It appears that television viewers crave something beyond cooking shows highlighting culinary techniques. Nowadays, food-related programming’s value no longer lies in its ability to inform. Rather, viewers obtain pure enjoyment simply by watching the glorification of food; they have no real intention to actually cook or eat. In other words, they watch food porn (Bourdain).
Embracing food porn’s popularity, food-related programming now not only includes beautifully-arranged dishes but intense drama as well. Made with a recipe of part cooking show, part competition, and part reality television, Iron Chef America is one of Food Network’s solutions to provide audiences with more engaging entertainment experiences. An industry analysis and examination of semiotics reveal that production and structural components of Iron Chef America create a performance to highlight the masculinity of cooking and encourage audiences to abandon their preconceptions of cooking as feminine.
Iron Chef America, based off an originally Japanese production, pits a celebrity chef, called an Iron Chef, against a challenger chef in an arena titled Kitchen Stadium. The Chairman, the mastermind behind the duel, presents the two chefs with a secret ingredient that they are to incorporate into five dishes within one hour. All dishes are then scored by three judges in the categories of taste, originality, and creativity. Ultimately, the chef with the highest points wins. To help viewers make sense of the competition, there is also a commentator and a host to report what is going on during the battle (Sietsema).
Kitchen Stadium is not so much a large arena as a small studio in New York’s Chelsea Market. To put size into perspective, the original Japanese version took place in a 9,100 square foot studio while the American version is filmed in a 375 square foot studio (Benwick). The production constraint of studio size heavily influences how the show is constructed. In addition to the chefs, their sous chefs, the judges, and commentators, there are approximately 127 crew members and 10 cameras on the production side that capture the battle and ensure it runs smoothly. Then tack on thousands of feet of cable, 160 moving lights, multiple fog machines, over two dozen audience members, and pantries with over 800 pounds of food (Alfonsi). The small, crowded space means that producers cannot invoke the same grandeur and larger-than-life feel as its Japanese predecessor. However, the minimized space ultimately works in the show’s favor. While there is a greater chance of mishap and difficulty getting all angles of the battle, the crowded space facilitates the drama and intensity intended for the show. Chefs have to maneuver around not only kitchen fixtures but also production equipment and thus frequently run to and from work stations and cook franticly to make up for lost time. This makes audience’s believe the extreme nature of the competition and that cooking is not such a simple task (Caldwell). In addition, the physical barriers often force chefs to run around or leap over objects and subsequently chop or mix furiously to make up lost time. As a result, the competition is given a masculine presentation with its requirement of physical ability in addition to cooking creativity.
The show’s major production constraint also aids Food Network’s aims to present the show as a professionally-made, serious construction. Rather than try to mask the behind-the-scenes production, Iron Chef America embraces it. It’s not uncommon to see cameramen in the backgrounds of shots or all the hardware necessary for the shoot left exposed. Such transparency adds to the reality aspect of the show and highlights the pressures and commotion that chefs must endure on top of having to cook five dishes with a secret ingredient. The chaos and disorder, commonly associated with masculinity, contrast directly with Food Network’s daily programming, where mainly female homemakers such as Ina Garten and Ree Drummond address viewers in pristine, quiet kitchens. Any cameras or backstage workers are nowhere in sight, and viewers are made to feel as if they are truly in the host’s own kitchen.
Further signs of masculinity are reiterated through Iron Chef America’s main commentator, Alton Brown. Brown’s approach to cooking, as seen on his show Good Eats, involves understanding science and using modern gadgets (Jones). This more masculine approach sits in line with the macho take on cooking that Iron Chef America aims to present. In his commentary, Brown also utilizes a play by play method reminiscent of sports games, and he also frequently utilizes instant replays. As a result, the competition between the chefs is compared to masculine, athletic competitions such as football that one might see on networks geared towards men such as ESPN (Bignell). This further distances viewers from the image of home cooking associated with by mothers and wives.
Further analysis of production routines and practices provides interesting evidence that Iron Chef America influences the audience’s perception that cooking can be masculine. The Food Network typically shoots an entire season, roughly 26 episodes, in just three weeks. This means that battles often occur back-to-back and that Iron Chef America is more staged than real, as no time can be wasted on mishaps or incomplete dishes (Alfonsi). Chefs are told the secret ingredient ahead of time so that they can prepare recipes. In addition, they only have to make one plate for each of their five dishes; the other plates for the rest of the judges are prepared by Food Network staff. Such falsity interestingly contrasts with the masculine image that Iron Chef America aims to promote. The chefs actually become actors as they try to fake surprise or confusion, and they most likely dramatize their actions and expressions (Sietsema). The result includes wild movements and lots of noise, both of which tend to be associated with masculinity. On the other hand, one may also argue that the pre-knowledge contributes to a lack of spontaneity which may decrease form the perception of masculinity.
Iron Chef America attempts to appeal to viewers’ hunger for drama by presenting a masculine side to cooking. This is largely facilitated by elements surrounding the show’s production and structure. As viewers being to focus less on actual cooking and more on the thought of cooking and eating, further analysis might include a look into audience’s reactions and receptions of Iron Chef America, especially in relation to whether or not the show even inspires them to cook themselves or appreciate food more. The show assumes that most of its viewers have a very limited knowledge of cooking and food, but it might be examined whether viewers finish the show with enhanced knowledge or merely satisfaction with the depictions of food. It is no wonder that the show opens with the lines “Go cook!” and ends with “Good eating.”
Alfonsi, Sharyn, and Sarah Rosenberg. “‘Iron Chef’ Secrets Revealed.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 25 July 2008. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.
Benwick, Bonnie. “‘Iron Chef America,’ as Saucy as Its Predecessor.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 15 Jan. 2005. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.
Bignell, Jonathan. Media Semiotics: An Introduction. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1997. Print.
Bourdain, Anthony. “Lust for the Gastronomic–from Zola to Cookbooks–is Nothing New, but Maybe It’s Time to Shelve It.” SFGate. Hearst Communications, Inc., 4 Nov. 2001. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.
Caldwell, John. “Cultures of Production.” Media Industries: History, Theory, and Method. By Jennifer Holt and Alisa Perren. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 199-212. Print.
Jones, Chris. “TV Chef’s Stage Shtick Not Always Palatable.” Chicago Tribune. Tribune Company, 10 Feb. 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.
Sietsema, Robert. “Iron Chef Boyardee.” Village Voice. Village Voice, 19 Feb. 2008. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.