ALTON BROWN, the host of “Iron Chef America,” fell into the turnip patch just before the show began taping several scenes outside the White House in late October. (The best stuff always happens off camera.)
On the episode, which will open the show’s new season Jan. 3 on the Food Network, two pairs of chefs will compete: Cristeta Comerford, the White House executive chef, and Bobby Flay go up against the combined forces of Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse.
In a collision of politics, cooking and popular culture, Michelle Obama will reveal the secret ingredient that the chefs must use in their televised cook-off: anything that grows in the White House garden (no further spoilers here, though). Mrs. Obama will also talk about her crusade to reduce childhood obesity through better school lunches, community gardens, farmers’ markets and exercise, which around the White House has the working title Healthy Kids Initiative.
The first lady’s cameo on “Iron Chef” is the latest example of her willingness to get her message across to the public in ways few of her predecessors would have considered.
From digging, planting and harvesting the garden with elementary school children, to completing 142 revolutions with a hula hoop before cameras at last month’s kickoff for the Healthy Kids project, Mrs. Obama has been making her point.
The source has the sauce
Even the White House garden gets a star turn on Tuesday night’s episode of “The Biggest Loser,” on which overweight contestants shed pounds competitively. But that television show, unlike “Iron Chef,” did not score an appearance by the first lady.
Camille Johnston, Mrs. Obama’s communications director, sought out “Iron Chef” as a way to reach people who might otherwise know nothing about the first lady’s efforts.
Each episode of “Iron Chef America” is seen by almost 1.5 million viewers, and its core audience is 25- to 54-year-olds, publicists for the show say.
Mr. Batali, who might seem an unlikely spokesman for eating in moderation, has thrown himself into the project.
“What’s exciting for us is this is the first time I can remember the White House taking an active interest in doing something about diet and health,” he said. “They understand this kind of P.R.”
He continued, “If we don’t do something about how kids eat soon, it will be simply the largest problem facing this country.”
On Tuesday, the chefs reunited in New York to tape the competition in the studio known, in “Iron Chef” parlance, as the Kitchen Stadium. The show picked up Mrs. Obama’s theme, with Mr. Brown frequently reminding the audience that the vegetables were fresh and local. They were also organic. (They were not, however, grown in the White House garden; these were stand-ins.)
“Sounds like a slogan,” Mr. Batali said. “But what a way to eat.”
The battle began 45 minutes late. Suddenly the kitchen was a whirlwind. Some chefs and their assistants walked briskly, others ran. Before long their brows were furrowed and covered with perspiration, their jackets and aprons stained. Ms. Comerford, who has logged less camera time than the others, was as focused as they were, furiously slicing apples on a mandoline.
To round out the vegetables, the chefs were given a pantry of dairy products and animal proteins, including a baby pig. Words like rémoulade, ice cream, dirty rice and stuffed turkey roulade were thrown around as the chefs prepared to lay their offerings before the judges: Nigella Lawson, the television cook; Jane Seymour, the actress; and Natalie Coughlin, the Olympic swimmer.
At the taping on the South Lawn last month, the mood was far more pastoral. The four chefs traipsed though the garden, bantering while they picked their vegetables, a task that required five takes.
Soon Mr. Flay was hurling accusations at Mr. Lagasse: “Did you take all the cauliflower?” That prompted Mr. Lagasse to throw him one.
Mr. Flay yelled to Mr. Batali: “Mario, there’s a pappardelle bush over here,” a variation on a hoax started in 1957, when the BBC ran a mock documentary about the annual spaghetti harvest.
Mr. Batali told Mr. Flay, “You have a much cuter partner than I do.”
The cute partner, Cris Comerford, to Mr. Batali: “I think he’s cute too.”
The first lady’s appearance was scheduled for 3. She was ready at 3:15. Then the crew kept her waiting: “Hang on a sec. We have to touch up the chefs.” The makeup person ran over to powder shiny noses.
The first lady came through the door of the South Portico in a pumpkin-orange dress with teal blue shoes and short sweater, announced the secret ingredient and talked to the chefs about getting children to eat vegetables.
“It’s important for these kids to have a hands-on experience,” she said. “And now we’re expanding the tours of the garden to any public school children that come to Washington, D.C., and we’re doing those on a regular basis, and it’s been just a wonderful educational addition.” She suggested that the chefs might want to consider cooking some of the exceptionally large sweet potatoes in the garden. “We are sweet potato lovers,” she said, “especially the president.”
Off camera she chatted with the chefs about their participation. “This is huge,” she said. “It is going a long way to help change the way this country thinks about food. I want you to come back.”
The chefs offered to help, suggesting monthly segments with her.
She put in a plug for health care and then, like the perfect hostess-politician, introduced her kitchen staff to the chefs, took pictures with them, gave them hugs, greeted the television crew and left, but not before telling the chefs that one of her Secret Service agents wants to challenge them to a “brisket-off.”