Fans meet, mingle with ‘Iron Chef’ stars at Napa dinner cooked by the contestants themselves
The dumplings were things of beauty.
Cream-infused poached lobster puree and fresh herbs came tucked into a thin wrapper of chicken skin. The crispy, sauteed bundles were set in a rich broth of roasted lobster shell-bourbon dashi with sweet corn, hon shimeji mushrooms and bok choy.
As guests at Napa’s Culinary Institute of America at Copia spooned up the delicate dish, the excitement in the room was palpable. After a four-year hiatus, “Iron Chef” is back, with five of the world’s top culinary masters going head-to-head with up-and-coming chefs in a new eight-part series on Netflix. And for nearly 200 fans in Wine Country, the June 15 event was a chance to watch a sneak peek of the season finale, meet the chefs and savor a meal cooked by the celebrities themselves.
While some critics have recently called “Iron Chef” insignificant, as it bobs amid a sea of food reality TV competition shows, it was clear the Napa audience was having none of that. During the show, they cheered for the more dramatic bits, clapped for the complicated dishes that turned out successfully and giddily yelled along when chairman and martial arts master Mark Dacascos uttered his opening catch phrase, “Allez cuisine!”
The event hosted by the Napa Valley Film Festival had quickly sold out, proving that even after being on air since 1993, “Iron Chef” still has a loyal following among foodies.
One guest stood up to address the chefs after the screening, and said, tearfully, “This past two-and-a-half years of being homebound and being in my head ... to be able to watch you again ... each of you has been such a part of my life ... just thank you.”
The finale pitted Esther Choi of Brooklyn’s Mŏkbar against the “Iron Chef” team of Dominique Crenn (of the three-Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn in San Francisco); Marcus Samuelsson (a dozen restaurants across America, Canada, the Bahamas and Europe); Ming Tsai (cookbook author and culinary entrepreneur /TV celebrity); Gabriela Cámara (Contramar in Mexico City and Cala in San Francisco) and Curtis Stone in a action-packed seafood smack-down that included that delectable Lobster Bird dumpling created by Samuelsson.
In this new format, the chefs had just one hour to create their impromptu recipes, with the extra challenge that Choi and her two sous chefs had to prepare five seafood dishes against one dish each by the Iron Chefs.
Through interviews after the screening, the chefs and program hosts Alton Brown and Kristen Kish reflected on the series’ history and how to keep it relevant nearly three decades after it launched. The finale was taped more than a year ago, during COVID-19.
“It’s incredible to think that we did it during the pandemic — wondering do we matter anymore,” mused Samuelsson about the many restaurants forced to close across the world. “So for me, the show became therapeutic, since we express ourselves through our food.”
Cámara agreed, noting that the timing added extra stress to an already demanding competition.
“I wanted to do the show because it was a really hard time for us,” she said. “It was the end of the pandemic, but not really over yet, so we were all rethinking what we were doing.”
Pitting Choi’s team of three against the “Iron Chef” team of five seemed unfair at first, Tsai said. But Brown interrupted.
“She was working with a machine she knows, so in sync with her sous chefs,” he said. “The Iron Chefs frankly have their own agendas. Yes, we’re going to win as a team. But ha, really, screw you. And the Iron Chefs haven’t worked together before and have no sous chefs, so it’s easy to lose track of things.”
Even for highly accomplished chefs like Crenn, the competition remains a standout among other culinary shows.
“The battle was a good experience of cooking together,” she said. “Even though it’s like, hey, I’m in the weeds, wow, I learned a lot. And it was amazing to watch the culinary artistry, though sometimes I had to wonder — and I won’t say who they were — what the hell are they doing (with their dish)?”
So who reigned supreme, in the bid to capture the prize of the famous Golden Knife? Spoiler alert: The Iron Chef team won the battle, leaving Choi, 36, feeling “surreal and emotional,” as she scored 82 points from judges including original “Iron Chef” Masaharu Morimoto, ultimately losing by just one point.
But viewers haven’t seen the last of Choi, the chef promised, hinting the reimagined competition would continue.
“I lost,” she said. “Losing is losing, whether it be by a lot or a little. But I’m glad, in a way, because now I get to be on Season 2 for my redemption.”