Food Network’s Alton Brown, who has hosted hundreds of episodes of culinary competitions including Cutthroat Kitchen, Iron Chef America, and The Next Iron Chef, has a confession to make.
“There’s no one on Earth who is more bored with culinary competition than I am,” the network veteran admits to EW.
But that all changed with Iron Chef Gauntlet, the season 2 finale of which airs Wednesday night. In it, the last competitor standing, David LeFevre, has to beat Iron Chefs Alex Guarnaschelli, Michael Symon, and Stephanie Izard (she won the first season of Gauntlet) in a three-round rapid-fire cook-off in order to join their elite ranks.
“We were doing this before Top Chef,” Brown reminds, “and, of course I’ve learned a lot through the years so I know how to watch these battles — I can see when the mistakes are being made, but I can also see when people really roll the dice on their own skills and creativity and it’s just a beautiful thing. So I hope that comes through in the shows because this is the culinary competition that I always wanted to make.”
That said, LeFevre’s efforts could all be for nothing if judges Donatella Arpaia and Marcus Samuelsson don’t award him enough points to declare him victorious and worthy of representing Kitchen Stadium and the Chairman when Iron Chef America makes its long-awaited return to Food Network on Sunday, May 20 at 10 p.m. ET.
Things, naturally, get heated (it is a kitchen, after all), and as the exclusive clip above shows, Iron Chef Guarnaschelli schools LeFevre on when he’s allowed to smack talk others, playfully getting under the “feisty” chef’s skin. But below, Brown reveals what LeFevre has working in his favor, how long he’s been trying to make this series, and why he’s returning to his Good Eats roots.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Going into the finale, what did you think Chef LeFevre had working to his advantage that you hadn’t seen in previous Iron Chef competitors?
ALTON BROWN: That’s a good question. I’m going to say two things, and I’m not really sure which would be greater: 1) Absolute ability to consistently produce under pressure. You know, it’s funny, so many people that compete, not on Gauntlet so much, but certainly on Iron Chef America are typically executive chefs and a lot of times their line skills are a little bit rusty, and then the clock gets away from them and things happen. Chef LeFevre doesn’t have that problem; this is a guy that still cooks a lot, and so I think that gives him an edge.
The other thing is, he edits incredibly well, and what I mean by that is, so many chefs get so freaked out and they want to impress so much that they just throw everything they’ve got at the plate. Very often I’ll point out that a battle is lost or won in the last few moments, not by what you put on the plate in the last couple of seconds but what you decide to remove from the plate. Chef LeFevre is an extraordinarily good editor, and I think that comes from the fact that seafood chefs, or chefs who’ve kind of made their name on seafood, which I feel that he has, tend to want to not crush their ingredients. They tend to be working in a more subtle flavor set, and that forces them to observe nuance, and I think that is something Chef LeFevre has in spades.
You mention that he is consistently able to perform under pressure — in the finale he has three rapid-fire challenges against Iron Chefs Guarnaschelli, Symon, and Izard. Having overseen so many challenges, how would you say the level of intensity compares?
[Laughs] I will tell you that what makes them different is really pretty simple: history. When we did the first season of Gauntlet… I don’t think that the Iron Chefs quite got that this could happen to them. We had Iron Chef [Masaharu] Morimoto, Iron Chef [Bobby] Flay, and Iron Chef Symon, and they understood that as long as their collective points were higher than Chef Izard’s, that she would not become an Iron Chef. I don’t think they really realized, “Oh, what that means is she only has to beat one of us badly,” which she did; she beat one of them badly, and that was enough to narrowly give her the margin. So I think in this Gauntlet, they’re all wide awake now. [Laughs] They all realize, “Holy crap, this can happen! So we gotta bring all of it.” Not saying that they didn’t before – I’m not saying that – but I think [it is] heightened in this, because yes, I have overseen hundreds of battles, there wasn’t a whole lot of smiling beforehand, and I can usually gauge — or I think I can gauge — the mood of how these things are going to go a lot by the pregame timbre, and I have to tell you, this was not like last year. And that’s all I’m going to say. I think the Gauntlet this year… most impressive.
How do you think Gauntlet shook up things up from Next Iron Chef and how that show approached the competition? What do you like about this iteration?
I have been fighting for this iteration for a decade. I have wanted a no-holds-barred battle that also requires strategy. I, for the first time ever in my 19 years on Food Network, am judging food, because I judge that first round — I decide who’s the most successful, who’s the least successful, then give that most successful chef the opportunity to throw somebody else under the bus, which is a real telltale of what they’re thinking and who they’re afraid of. But in the end, the real play here is that you might go all the way through this and become an Iron Chef, but there are absolutely no guarantees that is going to happen. None.
Food programming has undergone such change through the years, originally as a teaching tool, eventually becoming much more about entertainment, be it competitions like this or what so many of your colleagues do. I’m curious your thoughts on that evolution.
My take is this: When I came into this, I came specifically to entertain. My thing was that you can’t teach if you don’t entertain, you just can’t. I always used to say, “And I have the high school transcripts to prove it.” When I started making Good Eats, which I made for 14 years, this was an educational show, but above all, it must be entertainment. In fact, we used to have a sign over our studio door that said: “Laughing brains are more absorbent.” As far as getting to your question of the trend, I think everything old is new again. I’m now in the process of rebooting a brand new version of Good Eats, so some people that were raised on Good Eats or were kids of Good Eats are actually having children themselves and are watching the reruns on Cooking Channel and have been just kind of demanding that I reboot the series, and that’s what we’re doing now. So, education is returning.
Iron Chef Gauntlet season 2 finale airs tonight at 9 p.m. ET.