Since its Japanese premiere more than two decades ago, the cooking competition show Iron Chef has continued its legacy through international spinoffs that have spanned the globe from Thailand to Israel. The Food Network has embedded itself in the franchise stateside, airing English-dubbed reruns of the original, alongside its own versions including Iron Chef America and The Next Iron Chef. When the idea came about to give Iron Chef another reboot, Food Network’s preeminent host Alton Brown had a hard-line request: culinary aggressiveness.
The essence of Iron Chef has always skewed more toward the side of entertainment: the flamboyant showmanship some of the hosts are wont to have, the dramatic reveal of the episode’s secret ingredient, the very fact that chefs are duking it out in a place called Kitchen Stadium. Although Alton Brown’s entire ethos is blending entertainment with education, most notably through his 14-year run as creator and host of Food Network’s Good Eats, he’s rebranding the latest iteration of Iron Chef by dialing down the theatrics and upping the focus on food.
“I always wanted to find new Iron Chefs, and we did the show The Next Iron Chef, but it was like a big-arc reality show. I wanted to tear that down and make it a lot more straightforward,” Brown says. “I wanted to finally be able to take the series into a place that I thought it ought to go, which is that it’s all about the food, and it’s all about finding the absolute best chefs that do the absolute best work.”
Iron Chef Gauntlet isn’t like any of its predecessors: seven up-and-coming chefs battle each other in single-elimination rounds. Whoever is left standing then goes up against three highly-established Iron Chefs in rapid succession–Masaharu Morimoto, Michael Symon, and Bobby Flay–to try and earn the title of Iron Chef.
“Who could survive that? I sure as heck couldn’t survive that. And so the the big dice that we had to roll was saying that in order to do this right, you have to risk not giving America a new champion,” Brown says. “I told Food Network my involvement in this project is completely dependent upon accepting that potential outcome because nothing else is authentic–and they went for it.”
As grateful as Brown is to have been involved with a total of 14 seasons of Iron Chef shows, Gauntlet is undoubtedly the one he’s most proud of.
“It’s never really been for me about the competition itself, it’s always been about the ingredients. It’s like going to culinary school every day for me,” Brown says. “A lot of other shows that involved great chefs tended to concentrate on what they were doing and that’s fine. But I was always trying to concentrate on talking about ingredients. A couple of years ago audiences weren’t that into it. Now that people have broadened their culinary lives, they really value that, and I think that we can give that to them in a way that they haven’t had before.”
Brown has been one of the pioneers of food TV since launching Good Eats in 1999, and over the course of his career, he’s taken notes on how audience have responded to and consumed food-centric programming. He pulled the plug on Good Eats in 2012 partly because he wanted to step back and consider how to rewire the show in the era of social media and streaming (a digital version is currently in the works), but he also noticed that “education” had become somewhat of a dirty word. From where he stood, audiences just weren’t that interested in knowing the ins and outs of ingredients and cooking techniques. Over time, however, Brown has been hearing from his fans that they were ready for food to be serious again.
“I do think that we need a stronger return to delivering know-how. People want us to teach them how to cook and for a while that fell out of fashion, and when it fell out of fashion I backed away,” Brown says. “One of the reasons that I stopped making the show Cutthroat Kitchen was after 200 episodes, I didn’t really feel like there was that much learning going on. I had a great time being a game show host, and a slightly evil one at that, but I wanted to up the education a little bit because I think deep down people do want to learn.”
Gauntlet isn’t a total 180-turn in the Iron Chef franchise. Brown still has an enormous amount of reverence for the original show it all its kitschy glory. For him, it’s about seeing how far he can push the line between entertainment and education to keep audiences–and himself–engaged on both levels.
“If I’m learning, I can make the learning more exciting for them. For me the thought of going onto the set of Iron Chef Gauntlet knowing I’m going to come out with stuff I had no idea about, that keeps me energized in a pretty tangible way,” Brown says. “When I was making Good Eats, we used to have a sign over our studio door that said, ‘Laughing brains are more absorbent.’ I wouldn’t have gone back into an Iron Chef project without knowing that I could deliver that. I hope that going forward with the Iron Chef franchise that that’s going to be a bigger and bigger part of it. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to turn it into a PBS show, but I do believe that education is always the frosting on the cake.
Iron Chef Gauntlet premieres April 16 on Food Network.