When it comes to the genre of televised cooking competition series, Iron Chef exists on its own hallowed tier. There had been influential cooking series before the Japanese invented a wonderfully wacky mode of over-the-top haute cuisine presentation in the 1990s, and there will surely be great competition shows to come. But Iron Chef is special to a lot of foodies out there; a gloriously unhinged celebration of culinary creativity that has helped to give rise to countless TV food personalities in the last few decades, while simultaneously highlighting truly groundbreaking kitchen wizardry. Although countless cooking competition shows that followed the U.S. debut of Iron Chef America have no doubt found healthy niches of their own, there’s a certain sense of prestige to the shared dream of Iron Chef—to come into Kitchen Stadium and triumph over one of the culinary gladiators on their own turf—that gives it a weird sense of gravitas that has never quite been replicated. To beat an Iron Chef is like being able to walk around town with a Super Bowl ring on your finger; there’s nothing else quite like it in the format.
A series with that kind of enduring goodwill was bound to see another reboot at some point, and that time has come with the June 15, 2022 premiere of Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend on Netflix, kicking off a new era (and new format) of the legendary series’ legacy. The inherent fear here would doubtless be of unnecessary and unwelcome streamlining, the threat of a Netflix version of the show losing those idiosyncratic little flourishes that always made the show amusing, or dumbing down the level of cooking competition. However, after previewing the series I needn’t have worried—Quest for an Iron Legend is largely indistinguishable from Iron Chef America at its best, having made only a few welcome organizational changes, while inserting a season-long meta-competition that gives each episode additional stakes. In short, it’s still the Iron Chef we know and love, and the cooking (and absurdist pageantry) is as breathtaking as ever.
First things first: What’s the same in the new series? Well, we’ve still got the steady hand and rock-solid play-by-play commentary of Good Eats’ Alton Brown as our host, and his quick wit and ability to give enlightening real-time commentary is still extremely impressive. This time around, he’s joined by a co-host in the form of Top Chef season 10 winner Kristen Kish, which gives Brown a welcome sounding board to banter and hypothesize with, while Kish simultaneously plays a sort of “roving reporter” role similar to Kevin Brauch on Iron Chef America.
So too do we have the typically distinguished panel of judges, which includes former Food & Wine editor Nilou Motamed, and Bizarre Foods stalwart Andrew Zimmern in addition to a rotating series of celebrity guest judges. Zimmern is a particularly valuable and likeable presence as he always is—pretty much the only person around who could reasonably say something like the following: “I’ve had camel’s milk ice cream several times in the past, and this is the best version I’ve had of it yet.”
And then there are the Iron Chefs themselves, part of a newly constructed panel that includes both recognizable TV personalities like Marcus Samuelsson and Curtis Stone, along with industry luminaries (and Michelin star winners) like Dominique Crenn, Ming Tsai and Gabriele Cámara. It’s an impressive lineup, to be sure, but they’ll likely need quite a few episodes with the new Iron Chef cast in order to truly make them feel like part of the show’s great mythology. One hopes that subsequent seasons might have more episodes than the eight kicking off Quest for an Iron Legend, to give these Iron Chefs more time to cement their own legacies within the kayfabe of the show, and so audiences can see them each compete more times. One of the joys of Iron Chef America was keeping up with the challenges a particular Iron Chef might face from season to season, or the untouchable reputation that someone like Masaharu Morimoto built over time.
And speaking of that kayfabe, it is very much intact, which was absolutely the right call. To do a reboot series of this nature without the bug-eyed enthusiasm of martial artist/John Wick antagonist Mark Dacascos as “The Chairman” would have been a massive mistake. It likely seems like a small element of the show’s enduring appeal, but the delightfully absurd framing device of Iron Chef—that this is a cooking competition sponsored by a rich, enigmatic mystery man who delights in screaming the secret ingredients at you—is an essential bit of levity that contrasts beautifully with the incredibly sophisticated cooking techniques on display. That push-and-pull between “patently absurd” and “undeniably impressive” is what has always given Iron Chef its special mojo, and it’s gratifying to see that this element survived the transition to Netflix.
The new, unifying element of Quest for an Iron Legend, meanwhile, is the season-long competition within a competition. This ultimate showdown will see the highest-performing challenger of the season—which is defined as the top point-getter, regardless of whether they won their episode—return for the 8th episode, in which they’ll run the gauntlet against all five Iron Chefs. If they prevail, the show will crown its first ever “Iron Legend.” One has to wonder: How set is Netflix on someone winning that title? Will they keep producing more seasons of Iron Chef if no one attains it? One has to imagine that would only increase the mystique of someone being crowned Iron Legend, if it took multiple seasons to achieve.
Regardless, the important thing is that on an episode-to-episode basis, the joy is still present in this new Iron Chef, and even in a relatively limited run of episodes, the diversity of contestants does a good job of illustrating the diversity of cooking that can happen within Kitchen Stadium. One goes from undeniably delicious-looking comfort food in one tailgating themed episode—a contestant produced lamb rib-stuffed Korean chicken wings at one point—to truly avant-garde cuisine in a milk-themed battle, in which the challenger and Iron Chef share five Michelin stars between them. The competition somehow has room for both of these things simultaneously; the glorification of comfort cooking, and the exploration of cuisine’s bleeding edge.
But that’s Iron Chef for you. Once a trendsetter in the world of American food programming, now an elder statesman that has lost none of its knife-edged precision. Here’s hoping we get more Netflix seasons, and a higher episode count, so the foodies among us can truly embrace televised gluttony like we so badly wish to do.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident food and drink geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.
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