Looking Ahead to Food Network’s Revival of the Iron Chef Franchise

This weekend, Food Network will début “Iron Chef: Gauntlet”, their first go at reviving the storied franchise. 

This Sunday, Food Network will revive the cooking competition that’s as old as they are: Iron Chef. Both the channel, and the original variation of Iron Chef that aired in Japan, debuted in 1993, though Food Network did not begin airing those episodes over here until 1999. At the time, cooking competition shows were basically unknown in the United States, and the channel, which was mostly just stand-and-stir type shows, was just getting their first taste of what the network would become today.

It wasn’t until 2004 , when Food Network decided to try their hand at a spin-off Iron Chef: America, that the concept went from cult hit among foodies who giggled in awe over such exotic sounding ingredients like “Shark fin” and “swallow’s nest” to bona fide hit. The show tried to tie back to the original, bringing in original Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto and promoting network staple Bobby Flay (who had been a challenger on the original program) to Iron Chef. But some fans of the original series complained about the dumbing down of the concept to be more accessible American audience, (the off-the-wall ingredients were now things like “pizza dough”). But that was just the adjustment the program needed to thrive. Throw in Alton Brown doing most of the talking while the “Chairman” merely did a few backflips, and you had a winner.

During the show’s heyday, Iron Chef: America was not just a trusted ratings getter, but also a conduit for bringing in new talent. Anne Burrell, for instance, began as Mario Batali’s sou chef in charge of pastry. When Batali left the show, it gave the network the excuse to start The Next Iron Chef, a reality competition series to find a replacement, and one where Alton Brown was billed as the star, instead of the second in command.

The concept proved so popular they ran the show for three seasons, each time hoping the new blood they brought in would help juice the original program. (It also served as a talent farm for the network as it expanded the competition prime time lineup. Many of the network’s regular faces originated from NIC including Michael Symon, Aaron Sanchez, Amanda Freitag and Eric Greenspan.)

The Next Iron Chef Logo. Image via Food Network/Scripps Network

But as that primetime lineup expanded, the quirks that once made Iron Chef: America so endearing–like the fact that it took an hour to cook the entire meal–began to go stale especially in the face of other programming like the runaway hit Chopped. In later seasons, the show tried to jazz things up, by showing the teams planning out their dishes, having dishes served earlier in the program, a Chairman’s “culinary curveball” that would be thrown halfway through the hour and more transparency in the scoring.

But by 2012 the show was clearly on the wane. Episodes became more “specials” than seasons, with “Tournament of Champions” rounds and “Iron Chef vs Iron Chef” battles, suggesting that the show could no longer find enough well-known chefs willing to take part. In 2013, The Next Iron Chef disappeared off the schedule without a word, never to return, with the main program quietly following the next year.

The show that returns this Sunday, billed as an “elite competition”, at first blushed looked as if it might be a return to those one-off “Iron Chef vs Iron Chef” type specials.

But once the trailer hit the web, with the introduction of “seven new challengers” it became a question: is this a return to Iron Chef: America, or The Next Iron Chef?

Check out Food Network’s breakdown of the new series:

Iron Chef Gauntlet: Challengers. Image via Food Network/Scripps Network

Iron Chef Gauntlet is an elite competition that will see seven of the most-renowned culinary superstars face off in the hopes of securing the ultimate culinary title: Iron Chef. But for a chance at this coveted crown, these hopeful challengers will have to prevail over not just each other, though that’s indeed a crucial element to success. After five weeks of Chairman’s Challenges, judged by Kitchen Stadium guru Alton Brown, and all-or-nothing Secret Ingredient Showdowns, the last chef standing will enter a three-ringed gauntlet. It’s in that pressure-packed finale that the remaining challenger will put his or her culinary skills on the line and battle not one, not two, but three Iron Chefs — Bobby Flay, Masaharu Morimoto and Michael Symon — with as many Secret Ingredients.

The first few weeks sound like The Next Iron Chef, where each week was presented as a Chairman’s Challenge, and the losers would face off in Secret Ingredient Showdowns. (Food Network promises familiar faces from Iron Chef: America will turn up as well, including Next Iron Chef winners Jose Garces, Geoffrey Zakarian, and Alex Guarnaschelli as well as Next Iron Chef judge Donatella Arpaia.

The choice for the finale to have the contestants go up against three Iron Chefs in succession eliminates the need to have an actual season of Iron Chef: America to parade around the new winner, while simultaneously solving the “going nearly the whole hour without presenting food” that had become a problem as the show aged.

Iron Chef Gauntlet: Iron Chefs. Image via Food Network/Scripps Network

It also once again allows Morimoto, Flay and Symon to represent the show, without them having to commit to more than a single episode. If Food Network was looking for a viable way to keep the name Iron Chef on the schedule for the next few years, they could do a lot worst than this.

Iron Chef: Gauntlet premieres Sunday April 16th, at 9pm ET, with a one hour The Legend of Iron Chef special airing just prior, at 8pm.

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