Gentlemen, Start Your Ovens...
The Iron Chef America dress rehearsal is a chance for Alton Brown and the gang to hone their moves and have a little fun with an unlikely secret ingredient.
The secret ingredient—Doritos!—was a little silly, but the substitute Iron Chefs didn't joke around.
Beneath the dramatic swinging lights of Kitchen Stadium, the stage for Food Network's heated Iron Chef America battles, a distinctive scent wafts from the stoves. It's a comforting aroma—but also a little weird. Totally familiar, and yet really hard to place. Hiding behind a wall of cameramen and grips and culinary assistants lies the source: Doritos. Bags and bags of them.
"Finally," a production assistant says, rushing by with some gear, "they're using a secret ingredient that doesn't make me feel bad about what I eat!"
Fans of Iron Chef America know that the show pits chefs from across the country against one of the reigning Iron Chefs, and that the culinary battle always centers on a secret ingredient: chocolate, maybe, or lobster, or even pricey kobe beef. So what are humble Doritos doing in Kitchen Stadium? Today is the never-seen-on-TV dress rehearsal, a chance for commentator Alton Brown, floor reporter Kevin Brauch and the rest of the cast and crew to calibrate their gear, do a real-time run-through and have a little fun before they start taping episodes for the new season. Previous dress-rehearsal ingredients have included Spam and Cheese Whiz, but Doritos is the most challenging yet. On the upside, today's competing chefs have options: Cool Ranch or Nacho Cheese.
Subbing in for the Iron Chef and challenger in this preseason battle are two behind-the-scenes Food Network stars: Rob Bleifer, the network's executive chef, and culinary purchasing manager Dave Mechlowicz. Each is leading a team of colleagues, and although the secret ingredient is a bit of a goof, both camps are taking the competition seriously. The abbreviated 45-minute time limit (real Iron Chef battles last an hour) means even less room for error.
Each side has a game plan. "Since the Dorito is such a humble couch-potato ingredient," Rob says, "I thought we'd elevate it to new heights and see if we can make it work as a fancy chef ingredient." With that in mind, he pulls out a long piece of fish for a Dorito-dusted flash-seared salmon.
Dave takes a more lowbrow approach to his menu. "I don't want anything too restaurant-y or too froufrou. I'm doing comfortable, familiar foods. Like, we're creating a dish you eat out of the bag." For his Dorito Misto, Dave's take on classic Italian fritto misto, his team members are busily prepping shrimp, squid and cauliflower, which they'll coat in pulverized Nacho Cheese Doritos, fry and stuff back into the Doritos bag for presentation. Alton chimes in, with commentary. "Nice to actually see some vegetables over on Dave's side," he jokes, "since they seem to be working the 75th pound of butter into that crisp."
Critical as it is for everyone here to practice the technical aspects of their jobs, the rehearsal is also a chance for them to bond and let off steam before spending the next two-and-a-half weeks on 14-hour shoots. Alton's great off-camera humor always sets just the right mood. "I've worked at Food Network close to 14 years," Rob says. "The two rehearsal battles I've done are two of the most fun days I've had in all my time here."
As the final countdown in Battle Dorito echoes over the speakers ("5...4...3..."), both teams hurry to plate their food, which will be critiqued by Food Network colleagues. In the end, they like most of what they taste. But unlike the actual show, no winner is declared—it's all for fun. Dave's Doritoccini pasta with pancetta, caramelized onions and Dorito parmesan and Rob's Dorito-infused corn custard topped with lobster and sautéed wild mushrooms are big hits. Rob worried that the chips would overpower some of his dishes' more subtle ingredients, but it looks like his fear was unfounded.
The most common complaint from the judges, as voiced by one who was tasting the salmon: "I feel like I didn't get enough chip. I wanted more...Dorito-ness!"
Flip through our Iron Chef behind-the-scenes scrapbook