] is different--Cat grew up in the South and she has Greek heritage. Her plating--you know, she's not a restaurant chef like Bobby or Mario or Morimoto, but her plating is really whimsical and real and sophisticated at the same time.

AC: Were you looking specifically to cast a woman when you chose Cat Cora as the fourth Iron Chef?

BS: Yeah, we wanted a female. I think women have come so far in the culinary world, based upon how it started way back when, so it was an easy decision.

AC: How do you put the panel of judges together?

BS: We always try to have two culinary professionals and one celebrity or personality type. We feel we don't need to have 100% culinary professionals across the board, because food is also subjective, and it's about what you like, and your palate. We ask the judges to evaluate based on taste and the use of the ingredient. In the future you might see some much more regular characters than you have in the past.

AC: Foods like foie gras and live lobsters have come under fire recently for ethical or political reasons. Do you have any concerns about the chefs using "controversial" ingredients on the show?

BS: Well, initially we did feature foie gras, in the first season, but every chef was using it in every show. It was becoming "The Foie Gras Show." And then there are issues with foie gras, so we said, "You know what? We're not going to use it." And we always stress to the chefs that if they have a live ingredient, we need to see them killing it in the most humane way possible.

AC: Have there been any unmitigated disasters or big freak-outs, either on or off-camera?

BS: No one has really lost their temper, but when we did Battle of the Masters in Los Angeles, because it was a new thing and things weren't--the first day of production was a 22-hour day, and we were running six hours late. That was a really stressful day. The chefs take this seriously, so sometimes they're not happy with an ingredient, or the quality of an ingredient. But things have generally been pretty good. Probably the biggest disaster we had was, we had a Berkshire pig as the secret ingredient, and it was displayed, and each half of the pig was about 220 pounds, maybe 225. So when they lifted up the dome over the secret ingredient, I hadn't seen it before. I thought, 'It looks too real!' There was no head or anything but it still looked too real. I made the culinary team change it, and in that process we realized that the chine [back] bone hadn't been cut. The chefs would never have been able to dismantle it and do the butchery required during the battle, so we put the thing on a cart, took it down an elevator, ran it through Chelsea Market, out into the street and around the corner to a butcher shop that had the proper tool to do it. We got it done in 22 minutes. The other good story is that for one episode, Mario had requested frog legs for his supplementary pantry, and instead of frog legs they sent us a shipment of live frogs. They were pretty big (laughing). Mario didn't want to kill them, and we didn't want to kill them, and so we set them free.

AC: In Manhattan?!?

BS: No, this was in LA. We went somewhere where we were told they would be OK. We did the best we could.

AC: How does [show host] Alton Brown know so much about the ingredients and techniques being used by the chefs in battle?

BS: Alton's brain is an encyclopedia. He does his own research, and our culinary department prepares a whole binder for him. He's researching online in real time when something comes out that we don't know about. And there are three different people talking into Alton's ear through an earpiece. It's phenomenal. Alton's a hosting machine.

AC: Are there any new Iron Chefs or other new elements on the horizon for the next season?

BS: We have something up our sleeve that I can't talk about at this time, but I believe in the future that we will be adding new chefs. That doesn't mean we'll be getting rid of anyone, but we'll be adding chefs.

AC: Is there anything else that you think a potential challenger or Iron Chef America fan should know?

BS: Just keep cooking. Keep cooking.

Interview conducted by Laurie Woolever

July 10, 2006

If you think you have what it takes to be a challenger on Iron Chef America, you may send packages to:

Bruce Seidel, Executive Producer

Iron Chef America

Food Network

75 Ninth Avenue

New York, NY 10011
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Title Annotation:industry spotlight
Author:Woolever, Laurie
Publication:Art Culinaire
Article Type:Interview
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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