Host Alton Brown checks in on Rival-Chef Geoffrey Zakarian and Rival-Chef… (Edward Chen / Creel Films )
They're the food world's equivalent of "made" men and women — instantly recognizable chefs who have their own cooking shows, cookbooks, brands and fan following. Names like Napa Valley's Michael Chiarello. New York City's Marcus Samuelsson and Alex Guarnaschelli.
So why they are willing to put it all on the line to compete in Season 4 of "The Next Iron Chef," which debuts Sunday on Food Network? It's a question that confounds even the host, Alton Brown.
"These chefs have more to lose than they actually have to gain," Brown said Friday during a telephone interview.
The first three seasons featured many lesser-known chefs who used it as a breakout platform and "won" just by appearing on the show — no matter how long they stuck around, Brown said. "But these folks," he said of Season 4's lineup, "have got reputations in the eye of the media already. Falling is going to hurt. It's a long way down."
This battle of the "super chefs" determines who will become the newest member of the Food Network's hallowed pantheon of Iron Chefs. The winner stands alongside the likes of Masahara Morimoto and Bobby Flay and takes on challengers in secret-ingredient showdowns on "Iron Chef America," also hosted by Brown.
This season features a sudden-death twist. Competitors once again will face a weekly challenge issued by the nimble Chairman. But instead of leaving the elimination up to the panel of judges, the two chefs who are the least successful will face off against each other. The loser goes home.
The result is that there's no protection from the herd, as viewers will see in this Sunday's nail-biting cook-off featuring a most unlikely duo. (Food Network made the episode available for media viewing.)
But the siren call of the Iron Chef, with the fame and potential fortune that brings, is hard to resist, said Guarnaschelli. "There's a child-like, Disneyland feeling that runs up every chef's spine" at the thought of becoming an Iron Chef, she said.
A cookbook author and Food Network star of "Alex's Day Off" as well as a regular judge on the channel's "Chopped," she said she couldn't let a fear of failure stand in her way. "It was kind of cool to be asked to the party. It's a small party to be invited to," she said.
Also invited to the soiree along with Chiarello, Samuelsson and Guarnaschelli are Anne Burrell, Elizabeth Falkner, Chuck Hughes, Robert Irvine, Beau MacMillan, Spike Mendelsohn and Geoffrey Zakarian.
Much anticipated is the prospect of a showdown between Burrell and Irvine, who have famously duked it out on "Chopped" and "Worst Cooks in America" with Burrell reigning supreme — and then rubbing Irvine's face in it. It was hard at the time to watch, perhaps because audiences are so unaccustomed to watching a woman making no apologies for her desire to win and showing little regard for anyone who gets in her way.
"There's no 'soft, throw-pillow side' to her personality," Brown said. "She is not apologetic, she is in your face, she is fierce." And anyone who holds that against her, he said, simply doesn't understand the cutthroat, sexist environment of top-rung kitchens, where Burrell had to fight to survive.
Brown said the pressure among the chefs was "diamond-crushing" and largely self-imposed.
"I would say that 90% of the time they are going out by beating themselves," he said, such as taking a cushion of time to prepare a bonus dish that the judges ended up hating instead of perfecting the dish they already planned. But that's what great chefs do, he said. "There's an envelope of safety. And the more you reach for something outside your comfort zone … there be dragons there."