NEW YORK - Bobby Flay's real nemesis in the debut episode of "Iron Chef America" wasn't challenger Rick Bayless, it was the secret ingredient that rose up from a mysterious smoking dish.
It was... drumroll, please... a 3-foot-long side of buffalo.
Flay stared it down. He did some warmup twists and tested his equipment. Then he started slicing and dicing. He even broke a sweat.
Sound a little melodramatic? It is, and it's supposed to be. This is, after all, the American version of the cult Japanese TV hit in which master chefs tried to please an eccentric lord dressed like Liberace. It airs 9 p.m. Sundays.
But the new Food Network series, which crowned Flay, Mario Batali and Masaharu Morimoto as Iron Chefs, emphasizes competition instead of kitsch.
Each chef picks his own two-man pit crew, they huddle to create a game plan, then they try to chop each other's block off while keeping an eye on the 60-minute real-time clock.
Commentators Alton Brown and Kevin Brauch sound as if they're narrating a monster truck show as they explain to the audience what the Iron Chefs and their challengers are doing with the secret ingredient.
Flay takes the contest more seriously than you'd expect from a busy celebrity chef who also hosts Food Network's "FoodNation" and "Boy Meets Grill" and is a contributor to CBS' "The Early Show." But Flay, a man with a healthy ego, has a cleaver to grind: He was the first American to challenge the original Japanese masters when they came to New York four years ago. He lost. But the next year, Flay went to Japan - and won.
But this time he's the Iron Chef and that spiced up Flay's pressure cooker.
AP: Are you more confident going into Kitchen Stadium as the master instead of being the challenger?
Flay: Being the Iron Chef doesn't necessarily give you confidence. I feel sort of privileged to be an Iron Chef because in some funny way it's a nice thing. But more challenging because as an Iron Chef you're expected to win. The challenger is expected to lose. But to do this a couple of times a year is a good challenge. I see it more as a sporting event than cooking. It gives me a chance to relive my high school basketball days.
AP: Are you a good athlete?
Flay: I was a basketball player. I stopped playing two years ago. There was a restaurant league at Basketball City. It was brutal! But my ankles were about to give out so I had to check my age. (Flay is 40.)
AP: With all your TV commitments, do you spend much time at your restaurants, Mesa Grill and Bolo in Manhattan, and Mesa Grill Las Vegas?
AP: I spend a lot more time in the restaurants than people think. I'm in the restaurants 90 percent of time. When you're on cable TV, you shoot a little bit and they show it a lot.
AP: Do people ever ask you to their house for dinner?
Flay: I don't get a lot of invitations... and if I do, people tell me to bring my knives, meaning I'm going to do the cooking.
AP: You and your fiancee, actress Stephanie March (ex-"Law & Order: SVU"), are to be married Feb. 20. Who's making the food for that?
Flay: Daniel (Boulud). Honestly, I'm not really sure what the menu is. You don't ask for a tasting with Daniel. I trust that it'll be out of this world.
AP: Is your 8-year-old daughter Sophie in the wedding party?
Flay: She's a junior bridesmaid. Stephanie just ordered her dress. She (Sophie) is really growing up. The difference between 6 and 8 is incredible. We've gone from 'Hi daddy!' to 'What's up, dad?'
AP: What else do you have cooking?
Flay: I'm opening a new restaurant called Bar Americain. It's an American brasserie. The food is going to look like a brasserie but it will taste American.... This is American food as it really is. It's not a restaurant that takes its influence from Europe or Asia. True American food is underexplored. A lot of Americans don't know what American food is - it's not just macaroni and cheese and hot dogs.
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