Considered one of the most prestigious competitive titles in the cooking world,Food Network’s hit show Iron Chef has millions of fans and a fair share of audience skepticism. So, I sat down and chatted with Lee Wolen (Boka, Somerset), a recent competitor in Kitchen Stadium.
It was almost two years ago that Wolen was first contacted by Iron Chef’s producers. Initially, they were considering him to be a competitor on the spin-off, Iron Chef Gauntlet.
“They do Skype interviews…I guess they just want to see if you have a bit of a personality.”
Ultimately, Chicago’s representatives were Stephanie Izard (Girl and the Goat, Duck Duck Goat, Little Goat Diner)and “pasta queen” Sarah Grueneberg (Monteverde). Izard won the show with a mind-bogglingly impressive showdown against three original Iron Chefs.
Wolen was later contacted about competing on the traditional Iron Chef set for their 13th season. His episode—S13 E6— was taped in January of 2018 and it aired in July.
How long did you have to practice?
“They told us about a month in advance when they wanted to shoot in L.A. My [two] sous chefs and I prepped for two weeks.
Did you know about the secret ingredient?
Let’s just say we’re given several options (Wolen laughs). But, no, we didn’t actually know what the ingredient would be until we started filming.
Did you know about who you’d be going up against?
Nope. That’s a total secret.
What’s the shoot day like?
We showed up around 8am. They put you in makeup and walk you through things…show you the lay of the land around kitchen stadium. They have a lot of prep people to help you get what you need—you don’t actually shop for your own ingredients.The space is beautiful. It’s kind of like a pop-up set and the kitchen is built outside. All the pots and pans are under a tent. (Another myth, busted.) It’s kinda weird you don’t really interact with anyone. You just do your own thing. I never even met Alton Brown. You’re kind of secluded. You work-work-work and then that’s it.
No chance to meet Alton Brown? That’s a bummer. Did you actually talk to Jet Tila?
Yeah, he’s great. You’re so involved with cooking, though, even when they’re asking you questions.
Let’s talk about timing. Do you get more than the allotted one hour in real life?
“You get one hour on the dot. It’s all shot chronologically, so it’s exactly the way you see it. That being said, the show’s goal isn’t to screw you over…if you need an extra minute to plate up nicely, they’ll let you. But that’s it. The show is pretty much real time. There’s no do-overs.
How long does the judging process actually take?
About twenty minutes in total.
Does that mean the judges are sometimes eating cold food?
No. They let us reheat things. But we’re not allowed to remake anything.
Would you do it again?
Maybe. I had more fun than I thought I would…I’m not a TV person.It was actually amazing.
Is there anything you’d do differently?
Can you share some pictures?
They’re super weird about you taking pictures on set.
Lee managed to sneak just one photo in with his phone. It’s clear the Chairman is smiling on the inside.
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