The chefs aren't completely surprised by the secret ingredient because they have been given a few possible options beforehand.
And on the day of the challenge, they can probably figure out which ingredient it is based upon which shopping list has been purchased for them.
The matchups are also planned in advance, with challengers choosing their opponents weeks earlier. All of that makes it possible for producers to order the right ingredients that the chefs will use to prepare their dishes with the secret ingredient, but it also makes the show somewhat less challenging than it comes off on TV.
Both of these facts were confirmed in a fascinating behind-the-scenes piece in The Journal News' Rockland Magazine by Peter Kelly, who defeated Bobby Flay during an episode of "Iron Chef America." He says he chose Bobby Flay in part because "beating him would be a big deal" and that in Kitchen Stadium, the other Iron Chefs are "actually silhouetted stand-ins," not the real chefs.
As to the secret ingredient, he says producers gave him "three possibilities: swordfish, pork or cowboy steak. So I come up with three separate ingredient lists — only one of which they'll actually purchase for the battle." Kelly also revealed that they actually knew the secret ingredient before taping on the episode began because they could see which ingredients had been purchased for them.
He and his sous chefs rehearsed multiple times with each possible ingredient, so the show is like a live performance of something that's had several dress rehearsals. Does that make their preparation of three dishes in 60 minutes any less dramatic? Perhaps a little, because they're not being instantaneously creative.
But as is clear from watching the show, cooking that much that fast offers plenty of pressure and drama.
The original Iron Chef is absolutely my favorite cooking show, ever. Everything about the show was foreign, unfamiliar, new and exciting. If the secret ingredient was familiar, how it was used was unique. If the secret ingredient was unique, it was used in a familiar preparation. The wholeness of culture and culinary practice was very impressive, but foreign. They prepared food in accordance with their seasons, holidays and traditions, which proved drastically different from our ham on Easter, BBQ for Independence Day, and turkey for Thanksgiving. Not only was the original Iron Chef a glimpse into a different cultures' kitchen, but in different cultures' culinary traditions.
On the other hand, Iron Chef America seems to be a well-rehearsed machine, and it is glimpses into the making of the show that re-affirm this notion. I remember on the old show, chefs cut themselves or burnt their hand or didn’t finish plating. Shoot, even our own national pride was in Bobby Flay when he electrocuted himself. On ICA, nothing bad has happened in all the episodes I’ve seen. Everything is smoother than an "Emeril Live" episode!!! No mess ups,not even a spill, a drop, a misplacement! Wow, no one failed anything! Not impressive. Is the kitchen too cozy? Are the chefs not challenging themselves because being on the show and not screwing up is publicity enough? Who cares about winning?
Perhaps I’m just being too critical. We have our own Iron Chef now in Michael Symon. I’ve eaten at his restaurant many times over the past 8 years and am very familiar with his style. Shoot, I glanced into Lola just 2 hours ago on my way home and got the, "hey, chef guy" nod from Michael while he chatted up a couple at his bar. Am I too familiar with ICA to trulyappreciate it? Is the original Iron Chef truly the best culinary TV show ever made???