Dating back to the early ’90s, Japan’s “Iron Chef” and the Food Network have grown up together, with the competition franchise setting the template for the myriad cook-against-the-clock shows that dot Food Network’s schedule, along with a host of other channels.
“Iron Chef” segs have aired on Food Network since the cabler’s inception. But it was one particularly heated showdown between Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto and challenger Bobby Flay that put the show over the top with viewers and spawned Food Network’s own “Iron Chef America” rendition.
The 2000 “New York Battle” episode, produced by Fuji TV, was a mano-a-mano duel fought with rock crabs that included a dramatic shot of Flay getting electrocuted while grabbing a metal pot. It ended with Flay prematurely declaring victory and jumping on top of his cutting board. This disturbed Morimoto (the ultimate winner) who broke his usual stoic demeanor to declare “Bobby Flay is not a chef!”
“That was the moment that brought Food Network into pop culture,” Flay says. He recalls then-Food Network president Judy Girard presciently assuring him “something magical happened in that moment.”
Food Network still took its time in developing the Yank version of the franchise, which bowed in 2004. It has helped make superstars out of participants such as Michael Symon, Cat Cora, Geoffrey Zakarian and Alex Guarnaschelli.
“The challenge was developing it into something that would tell a culinary story and a narrative story (of chefs),” says “Iron Chef America” exec producer Steve Kroopnick. “ ‘Iron Chef America’ brought all those elements together into a show with a narrative story at the center.”
Flay, for his part, has become a network mainstay, not only as a formidable Iron Chef competitor, but as the host of myriad other shows, from “Hot off the Grill” in the ’90s to “Throwdown,” in which he challenges chefs from all over the country to best their own specialty, to being a judge on “The Next Food Network Star,” a competition show that measures cooking skills and camera-ready likability.
With such shows as Bravo’s “Top Chef,” ABC’s “The Taste” and Fox’s MasterChef, not top mention Food Network’s own “Chopped” and “Cupcake Wars” et al permeating the airways, do all these competition shows threaten to cannibalize each other?
“I think the competition genre is just the new standard way of doing food TV,” explains Michael Smith, GM/SVP Cooking Channel. “It would be like saying, ‘Do you think there are too many sitcoms or too many procedurals on television?’
“Ten years ago would you have said, ‘There are too many shows with people standing in rooms behind counters cooking? Is Martha Stewart going to cannibalize Rachael Ray and Paula Deen? I don’t think there are too many (food competition shows). I think the bad ones will fade and the really great formats will survive. As producers, we’re constantly looking for that next effective spin.”
(Additional reporting by Steve Chagollan.)