Iron Cheffing and Judging Are Legit (If Imperfect)

20080221-ironchev.jpgVillage Voice restaurant critic Robert Sietsema pulled back the curtain on the Food Network's Iron Chef America. Or did he? I think Sietsema is a fine critic and writer, and I have in fact eaten with him on a few occasions. That said, having judged Iron Chef America a number of times in the last couple of years, I feel compelled to point out a number of things about his supposedly sordid revelations.

While it is true that there are stand-ins for the Iron Chefs not participating in a given taping, I don't really see how that makes the show less real. Also, Iron Chef America is like every other reality-competition TV show; that is, it is television reality with the dramatic elements pumped up to make it more compelling. Read the fine print in the credits that follow every reality show, from Survivor to Top Chef, and you'll discover reality shows are not in fact 100 percent real.

While I have always been told that the competing chefs know that the secret ingredient will be chosen from a list of three they have been given beforehand so that they can, yes, rehearse it doesn't take anything away from how insanely difficult it is to produce five dishes in an hour in that kind of pressured environment. I have judged Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, and Cat Cora in action, and though they clearly know the drill, I can tell you they still sweat bullets and work their asses off because it is, in fact, a real competition and they don't want to be embarrassed in front of their peers, the judges, the audience in Kitchen Stadium, and the viewers at home.

As far as the judging itself is concerned, I can tell you that the fix is not in in any way, shape, or form. When it's time for the judges to score, they are not even allowed to consult with one another until they have handed their scorecards in. Each of the Iron Chefs has been beaten up pretty good on the show on occasion. Believe me, my friend Jeffrey Steingarten, the most frequent judge on the show, would never allow himself to be part of a sham competition.

Iron Chef America is far from perfect, but to suggest it is not legit because it conforms to certain reality television conventions is to miss the point of the show entirely. From my vantage point, it is as legitimate a competition reality show as any other out there.

For what it's worth, the snarky folks at Gawker agree with me: Investigation Finds "Iron Chef" Is a Television Show