Not many food competition shows can liken themselves to a martial arts movie, but if any of them can, it’s Iron Chef. Having existed in one form or another for the last thirty years, starting in Japan and then spreading around the world, the series pits legendary, well-regarded “Iron Chefs” against scrappy challengers for a sixty-minute endurance test (featuring a heretofore unknown secret ingredient) to create a full-course meal that will blow away the judges and earn them the rank of Iron Chef.
What sets Iron Chef apart, though, is the character of The Chairman, a mercurial, authoritative figure who announces the challenges and their secret ingredients with an intense martial arts flourish. He’s impresario and referee alike, neither announcer nor challenger but someone who sets the tone for the high-stakes culinary conflict that is to come.
In the Japanese original, he’s played by Takeshi Kaga, famously biting into a bell pepper while wearing a spangly cape. But in Iron Chef America, which ran for a whopping thirteen seasons on Food Network, we have Chairman Kaga’s “nephew” (or so the lore goes), played by action star Mark Dacascos.
Dacascos, a Hawaiian-born actor and martial arts expert, has been a fixture in film and television since the early ’90s, starting out in films like Only the Strong, Steve Wang’s Drive, and the adaptation of the video game Double Dragon (and actual video games like Wing Commander IV, where he played a hotshot space fighter pilot alongside Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill).
More recent audiences may know him best as Wo Fat on the remake of Hawaii Five-O, or as John Wick superfan (and fittingly, sushi chef) “Zero” in John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum. But arguably, it’s in Kitchen Stadium, with his perfectly tailored suit and exaggerated kung-fu cries, that Dacascos has his longest-lasting and most indelible role.
With the Chairman returning with Alton Brown and the rest for a revived version of Iron Chef on Netflix, Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend, Dacascos sat down with Consequence for a brief chat about his eight-year absence from Kitchen Stadium, the Chairman’s physicality and mythology, and what secret ingredient he’s always wanted to announce.
It’s been quite a few years since you’ve been in Kitchen Stadium; how does it feel to be back?
It’s emotional! I mean, it’s been, gosh, almost twenty years ago when we started [Iron Chef America]. Not only do I get to work with Alton again, and we kept some of the cast and the spirit of the original show, we now have a bigger Kitchen Stadium, we have more cameras. Because we don’t have commercial breaks, we can go deeper into the food and the backstories of our chefs, both Iron and challenger.
But also, what I think is fantastic is that Alton has a very talented co-host in [Top Chef season 10 winner] Kristen Kish; those two go back and forth, they discuss, and they certainly educate me. So it’s like a masterclass for the 60 minutes of the battle, and the whole show goes even broader and deeper now.
You get a little bit more to do as well, considering there are no commercial breaks. You get more time to shine, especially in those fascinating interstitials at the beginning of each episode.
Thank you, I really enjoy those. And I haven’t seen the episodes put together yet, so you know more than I do about those beats. But I had a blast filming them. That energy, too, comes from what I see and feel, and the challengers and chefs who are so happy to be there. It’s a great title, they want to win, and they know the DNA of Iron Chef. It’s important, it means something, and you can feel that energy both before and during the battle.
What’s it like for you as the impresario/observer of these battles? Because you’re not actively involved in the cooking or even the judging. What’s it like, soaking in that energy of Kitchen Stadium?
Obviously, I don’t battle, but I get nervous for the chefs because I pick up on that energy. And for those sixty minutes, it’s all a big improvisation. Alton and Kristen don’t know what they’re going to say, the chefs don’t know what they’re going to cook because they haven’t seen the secret ingredients. How it’ll all go down, nobody knows.
How has your relationship with food and cooking evolved, as a result of spending two decades in the presence of these chefs and this kind of elevated cuisine?
First and foremost, I have even greater respect for the chefs. Usually, you know a chef’s doing something in the kitchen, but you don’t really see it. Then you see these incredible talents out there, and in one hour they’re creating five amazing dishes. And I think about how many years it took to develop those skills, to be able to do that in an hour. It took years and years of training and experience.
But along with the chefs, I have a greater understanding and respect for the food. I hear all the chefs talk about how important is to have the best, freshest ingredients, locally grown, all of these factors. Just listening to them talk about what we eat and the history of it, it’s an amazing thing. It’s been an amazing opportunity to learn from the best in the world.
And I imagine you can relate to that sense of discipline and preparedness in your own martial arts experience.
Absolutely! There’s a direct correlation — the years and years of training it takes. You know, the word kung fu, or gong fu, loosely translates to attaining skill through hard work over a long period of time. I literally get to watch kung fu in Kitchen Stadium.
Then there’s the character you play, “The Chairman” — there’s only so much screen time you get to develop him. But having done so over twenty years of line-by-line moments, to what extent have you been able to develop a history and understanding of that character?
The interesting thing is, I put the suit on, I walk through Kitchen Stadium, I see Alton Brown, and it feels like I’m just walking back into him. I get the butterflies in the stomach, the excitement starts percolating. And my voice changes a little bit, I start doing my vocal warm-ups, and he starts to come out. [stares intently, purses his lips.]
Does it feel like he’s somewhere in your body and sort of comes out?
Yes, he’s inside my DNA. And honestly, the way I interact with Alton and Kristen, and the energy from the chefs, they help build the character as we see him too.
Obviously, you’ve announced a lot of wonderful secret ingredients over the years. What’s been your favorite to reveal?
Oh, I do love chocolate. But there was one fish, I don’t remember the exact one, during a fish battle. But I remember because Iron Chef [Masahiro] Morimoto-san created five of the most beautiful fish dishes I’ve ever seen in my life. There was this stained-glass sushi roll. It was mindboggling.
Is there a secret ingredient you’ve always wanted to introduce that you haven’t yet?
Oooooh. That’s a good question. I daren’t say it because maybe they’ll come up with it. We’ll keep that a secret for you and I.
With Iron Chef revived, presuming it goes for several more seasons, how would you like to see The Chairman grow?
I’d love to investigate a little deeper, just in the parts that I do. To get a little more backstory would be fun; oh, how I’d love to intimate how Alton and the Chairman met. Food-related, I’m sure. But we could also go deeper into the different cultures and cuisines of the world; I heard some very interesting thoughts about us possibly doing location shoots, which could be really fun.
I’m just personally looking forward to a Drive-esque buddy action movie with you and Alton Brown.
Oh, that would be funny!