The lights go up. The Chairman gives a devilish smile, asks, “Whose cuisine will reign supreme?”, and probably does a backflip. Knife slicing sound effects are abundant. The secret ingredient is revealed, and two talented, famous chefs go running to their stations.
You likely know what it’s like to watch an exciting episode of Iron Chef America, but there’s only one man in our country who’s seen it all go down from the sidelines of Kitchen Stadium: Kevin Brauch, aka Alton Brown’s “favourite Canadian.” I caught up with him just days before he jetted off to New York City to film the 12th season of the show.
Why is Iron Chef always filmed in July?
Kevin Brauch: It makes sense to film in bulk. We go down and we do anywhere from a dozen to 26 shows over the course of a month, hard and fast. The chefs are busy and important people, but their restaurants are arguably at their lowest levels during the hot summer months so it’s the perfect time. And Alton’s calendar’s really busy and July seems to be the best month of the year for him to do it.
What do you do personally to prepare for filming?
I research all the chefs that are on the show and I revisit my source books for culinary ingredients. I’ll make sure I watch a couple of the best episodes from the previous season, to feel the energy.
What’s a typical day like for you on set?
Well, in Season 11, when we hit 200 episodes, we created a new format. Now, in 20 minutes the first dish is up, and there’s scoring and judging that I’m involved in. Then for the rest of the show we know who’s winning and who’s behind. At the 40-minute mark we have the “culinary curveball,” which is akin to a second secret ingredient (or pieces of kitchen equipment) that needs to be utilized with only 20 minutes left. So the routine has altered slightly from previous years.
I’m up extremely early. Ice the knees, shower, shave. At work, the first hour is spent in my personal green room studying and prepping, and then you head to hair and makeup, and then you’re on the floor. There are some quick exchanges with the crew, with the executives and the directors. We all know our jobs, we’re all good at our jobs, so there’s nothing radical that needs to be done. We’ve been doing it for so long now. You engage the audience a bit if possible, and special guests. You always take the time to say hello to the judges, though most of the time that happens when we’re in hair and makeup.
The chefs are the ones that you want to think about the most and respect the most and talk to the least. For me, there’s a polite introduction to the challengers if I don’t already know them. I don’t want to do too much before the show starts with them; I don’t want to ask them questions. I’ll have researched them and I know what I want to say but I let them focus. When I interact with them it’s mostly on set during the 60-minute battle, so I keep the answers fresh.
Other than getting more screen time, what do you like about the new format?
It’s more dynamic. It’s reinvigorated the people that work on the show, the brand, the end result. It’s more exciting, it’s faster paced; instead of having a show that had a big beat at the beginning, which would be the secret ingredient, and a big beat at the end, which would be the judging and the decision… It wasn’t uninteresting but it had a larger hole in the middle where things were a bit more routine. Shows like Chopped and Top Chef, which were built after us, have constant activity. Now, not only do we have more constant activity throughout the body of the show, they’ve also allowed Alton and I to be seen on camera more. They let us banter more and have more fun. It seems to have let everyone’s personalities come out a bit more.
What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened while filming?
David Adjey almost blowing himself up by setting butane too close to the gas grill on his side of Kitchen Stadium. The bottle exploded. I was 20-feet away and I could feel the heat of the explosion. Adjey and another guy’s arm hair were singed and the cap of the butane container ended up on Alton’s desk.
Do you ever get to try the food?
Yup! They cook five portions: one for photography, three plates for the judges, one for the Chairman (Mark Dacascos). He eats more than anybody because he’s involved in every single show, and every dish that’s made, there’s a dish made for him. So we do two shows in a day, fives dishes from every chef, he’s eating 20 plates of food a day. So if I really want to get in there and try something, I have the best chance of getting his dish once he’s done with it. He enjoys his food but since he’s a stuntman when he’s not being the Chairman, he’s not finishing his plate. That’s the best place to get some. Or I get to share something with Alton if the chefs throw us a bone.
How do chefs get chosen to compete?
Seldom is there any more than one Canadian in a year, since it’s Iron Chef America. The simple answer is that the cream rises to the top. If you’re good (the producers) are going to find out about you. Being a chef is one thing; being a chef on television is a completely different muscle, a completely different exercise. Chefs who get invited to appear have typically had some media experience, they’ve done morning television, they’ve done stage performances. They’ve had opportunities to cook outside of their kitchen, which you really need to be comfortable with for success in Kitchen Stadium.
Does Alton really know it all or does he have help looking like he does?
He knows everything and then some. He’s the smartest man on food TV. He’s the culinary integrity of the network.
What’s the secret to winning a battle?[Mario] Batali had it right: make a cocktail. Most of the chefs, especially the Iron Chefs, have picked up on that. The judges want to be wooed. Start with a strong drink – it’s extra hospitality. What dish doesn’t go better with a nice glass of alcohol next to it? The thing to remember is, you can be a chef competing in Kitchen Stadium and you can cook the best food you’ve ever cooked in your life; it can be a dish you’re cooking for the first time or it can be a dish you’ve cooked 100 times. But it’s not about you. At some point it becomes about the judges, what they think about your food. Judging is as much about them and how they see things as it is about you. It’s a game, and when you choose to be judged by somebody else you’re being judged by their standards, not yours. You could cook what is to you the best dish ever, but if the judge doesn’t agree with you, it doesn’t matter.
What’s your favourite thing to do in New York City on your off time?
Go to the Russian Spa. Have a beer and a pretzel at The Standard Hotel‘s beer garden. Sit in my room and enjoy the view of the Hudson River. Eat and drink the city and start to feel like a real New Yorker.