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“It’s Like a Spirit Entering My Body”: Mark Dacascos on 20 Years of Playing Iron Chef’s Chairman

Mark Dacascos talks two decades of being The Chairman, if the chefs broke character while around him, and more

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There are many traits that technically distinguish Iron Chef, the iconic food competition that returns this week after a four-year hiatus. Unlike younger analogs—your Top Chefs, your Great British Bake OffsIron Chef has been around in some form for nearly 30 years, giving the franchise the gravitas that comes with age. That’s three decades and hundreds of “battles,” each of which pits an experienced veteran against an up-and-coming challenger. Both chefs must prepare a multicourse meal in just 60 minutes, and every dish must incorporate a “secret ingredient” that’s only announced at the start of the cook.

But neither duration nor structure are what truly make Iron Chef the kind of beloved nostalgia object that merits a reboot on Netflix. Instead, it’s the shared mythology, beginning with the Japanese original in 1993 and tying together the many international spinoffs. Every Iron Chef features real experts cooking real food. These chefs are also part of a blatantly fictional narrative, one personified by an all-important character: the mysterious, almost omnipotent figure known as the Chairman. More than culinary titans like Masaharu Morimoto, more than personalities like Alton Brown, it’s the Chairman who makes Iron Chef what it is. Neither a host nor a judge, he’s a man without peers in the otherwise overcrowded landscape of reality TV.

In the world of Iron Chef, the Chairman is the competition’s raison d’être, a gentleman of means who reveres gastronomy so much he built a temple in its honor. That sacred space is known as Kitchen Stadium, staffed by Iron Chefs handpicked by the Chairman to test the mettle of aspiring masters. In reality, of course, Kitchen Stadium is simply a soundstage; the Iron Chefs answer to no one but themselves; and the Chairman is an actor, playing a role with commitment and panache. But from the moment the Chairman shouts “Allez cuisine!”, everyone on set operates with his point of view in mind, accepting the premise that they serve at the pleasure of their patron and not, say, a global streaming service.

It’s no coincidence that Iron Chef hails from a country that’s elevated wrestling into an art form. The Chairman is essentially an act of kayfabe, and the show he headlines is the culinary equivalent of WWE Raw. The original Chairman, played by the Japanese actor Takeshi Kaga, is a legend in his own right. (Close your eyes and you can probably picture him in his signature pose: clad in a gilded cape, biting into a bell pepper.) But for two decades, the American edition of Iron Chef has been overseen by Chairman Kaga’s “nephew,” played by actor and martial artist Mark Dacascos, best known outside the show for playing the villain in John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum. This Chairman trades the cape for an impeccably tailored suit, but the goofy enthusiasm survived the transfer intact.

This week, Iron Chef debuts its latest incarnation, this time on Netflix. Subtitled Quest for an Iron Legend, the new Iron Chef makes the requisite updates to match both the times and its new venue. There are no longer commercial breaks as there were on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America. There’s no national subtitle, because Netflix is worldwide. (Though the service will soon launch Iron Chef Brazil and Iron Chef Mexico, following the formula of homegrown reality hits like Love Is Blind.) Top Chef’s Kristen Kish has come aboard as a cohost. But the Chairman is still there, which means the show’s essence remains untouched.

In fact, Quest for an Iron Legend features serialized arcs that continue across episodes, giving Dacascos more opportunities than ever to ham it up. He does a touchdown dance to introduce a tailgating challenge. He flaps his arms up and down to announce game birds as a secret ingredient. He bites into a chili pepper and suffers the consequences. Throughout it all, Dacascos stays completely in character, even as his costars sometimes strain to maintain the illusion.

At a recent press event in Iron Chef’s honor, the series’ latest grandees—Marcus Samuelsson, Curtis Stone, Dominique Crenn, Gabriela Cámara, and Ming Tsai—presented a five-course meal planned around chocolate. The food was delicious, but it wasn’t the star of the show; that would be Dacascos, who announced the secret ingredient with an intensity that would be terrifying if it weren’t so fun to watch. (“No one look him directly in the eye. The last person who did that died,” Brown joked.) Afterward, The Ringer caught up with Dacascos to talk about what he’s learned in his 20 years playing the Chairman, how the show has changed his relationship to food, and what he thinks makes the character tick.

The reason I wanted to talk to you is because there’s so many food competition shows out there, but the thing that makes Iron Chef, Iron Chef is the Chairman.

Thank you. I appreciate that. Alton and I, fortunately, have been at it with this show since 2003, something like that. And it’s become—I’m going to speak for Alton as well—part of our DNA.

I put the suit back on and I walk into Kitchen Stadium, whether it be in New York, L.A., anywhere else, and it just kind of just starts. It’s like a spirit entering my body. You get in Kitchen Stadium and the chefs are about to battle, and the energy between them is just dynamic, electrifying, palpable. I look up and now, I see Alton and Kristen, and I get emotional. I get excited. I get nervous. There’s no reason for me to be nervous. And yet, I can feel the energy in the whole studio, in all of Kitchen Stadium, because the chefs, obviously, they want to do great. And it is a competition, and we have all these cameras.

This iteration of it is bigger and deeper, so no commercial breaks. We have the time and space to really find out more about the people, their histories, their culture. We have great discussions now all the way through with Alton and Kristen, it’s just wonderful. So, I love it, and I was thrilled that Netflix is now letting us out of the gate.

I think you can tell how much fun you’re having. It’s infectious.

Excellent. Well, it’s the people’s energy. The chefs come in and I can feel it.

I’m sure back in the early 2000s, you didn’t get this role and think, “This is the next 20 years of my life.”

Not at all. Our first season, we only did four episodes. We did four episodes, and we didn’t know if we’d do anymore.

So, how did you first come on board? Were you familiar at all with the Iron Chef franchise?

Yes, I was, thanks to my wife. I remember coming in, going through the living room, and she was watching this show where, right when I passed by, they were having this slow-mo cut of a knife slicing through a tomato. I thought, “Well, that’s odd.” And I stood there for a moment and it was mesmerizing: the colors, the juice flying out, all that. I thought, “This is such a strange show.” And then, 45 minutes later, I had watched the whole thing.

Obviously, this was the Japanese version. It was humorous and witty. But watching these chefs work, and the colors and the music, I just thought, “This is a cooking show?” I got hooked by that. And then, three or four months later, my agent got a call from the producers, and they said that they’d like to see me for Iron Chef. My wife, she was there when I had the conversation, and she said, “Whatever it is with Iron Chef, you say yes. You’re going to that meeting.” Because she went to cooking school and all that, she’s a big foodie.

I love anyone that is at the top of their game. Because I know what it takes, or I have an idea of what it takes to get there, and it’s a lot of work. At the caliber of our Iron Chefs and the challenger chefs, there’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, and time that goes into that. So, I went into the meeting with the producers. I did disclose that I kick, I do not cook, and they understood.

We talked about how I could bring to life the Chairman in Iron Chef America. Being a son of two martial arts parents, I just thought it could be interesting to bring that martial energy. In my mind, the Chairman loves martial arts, but oh, he loves cooking. And though he can’t cook like this himself, he can bring that passion and the energy that he has. For him, he cannot vocalize enough how excited he is, so he physicalizes as well.

Anyway, I talked to them about that and a couple of days later, I was invited to the show. And it’s been all these years later, gratefully, thankfully.

Obviously, the canon backstory for the Chairman in America is that your character is the nephew of the Japanese Chairman.

Yes. Chairman Kaga.

Is there any other kind of backstory or detail either the producers or you have thought about that maybe we don’t know about? Or is it all on the screen?

Right now, everything that we know about the Chairman, I try to vocalize or physicalize because his backstory is evolving. When I hear Alton or Kristen say something about the Chairman that becomes part of his backstory, I embrace that and try to physicalize or vocalize with the writers.

Between the producers and director and the chefs, all that is creating that backstory. For me as an actor, I build upon what I’ve created in my mind and heart, but I have to stay open because with one line, his backstory can change.

As someone who’s a huge part of the show, what makes Iron Chef different from other kinds of cooking competitions we have?

I think thus far, it’s really focused on the food. Now, I’m an actor. I love drama. But it’s really focused on the food. What makes this, I guess, iteration different from the other shows is that one, we have almost 20 years of history. And before that, we have the original Iron Chef, so the DNA, the spirit, the essence of this show is international.

It comes with a certain gravitas. All the chefs that I’ve ever met in my life, they look with appreciation and respect to the show, because we try to push the chefs and we get the chefs that are ready to play hardball. So it’s very serious on the cooking side. And with this iteration, because we have the luxury of not having commercials, we can go deeper into the stories about the chefs and how they came up with the dish, or their background, their cultural background, their thoughts. We have great interaction between Kristen and Alton, and we don’t have to stop and go as before. This time, we just go seamlessly, fluidly. So, I think those elements make it special. It’s a show with a big history.

You said before that you kick, you don’t cook. Has your involvement with the show changed your relationship with food?

Absolutely. I’ve always known that there’s somebody putting their heart and soul into a good meal if they cook it. Now, seeing the challenger chefs and Iron Chefs do it before my eyes, the appreciation has grown immensely. Because they do what a mere mortal such as myself would take hours and hours and hours to do. They do it precisely, and with passion, and so fast.

So, I have a huge appreciation for the chefs. But just for food, I hear all the chefs talking about the quality of the ingredients. It makes me think about where those ingredients come from, local, organic, clean, the flavor profiles. It makes you think about history. So, it’s really all inclusive. I feel like I’m in a master class on life every day we shoot.

I did have some questions just about the mechanics of shooting. You introduce everything, and then you conclude it. But where are you while the actual cooking is going on? And do you get to taste the final results at all?

According to what Alton says, The Chairman is a quasi-ninja. He’s creeping around the kitchen. He sees all. But in this iteration of the show, I do not taste. And I’m a little bit sad about that, but I do get to hear about it. And I get to watch. It also gives me time to prepare for the big finish. Because as you see now, we have an arc. We have an arcing story, it’s a through line. Not as before, they were stand-alone shows. Now, it’s actually a narrative.

So, I’m actually trying to prepare for whichever way the story goes, depending on whether the Iron Chef wins or the challenger chef. And also, just to get the feel and the vibe of the story for the day, and of the season. Then, what’s my part in it? I’m around it and I’m playing: “Oh, I could say that. Oh, I could do a little wink over here, or I could turn my head over there.” Because every motion, and everything you say in inflection, it tells a bit of a story in the character. I try to relax, but it’s almost impossible because you get excited. I’m like, “Oh, which dish are they on? Oh, wow! That looks amazing!” I’m immersed in it.

Where do they shoot it?

Right now, we’re doing one show per day, and we’re shooting in California. I’m not sure what I can say or what I can’t say.

It’s an undisclosed location.

Undisclosed location. But yeah, the show takes one full day. But I’m happy and proud to say that the battle is actually 60 minutes to the second. We don’t stop the show no matter what happens, and lots of crazy happens, because that’s life. Sometimes an appliance doesn’t work, or there’s a slip, or drop, or something like that. Fortunately, no one’s gotten hurt seriously, and we’ve never had to stop a show.

That ticking clock is just over everyone’s shoulder. And we’re just hoping, come on, you guys. Go, go, go, go. Because from what I hear from all of the chefs, challengers and Iron Chefs alike, it goes by so fast. It goes by so fast, and you see them, they’re hustling. They try to maintain grace under fire, but oh boy, they’re going, they’re going.

There’s something of an interregnum between the conclusion of the last Iron Chef and the beginning of this one. What was that break like for you? What did you get up to in between?

Between the last iteration of Iron Chef and now, I was fortunate to get the call to play Zero in the movie, John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, and that was a blast. And then, I did a couple of smaller independents over in Thailand with my daughter and wife. I did a movie called Run & Gun, already out, it’s on Amazon Prime.

I did a movie called Blade of the 47 Ronin, for Netflix. Then, I did a feature film for the movie theaters called Saint Seiya: Knights of the Zodiac. That’s an anime live action now with Famke Janssen, Sean Bean, Mackenyu, Madison Iseman, Diego Tinoco, [and] Nick Stahl. And I’m actually on my way to South Africa to be a series regular in a third season of Warrior, for HBO Max.

What was it like creatively to have a little time away from the Chairman?

Oh, it was nice to have a break. It’s interesting, because I knew we were doing something really fun, and I knew as the years went by and season by season, it meant something. But then, you step away for a couple of years and you go, “Wow. That was really fun to work on.” Because we didn’t know if we were going to come back or where or when.

So my affection for the show and respect for the show also grew. What’s that saying—when you’re apart from people you care for, the love grows fonder, or something like that? Well, it was the same thing for Iron Chef, for me.

So, when you get the call, what was that conversation like about potentially reviving the show?

Oh, very emotional. I was like, “Wow.” Because you go back all those years, 20 years ago and four episodes. And now, not only are we coming back, but we’re coming back bigger and deeper and global. That’s fun because all of my friends that heard about the show have just watched bits on YouTube, now get to watch it on the television.

When you’re preparing to go back, do you do any preparation, or is it just like riding a bike?

I mean, it’s like riding a bike, but even when you get back on the bike, if you want to pull a wheelie, you’ve got to practice, right? But once I get in that mindset, it’s like, “Oh, there it is.” Make the sound effects myself. He’s very vocal. And for our 3.0 version, we wanted to do different stances and physicality.

So, I just remembered what we used to do and then, give it a different angle and a different hand movement, and just make it bigger and deeper. And take that excitement that Mark has to be back on the show, and it just comes out.

[Gets up.]

So, in the original, we were always doing this. [Waves hands.]

And now, I go pow! And I go, whoop! [Waves hands more emphatically.]

And then away. Right?

I feel bad that we’re not doing a video!

But you know what I’m saying?


So, I took what we had and just built on that.

I often explain Iron Chef to people who aren’t familiar with it is that it’s like wrestling, but for food. But I was curious if wrestling is something that you watch for inspiration, or if there’s anything that you look to outside of Iron Chef to inform your performance.

Yeah. Martial arts. Martial arts tournaments, the spirit of martial arts. I look at it, it’s a battle, it’s a competition, and it’s so psychological. Of course, you have to have the skills to back that up.

But to me, it’s connected, it’s all connected. And like I said, what the Chairman feels he’s not able to vocalize, he physicalizes it. That release of excitement.

I think I noticed in the first episode where you do some flourish or another, Curtis Stone and the challenger break a little bit and start laughing in the background. Does that happen often? Is it difficult to stay in character in those moments?

I love that. Once I jump in there and the chefs are all there, I just try to immerse myself. So, whatever happens, happens. And if the Chairman would break, too, then he breaks. And if he sees them, then of course, he would enjoy it. Or, maybe he wouldn’t. Depends on that moment.

What’s your relationship with food like outside of Iron Chef?

Thank you for that question. Utmost respect.

So, what did I have for lunch? I had cauliflower. And my manager went, “Ew.” Which is funny, and my wife would say the same thing. But I love fruit and vegetables, and I brought most of my lunch. So, in addition to cauliflower, I had pistachios. My wife packed me pistachios and almonds. I had an apple. I’ll probably have these two oranges before we finish up.

Just like with the martial arts, Bruce Lee had this great saying, “We should strive to hack away at the unessential.” And so, as I get older, I’m just getting closer to nature as much as I can, and I’m trying to embrace the raw.

So, just very, very natural foods. And of course, my wife is from Texas and she’s a great cook. So, she’ll make some chicken-fried steak or something. And if it’s there and she’s cooked it, and I’m so compelled, of course, I’ll have some. But in general, I’m very boring. And I like it that way.