How to Become an Iron Chef in Your Own Kitchen, According to Alton Brown
From time management to creativity, these are the skills every Iron Chef needs.
Avid viewers of Iron Chef watch the show in awe. The task before the elite chefs (the likes of Alex Guarnaschelli, Bobby Flay, and Stephanie Izard) and challengers on the cooking competition is Herculean: Cook a perfect meal in an hour, using just the ingredients provided, plus a secret ingredient—anything from halibut, to beer, to coconut—while the world watches. Though most of us succumb to the pressure of cooking a Thanksgiving dinner for family let alone creating world-class dishes for discerning judges, it's hard to watch the show and not wonder, could I become an Iron Chef? To find out, Food & Wine turned to the one person who knows the show better than anyone, host Alton Brown, ahead of season two of Iron Chef Gauntlet which premieres April 4.
Brown has been hosting Iron Chef shows (there are many spin-offs of the original) for 14 seasons, so he's seen the best of the best compete against each other for ultimate kitchen dominance. Most of us watching at home can only dream of achieving their level of cooking competence, but there is still much to learn from the Iron Chef battlefield—lessons that you can most certainly apply to your own kitchen.
"Real chefs at this level—this isn't going to sound glamorous—but they have amazing skills of organization," Brown tells Food & Wine. One of the most important skills an Iron Chef can have is the ability to "sequence out the order of things in which they need to be done."
At this point, Brown can usually predict what a chef plans to cook just by watching what order the chef preps her ingredients in. If the dough is being rolled out in the first fifteen minutes of an hour-long competition, the chef is likely making pasta, which needs to "hydrate and sit for a while," before being cooked.
Of course, technical abilities, like knife skills are "critical for this kind of operation," but Brown thinks that all Iron Chefs have strong organizational skills in common.
For cooks at home, that means planning out what you're going to make ahead of time, reading the recipe before you get started, and gathering all your ingredients. Time management—a huge part of the Iron Chef competition—folds directly into a mastery of organization. Even if you're not working with a recipe, Brown recommends jotting down on paper how long each "operation" of the meal will take. Most people skip this step, which Brown says leads to "a lot of frustration and failed meals."
In Iron Chef America the chefs usually have two sous chefs to help out during competition (this is not the case on Gauntlet, where most of the competition is one-on-one). Asking for help in the kitchen is indeed the mark of a good chef. Where should that help come from? Brown suggests recruiting the youngest members of your family; he's a big advocate for getting children into the kitchen to learn how to cook.
"Families and young people forget cooking is actually a group activity," he says.
Once you've mastered those two pillars of professional cooking, you can move onto the "single biggest challenge," Brown sees on the show: Knowing what tool to use, and when to use it. If you've only got an hour to cook dinner, you need kitchen appliances that will allow you to "bend space and time."
Brown says that as few as eight years ago, many chefs competing on Iron Chef didn't know how to use a pressure cooker. They simply were not used using tools that are the staples of home kitchens, but rarely appear in restaurants. But they adapted. Now even the microwave is commonly used in cooking competitions. For those of you at home, this means that you shouldn't be embarrassed to use tools that might make your life easier and make cooking dinner go faster, especially if you're short on time. It might be a shortcut, but it works.
Don't overthink it.
All this advice has to do with technique, which will hopefully produce what all cooks—amateur or professional—want: delicious food. Brown has one last piece of wisdom, but it that has nothing to do with what tool to use to cut your vegetables or melt your butter. It's not a trick or a hack, but a state of mind.
"Never forget the fact that creativity is never going to be trumped by flavor," he says.
Simply put, you shouldn't overthink your food. Creativity doesn't necessarily mean adding a cabinet full of seasoning or every garnish in your basket.
"One of the things I see over and over is that a less confident chef will destroy his or her dish by adding something," he says. "[Whereas] I will see someone like Bobby Flay take something off."
Creativity can often work against chefs in a setting like Iron Chef, where there is an entire kitchen full of ingredients on hand. It might seem like a so-crazy-it-just-might-work idea to make a "Scandinavian Thai ceviche" in the heat of the moment, but as Brown jokes, a Chihuahua should not be breed with a Saint Bernard.
"That can really backfire, when someone fixates on an idea and commits so much time to the idea," he explains, "that the idea kills them. In the end, it wasn't the right idea, but they stuck with it because they needed a creative identity."
As for how Brown thinks he would do as a contestant, he says he would be "horrible."
"I don't cook fast. The speed would kill me," he says. "I would lock up and have a little drool coming out of my mouth."
It's that level of anxiety that can be a chef's undoing on Iron Chef Gauntlet—especially since they have no one to back them up. On the new season of the show, Brown promises that we will see things spiral out of control for the chefs.
"You lose your ability to taste things," he says of how panic can affect your ability to cook. "Fear changes the way you taste. That's when things get weird."
So how weird do things get on the new season of Iron Chef Gauntlet? Very, as it turns out.
"There are things that I can never untaste," Brown admits. "But there are some absolute bites of brilliance. There are times when I walk up to the table, and I think I do want to put that in my mouth, but I do. And I say, I was wrong. This is fantastic."
"Iron Chef Gauntlet" returns to Food Network on Wednesday, April 4 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.