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Bo Schwerin

Jill Novatt (Sardi Klein photo)

Pressure Cooker

Tales of the Iron Chefs

In a darkened room, Jill Novatt scans nine video monitors, watching a raging battle. She adjusts her headset and scribbles notes, carefully tracking the action. On a nearby wall, a digital clock’s large red numbers count down the remaining time on this unusual battlefield: 5:50…5:49…5:48…. This isn’t looking good, Novatt thinks. But something on Camera Two catches her eye.

“Is that curry powder on those guinea hen thighs?” she asks.

Not really an odd question, considering it comes from the senior culinary producer of Iron Chef America, the popular Food Network (FN) television show that pits successful restaurant chefs as challengers against acclaimed star “Iron Chefs” in hourlong battles to see who can produce the most delectable gastronomical delights. As today’s battle is filmed, Novatt (CAS ’97) works like an air-traffic controller in her production room above FN’s Kitchen Stadium in Manhattan’s Chelsea Market. She takes reports on the cook-off from her assistants on the floor and relays updates to commentator Alton Brown, who narrates the melee. (He’s also the star of FN’s Good Eats.)

Novatt is nervous because neither chef has started to arrange food onto plates. Both still cook as the red numbers head relentlessly toward zero. “They don’t realize that five minutes in a restaurant is very different from five minutes in Kitchen Stadium,” she says.

And she should know. While at Pitt, she cooked huge meals for friends to alleviate the stress of exams and papers. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in nonfiction writing, she made a self-discovery: “Writing was something I was good at. Cooking was something I loved.”

Her next destination was the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in Arizona.

Then, FN filmed a show at a restaurant where Novatt was working; she found the experience irresistible. A network internship led to a job as associate producer for Emeril Live, featuring the New Orleans celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse. When FN created an American version of Japan’s cooking show, Iron Chef, Novatt was tapped to handle all matters food-related. In her current producer’s role, she selects the chef-challengers, oversees the stocking of the show’s 250-item food pantries, and helps calm nervous chefs before battle. She also chooses the secret ingredient—an item the chefs must include in each of their dishes as part of the battle’s challenge.

Now in Kitchen Stadium—which Novatt helped design—rays of light ricochet off silver islands of gas ranges, convection ovens, and ice cream makers. Chefs chop and fry frantically as the smoke from fog machines mingles with the steam of boiling pots and simmering saucepans. Iron Chef America has the elements of good storytelling—suspense, action, intriguing details—and that’s something Novatt can connect to her Pitt years. “Everything I do now is a combination of storytelling and cooking,” she says. Once the battle begins, the show doesn’t stop—not for cuts, burns, or even the fire alarm that went off during a taping several weeks ago (it was a false alarm). This leaves Novatt to sort out the interesting story lines from the frantic bustle of the competition: “You take the ingredients and recipes and—like a puzzle—fit them to create a flowing show. Each cooking show is a story.”

With two minutes remaining, the chefs have finally plated most of their food. But right now, only one thing matters to Novatt: “What just came out of that pressure cooker?”

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