If you have the opportunity to see Kim Severson of the New York Times speak, host a panel, or interview someone live, try not to miss it! She's easily one of the most gracious and engaging people in the food industry — as well as one of the funniest — and a big part of why yesterday's Iron Chef America: Behind The Scenes TimesTalk with Bobby Flay, Jose Garces and Masaharu Morimoto went so well.
On food as competition:
Flay: "I think TV is about competition, food just happens to be the topic right now." He thinks TV will get over it eventually and that food shows will go back to being on specific networks like Food Network and Cooking Channel, and that every possible cooking competition has already been done. Flay notes that every single one of his TV shows is about competition, though his original pitch for the Food Network show Throwdown wasn't that way; he envisioned it as just cooking dishes, feeding people, and then fade to black, "but of course, in this day and age of television, you have to have a result at the end."
He says he has no interest in competition on Throwdown because "going around the country, sneaking up on these nice people and crushing them, it's not what I set out to do"—at which point Morimoto said "EHHHH?!?" rather loudly—but that he always wants to win on Iron Chef. The challengers have known have known that they're going to be on the show for a few months, and "that's all they think of. They basically want to hit us with a baseball bat."
Behind the scenes of Iron Chef America:
Kim Severson asks what it's like to crank out 23 episodes of Iron Chef America in just three weeks; they shoot two episodes a day, though only one per Iron Chef. Flay says, "We have the home court advantage because we know where everything is. Even knowing where the ladle is, that's an advantage."
Severson calculated their win percentages as Iron Chefs: Flay's is 69.9%, Masaharu Morimoto's is 61.7% (not counting his appearances as an OG Iron Chef Japan), Jose Garces's is something like 75%, but he's new and has only done ten battles as an Iron Chef. The toughest chefs they've battled: Flay says José Andrés and Michelle Bernstein, Garces says two of Andrés's chef de cuisines, Morimoto says Michael Symon. Note that Flay and Garces both named chefs they lost to; Morimoto named someone who's now an Iron Chef himself.
Challengers get to pick which Iron Chef they compete against in advance, so it's not like all the Iron Chefs are waiting around in the green room before the taping. And you find out which particular ingredient you'll be cooking with 45 minutes or so ahead of the taping and it's usually between three to four particular ingredients, so you have time to plan menus for each and request ingredients for your pantry; you don't go in blind or unprepared, it's not a surprise. Flay almost always requests the same pantry every single time, as does Garces; Morimoto likes to order different things and mix it up. Iron Chef provides a pantry full of everything you've ordered—not just what you've ordered for a particular menu—so you can't guess what the ingredient is in advance by looking through your pantry.
Something viewers probably don't realize: they cook once for the cameras, get a breather, and then have to cook again for what's served to the judges. They flip a coin to see who goes first. Flay: "You get ready, first person. Present the first of your five dishes to the judges—you have 45 minutes total. Then the second person goes. The judging goes on for two hours."
How they feel about being Iron Chefs:
Flay: "It's the month I don't look forward to, I have to admit. but people love it. I like the competition—I was an athlete as a kid, so this is my last form of athleticism." Garces: "It's a great way to document one's worth. To compete on a national stage is a thrill and an honor." Morimoto: "This is a very special kind of job, an honor, to do this." He says he vacillates between "love it, hate it, love it, hate it."
They all still get very nervous before tapings—even Flay and Morimoto, both of whom have been doing Iron Chef for years. Morimoto admits that his hands actually shake up until he picks up a knife.
On cooking in the internet age:
Morimoto, talking about how everyone's a critic, on Twitter, Facebook and blogs: "Now it's very difficult, we're on the same stage. Whatever you say, I have to hear." Severson asks, "With the democratization of the food critic, are you listening to customers more now?" Flay says, "I Twitter to let people know what I'm up to. I can't read. You just can't do it. You can't read the comments on everything that you do."
On the worth of culinary school:
Severson asks if it's easier to hire qualified people now that culinary schools are in vogue. Flay says, "I think it's harder, because people who graduate from culinary school only want to do one thing: get a TV show." Severson: "Whose fault is that, Mr. Flay?" Touché! His advice for people who want to get into the kitchen—especially the people who work in offices and cook at home, whose friends constantly tell them they should cook for a living—is that they should test the environment, because cooking for a living is very different than cooking at home. He says you should go pick a restaurant you love and beg them for a job, for a month, for free, and do that.
Morimoto never went to cooking school and came up the ranks the old-fashioned Japanese way, doing every single job in the restaurant: dishwasher, waiter, delivery boy, etcetera. He got his break because he lived above the restaurant and got called down to do everything if no one else was available to do it.
Nota bene: Love him or hate him, Flay is obviously a very smart guy with a lot to say and dominated most of the conversation; he clearly does a lot of thinking about the food industry and television and we'd love to sit down with the man to pick his brain. Likewise with Morimoto, who as it turns out is extremely funny, with near-perfect comedic timing, and has no qualms about interrupting when he has a joke to make. It would've been nice to hear more from Garces, but it seemed like he wasn't quite as comfortable yet speaking about being an Iron Chef as the other two, which was a bit of a bummer given that he's an accomplished chef and restaurateur in his own right: a James Beard winner with eight restaurants and over five hundred employees.