Madison Square Garden. Fenway Park. Lambeau Field. Kitchen Stadium. Iconic venues all, the mere mention of each instantly evokes memories. In the case of Kitchen Stadium, I harken back to the original Iron Chef, where the likes of Hiroyuki Sakai, Chen Kenichi, and of course Masaharu Morimoto reigned supreme under the watchful eye of chairman Takeshi Kaga. In 2005, Kitchen Stadium moved stateside with the debut of Iron Chef America, where Bobby Flay, Cat Cora, and the aforementioned Morimoto carried the torch forward.
For the legions of Iron Chef fans who have longed for a return to Kitchen Stadium, their culinary prayers have been answered in the form of Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend. Now available on Netflix. Chairman Kaga’s nephew, portrayed by Mark Dacascos, returns as the chairman, keeping his usual watchful eye over the expansive venue. Alton Brown is back as well, sharing the host desk and instant chemistry with Kristen Kish. The chairman has reinvigorated Kitchen Stadium with the introduction of a new group of accomplished Iron Chefs.
Cooking to stave off talented challengers who are seeking to become an Iron Legend are Iron Chefs Ming Tsai, Curtis Stone, Dominique Crenn, Gabriela Camara, and Marcus Samuelsson. Like their predecessors, our new Iron Chefs passionately strive to protect their Kitchen Stadium turf. And what better way to experience the competition than through the eyes of Iron Chef Ming Tsai and Iron Chef Curtis Stone.
What were your reactions to being invited to become Iron Chefs?
MING TSAI: It was the most honored, humbling call that I think I’ve ever received. I was so excited and I know Curtis has the same feeling. We’ve been fans of Iron Chef since the beginning. I mean, between Kenichi and Sakai, and Morimoto, and Michiba, if you’re a football player, it’s like watching the Super Bowl champs play. You’re watching the best of the best compete. And it always was a dream, a fantasy to be in Kitchen Stadium as an Iron Chef.
CURTIS STONE: Super exciting phone call to get, but then also in equal parts daunting. Then you’re thinking, so I’m gonna have to create a five-course menu in 60 minutes with a secret ingredient against one of the best chefs in the world. Sure. So there’s a genuine fear that you’re not going to be able to hang. But it is what it is. We love competition. We love cooking. Of course, we’re here.
Speaking of the five-course meal, how do you conceive five concepts for five dishes in mere seconds, then pivot to convey that vision to your sous chefs?
MING TSAI: It’s a great question. One of the keys is your sous chefs, your team. They’re people who’ve cooked with us that we trust and know that we’ve done that dish before. If it’s a fish, but a different fish, so this time let’s go spicier. We already have verbiage because we can pull from all the dishes we’ve done together before. I’ll say to one of my chefs, remember that clam dish we did, we’re going to do it with these razor clams. So that is very helpful. If I had two sous chefs that I never worked with that would be impossible. It would be like, okay, you cut onions, cut garlic, and then I have to do the rest because they’d have no point of reference for what I’m talking about.
CURTIS STONE: I mean, when you yell out to one of your sous chefs to do a lamb gyro, he knows what you’ll probably want that lamb gyro to be. We’ve never made one before, but we’ve cooked meat over a spit together before and we’ve broken down lambs before, so he knows. But we didn’t have our sous chefs in all of the battles either, so that’s a challenge too. It was fun for me because in a restaurant environment you have to rely on your sous chefs all the time. There’s no way you can be on the stoves and doing everything. And there are five different stations of stoves, so you’ve got to divide and conquer. But then when they take the sous chefs away, it’s like, okay, it’s just me. And in some ways, that’s kind of empowering. It was super fun.
In the Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend finale, the Iron Chefs worked sans sous chefs, so I asked Chef Tsai and Chef Stone if they jumped right in and said I can do this or if they wished that they’d had their sous chefs alongside them? They both chuckled before responding.
MING TSAI: We always wish we had our sous chefs, that’s for sure. But obviously, you just pick a dish that you know you can do by yourself because now you have to do everything. The butchering of this or that, the prep, the garlic, you have to do everything yourself. The one thing that does happen, especially in the finale, is we taste each other’s food. I want Curtis to taste my sauce and I taste his sauce and Dominique tries this one because we all have pretty good palates, right? And by the way, I don’t care how good of a chef you are, after you taste your sauce five times, you lose the ability to taste it anymore. So you have to have someone else taste it. We all become each other’s sous chef in a way. We don’t really help each other, but in the end, some chefs have an easier dish and when they’re done, if they have 10 extra minutes, they’ll come over and help. Gabby came over and helped out, I helped Dominique a little bit. Because we’re all there and we have one goal. We have to win. We have to win.
CURTIS STONE: That relationship is an interesting one. It’s a bit like a pro golfer and a caddy. A lot of people think caddies just carry your clubs, but of course, they don’t. They tell you how hard to hit the ball. They tell you which iron to select. They tell you two cups to the left when you’re putting, you know? And sometimes you’ll taste something and if you don’t have someone that’s gonna also taste it and give you their feedback, you won’t prepare as interesting a dish. So it’s humbling in a way and makes you realize how important your team is. And then when you have to be each other’s sous chef as well, it’s delicate. Right? I don’t wanna say to Ming, dude, you should have done it like this or likewise, he wouldn’t wanna say it to me. But you’ve gotta be there for each other too. Like, does it need a little acid? You ask each other those questions of balance so that you can help because you’re on the same team and have the same goal.
In a video package that shared his thoughts on competing on Quest for an Iron Legend, Iron Chef Stone said that the bright lights of Kitchen Stadium were going to dim his smile. He also said that he’s primal and primitive. Having made those comments heading into battle, I asked him to reflect on the experience.
CURTIS STONE: There’s a certain amount of that white line fever that I think some of us get and I’m certainly one of them. I’m super nice and friendly until the competition starts. And then I’m like, get out of my way. I’ve got a lot to do in these 60 minutes. Like, don’t make a mess near my station because this is where I’m working. So I think you sort of do get really laser-focused in what you want and you probably do get a little shorter in the way you communicate and you probably do, if someone’s in your way, you push ‘em out of it. You’ve gotta try and achieve what you want to achieve. So I’m probably a bit like that in a kitchen anyway, but I’m pretty jovial as long as everyone’s moving in the right direction. I don’t yell or scream, but when we do start service, I’m serious. I’m focused. I wanna make sure that everything goes out right. The more intense that environment becomes, of course, the more focused you get.
In one episode of Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend, guest judge Wolfgang Puck told Iron Chef Tsai that his dish was almost better than sex. Needless to say, I was compelled to get his reaction to the comment.
MING TSAI: (Laughs) That made the show?! We haven’t seen it yet. I was so excited when he said that. (Turns to Curtis Stone and continues) You don’t know this, but I made a Paul Bocuse colubiac and Wolfgang stuck his nose in to smell and his glasses got all steamy. And Alton’s like Chef Puck, and he’s like, he literally is like, just wait. And then he said, “this is better than sex.” Oh my god, Wolfgang just said that.
That almost legitimized my entire career in a way. I mean, the fact that Wolfgang Puck, Curtis knows Wolfie really well as well, I mean he’s an icon. And for him to say that I was floored. I was almost speechless because you never expect that from someone like Wolfie. But let’s be blunt, there are other judges that are equally iconic that will say things that you don’t want to hear. And because I’m not a perfect chef, Curtis isn’t either, but you know, what I love, I don’t wanna say I love criticism, but when it’s actually true and coming from someone that knows, that has the chops, that’s incredibly helpful for me. Because I wanna be an Iron Chef for the next 10 or 20 years. This isn’t just a one season thing. And I absolutely have room to get better. We all do.
After watching the full season of Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend, I’m inclined to believe that additional seasons are on the horizon. The show recaptures the magic of Kitchen Stadium and with this new group of Iron Chefs, there are endless new battles waiting to be waged.
Making that assumption and in anticipation of a second season and subsequent seasons, I asked Iron Chef Tsai and Iron Chef Stone what they learned from their experience and how they’d apply that going forward.
CURTIS STONE: Um, I saw one clip, and my hair just looked like I’d combed it with a toffee apple. I think maybe I’d look in a mirror in between doing the competition and going up in front of the judges because you know, you just look like you’ve been going at it. But that’s just me being vain. I think at the end of the day, you walk in there and you just give it everything you’ve got and the 60 minutes feels like 20 minutes and you know, you almost wish that your ambition was a little more manageable. But in saying that, I know I’ll never change that. I’ll always try and do more than I can fit into the 60 minutes. And at some point, just get it on the plate, you know? And you see someone like Dominique, she’s very controlled in what she does and she doesn’t try and do too much, but I always will. I’m okay with it. I’m okay with my franticness.
MING TSAI: I’m not as vain as Curtis. (Laughs) That’s not a big statement. There are more techniques, especially in Asian cuisine. And I’m pretty well-versed in Asian cuisines, but I would love to be able to get even deeper into some of this stuff. I.E., this is me thinking aloud next time. Should I try to make my own miso, my own soy sauce, my own won ton wrappers? All of these staples I just grab, but there may be a better miso out there if I make it. Of course the fermentation process, you can’t do it in 60 minutes. But there are things. I mean, Curtis is a master of doughs, pizza doughs, rotis, and all that. And pasta. So there’s another level I could get even more rudimentary and fundamental and try to bring that to Kitchen Stadium. That could really add to what I’m doing.
I just think for me, and Curtis knows, I’d kind of hung my knives up. Like the last time I competed, 10 years ago, I’m like, okay, been there, done that. Now I’m just gonna judge because you can never lose while judging and it’s no stress. Just show up and you eat. That’s not very hard to do, right. Not to downplay what our judges are doing, but you don’t have to really prepare for it. You just have to have a good palate and have a good brain. But I’m so psyched that I’m back in it, back in the race. It’s why we’re chefs and I’m gonna do this for as long as I possibly can. I want to go deep, deep into this because it’s still a little surreal. We’re really Iron Chefs. I know we are, but it’s really come to fruition and honestly, I’m tickled. I’m very proud.
And proud Iron Chef Tsai and Iron Chef Stone should be, because they, along with Iron Chefs Camara, Crenn, and Samuelsson, have come bearing culinary gifts, the sum of which is Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend. With the franchise’s triumphant return to Kitchen Stadium, an iconic venue in the annals of food competition shows if ever there was one, Netflix has reunited fans with an old friend.