NEW YORK CITY -- The first thing you notice is the smoke. The fine haze seeps into a room filled rather haphazardly with television equipment, staffers and guests waiting to enter the cavernous studio that houses the set of Food Network's Iron Chef America: The Series.
The door of this small room opens into that set, where the smoke, pumped from machines rather than a burning pot on a stove, is thicker, adding to the air of suspense that permeates each Iron Chef competition.
On this day, Masaharu Morimoto, one of the featured chefs on the original Japanese series, is set to battle Linton Hopkins, chef/owner of Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta, named after the grandfather whom Hopkins credits with instilling in him a passion for cooking.
Morimoto and Hopkins, along with four sous-chefs, have learned the identity of the surprise ingredient and are cooking. Oversize portraits of Iron Chefs Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and Morimoto form the backdrop to the bustling scene. (Missing this time is the fourth chef and only woman, Cat Cora, but the photographs are rotated show by show.)
The long arms of camera equipment tower over the cooking stations, reminiscent of the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. Cameramen, dressed in black, jump around the action as they film close-ups of the chefs at work, the ingredients, the pots bubbling on the stoves.
It is late morning on a sunny day, and the crew is about a third of the way through the taping of the show for the new season. The crew will wrap up about 2 p.m., take a lunch break while the kitchen staff cleans and resets the Kitchen Stadium - and then do it all over again later in the afternoon, this time with Bobby Flay and a new competitor.
Over two weeks at Food Network's new headquarters in New York City's historic Chelsea Market building, the production crew taped the new season of the American version of Iron Chefs, airing now on the network.
"It takes months of preparation: picking the secret ingredients, looking across the country for chefs who can bring something different to the Kitchen Stadium," says culinary producer Jill Novatt.
This kitchen-based game show adapted from the Japanese series sets up a new challenger chef against a resident or "Iron Chef" in each episode. The goal is to create the best dish with a selected secret ingredient.
It takes a group effort to decide on that secret ingredient, which must meet certain criteria, says Susan Stockton, vice president for culinary productions at the network. "It has to be in season and fresh," she says, and throw the chefs a curve. "We try to get them out of their comfort zone. Most of these chefs have worked with everything under the sun."
Above all, the staff vigorously safeguards the secret ingredient. This reporter and a photographer, invited to visit the set and watch the taping, had to sign confidentiality agreements. The kitchen staffers, who design and style the presentation of each secret ingredient, take no chances that anyone might catch a glimpse through one of the kitchen windows along the hallway. "We have to paper and tape the windows closed because all of the chefs try to find out what the secret ingredient is," Stockton says.
On the set, as the chefs create their dishes, the action increases to a full boil. Morimoto sprints between cooking stations, mopping his sweaty brow with his sleeve. Hopkins builds his dishes intently, seemingly oblivious to the activity and noise around him. Floor reporter Kevin Brauch comments that "Our challenger has one of the cleanest stations we've ever seen."
"It's like calling a football game," Stockton says of the exchange among commentator Alton Brown, the floor reporters and the "chairman," who presides over the action. The other person on this team is culinary producer Novatt, who sits upstairs in the control room with other members of the production crew.
Novatt, outfitted with a headset that connects her directly to Brown, watches different scenes on three screens in front of her. As she gazes at her own television screens, about 40 others flicker on the wall of the control room.
Novatt speaks through the headset, and Brown listens. "He has some burdock root - that long brown thing," she whispers to Brown, who says, "And we have some burdock" and sets off on describing the vegetable.
Brown keeps up a steady commentary. "White is the new black," he says as the chefs position white china serving platters on a counter in front of the stove. "Just about every meal we've had lately in the stadium has been on white." As the dishes take shape, Brown catches sight of what looks like a "fillet-o-fish sandwich that is coming out of Morimoto's playful kitchen." Actress Cady Huffman, one of the three judges, tells Brown: "I think that a fish sandwich is something I'm really curious about."
It won't be long before the judges can actually taste that sandwich and the other dishes. When the time allotted for cooking turns from minutes to seconds and finally runs out, there is a round of handshaking.