There may be no cooking contests more grueling than those surrounding Food Network’s Iron Chef competitions. Those who are eventually crowned an Iron Chef are arguably among the elite of the country’s chefs. So, what does it take to become an Iron Chef? Four who have achieved fame as Iron Chefs answered that question at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. The trade panel, presented by Bullfrog & Baum, included Iron Chefs Marc Forgione, Michael Symon, Geoffrey Zakarian and Alex Guarnaschelli. The moderator was a fellow Iron Chef, Bobby Flay.
Flay: How has Iron Chef helped your career?
Symon: After winning Iron Chef, business at my two restaurants went up 25 percent. But it also opened doors for me. I now have 13 restaurants that I wouldn't have likely had without that exposure. It also opened the doors to The Chew cooking show on ABC. No other cooking show can equal the power that Iron Chef delivers for a chef.
Flay: If you had to give up The Chew or Iron Chef, what would it be?
Symon: I'd keep The Chew and drop Iron Chef. Most chefs spend a good part of their time teaching the chefs under them how to cook their style of food. Now on The Chew, I teach America how to cook, and many of those people watching are people who can't afford to eat in our restaurants. The Chew draws three million viewers a day. That's incredible.
Flay: Marc, would you have had the opportunity to open your Atlantic City restaurant, American Cut, without Iron Chef?
Forgione: Maybe, but the best thing about Iron Chef is that it lets everyone know what people who eat in your restaurants already know: that you're a good chef. The exposure is incredible. With that said, people won't come back to my restaurants because I'm an Iron Chef. They'll come back because I'm a good chef and they had an enjoyable experience.
Flay: Alex, the first time you competed on Iron Chef as a guest chef, you lost. Then you placed fourth in the Next Iron Chef competition. Were you discouraged?
Guarnaschelli: I was asked to compete a second time on Next Iron Chef and I didn't want to do it. But Bobby [Flay] talked me into doing it one more time. He said that if you do it again and win, it will change your career. He was right.
Flay: Now you are the only woman Iron Chef.
Guarnaschelli: I find that annoying. Iron Chef battles are multi-level warfare and you have to be scrappy to win, whether you're a woman or not.
Flay: Michael, you come to me and ask for professional advice, but you didn't before you opened a restaurant [Bar Symon] in the Pittsburgh airport. Why?
Symon: I knew you'd tell me not to do it. But what makes most of us enter into a new restaurant agreement is whether or not you can find a good partner. I found someone who would let me do my own thing. I admit it was slightly frightening, but Pittsburgh is only an hour and a half from my home base of Cleveland, and it's doing very well.
Flay: While Iron Chef brings lots of opportunities, the hardest part is to know when to say "no." My agent called me this morning and said he saw something online where I would be performing on the next Dancing With the Stars. And though my daughter wants me to do it, I know that show is so powerful that if I did it I would become that guy on Dancing With the Stars. Along with the fame of Iron Chef comes a lot of criticism and negativity.
Forgione: When you walk into a room you are instantly recognizable, and not everyone is going to like you. I suppose some of it is envy.
Guarnaschelli: That's true. When you win something some people being to hate you and your success. Bobby [Flay] told me to stop reading what people say about you on the Internet because it will drive you nuts.
Symon: There are gong to be creepy people who live in their parents’ basements who are going to hate on you. But if you believe in yourself, you can't worry about what others say.
Zakarian: First of all, I would have no problem appearing on Dancing With the Stars. And, as for the haters, I answer the particularly nasty ones and tell them they know better than me and that seems to shut them up.
Flay: Is cooking on Iron Chef stressful?
Zakarian: It's cooking. It's what I love to do, so I don't get stressed out, at least not until right before the judgment is declared.
Guarnaschelli: I find the competition invigorating. It makes me feel like an 18-year-old.
Flay: I get stressed out because I run for 60 minutes because I'm afraid I'll not make it by the deadline.
Symon: I'm not a runner. I get settled and cooked. I've lost three times, and one of those times I lost to Marc Vetri, who I think is the best chef in America. I didn't feel bad one bit about it. Chefs know how great a chef Marc Vetri is, and I was glad that America got a chance to see for themselves.
Flay: Iron Chef has clearly helped fill culinary schools to the gill. But I always remind those who get into those schools that they need to remember why they are in there in the first place — to be a chef, not be on TV.
Restaurant Hospitality editor Michael Sanson reported live from the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami Beach, Fla., Feb. 21-24. The event, now in its 12th year, attracted more than 60,000 attendees, 150 celebrated chefs, and 250 wineries and spirits producers. A component of the festival is several trade talks designed specifically for restaurant operators. Sanson’s reports from South Beach focus on those talks and interviews with top chefs attending the event.