Alexandra Jones: 'Iron Chef' invades America

BY ALEXANDRA JONES
auto-neurotic
Published January 20, 2005

We’ve all seen it at one time or another. Between the NASCAR races, wedding/dating/baby stories, makeover shows and endless hours of “I Love the ’80s,” you’ve certainly stumbled upon one of cable television’s most enthralling and utterly confounding hour-long programs. Maybe you saw a snippet of the middle — white-aproned Asian men scurrying about with gleaming knives and live salmon. Perhaps you caught the end of this program, which features dramatic music playing behind four somber, well-dressed judges standing in fog machine smoke. Or maybe you saw a flamboyantly dressed guy — maybe he’s a matador — bite zestfully into a giant yellow pepper. That’s right: I’m talking about “Iron Chef.”

Alexandra Jones

This Japanese hybrid of a cooking show and a game show, in which two gourmet chefs must create a menu around a surprise ingredient, has attracted a huge fanbase since it began airing on that channel I always seem to end up watching, The Food Network, and I’ve been hooked ever since. The weird part is this: So is everyone else.

The concept seems pretty specialized, right? Weird food plus an hour time limit plus shiny costumes equals ratings gold no matter where you go. Throw in a few bushels of bad overdubbing and a dash of cross-cultural mystique, and you’ve got a hit on your hands.

Gawker.com asserts that the show has “an impenetrable, cult-like following amongst foodies and anyone with a decent bong.” While that may be true, almost everyone with whom I’ve talked about the show hasn’t just seen it, they watch it every time it comes on. People have favorite Iron Chefs. Mine happens to be the fiery Iron Chef Italian Masahiko Kobe, known in Japanese culinary circles as The Prince of Pasta. You can buy Iron Chef baseball caps, aprons and even a board game on www.foodnetwork.com.

Although production ceased in 1999, a crossover battle was held a few years ago: Iron Chef Japanese Masaharu Morimoto of the trendy New York restaurant Nobu fought Mesa Grill’s squish-faced, pompous-ass head chef Bobby Flay. Cultures collided when, at the end of the difficult Battle Rock Crab, Flay jumped up on the counter, stood on his cutting board and proceeded to make a “raise the roof” motion. Morimoto was visibly offended — not by the dumbass nature of Flay’s actions, but because as chefs, “cutting boards and knives are sacred.” In the midst of such scandal, Morimoto won the battle, and Flay bested him in the Battle Lobster rematch in Japan the next year. The two now profess to be friends.

They’d have to be: Both bear the prestigious title on “Iron Chef America,” Food Network’s new adaptation of Fuji International TV’s hit. Rather than the Liberace-esque Chairman Kaga (who’s really an actor anyway), we’re given his “nephew.” Instead of dish-by-dish commentary from former baseball announcer Kenji Fukui, culinary expert Yukio Hattori and whatever vacuous Japanese celebrities are on hand, affable food scientist and delightful “Good Eats” host Alton Brown capably MCs the competition. A stable of Food Network chefs like Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali and the controversial Flay battle each other; even Morimoto rounds out the cast. But without the kitsch factor, is this new “Iron Chef” worth watching?

It’s true that without the nebulous appeal of the original, “Iron Chef America” wouldn’t cause much of a stir (hee hee). Despite the Americanization process, however, the show is still enjoyable: Viewers still love the heat (zing!) of battle, and making a multicourse meal in an hour is going to take a stressful toll on anyone. The ingredients are still pretty exotic since the stateside Iron Chefs specialize in cooking styles of cuisine from all over the world. And although we’ll never hear a poorly translated judge’s comment of the same caliber as “It is like a cat’s tongue upon my own tongue” from critics like Paige Davis or Donna Hanover, hearing descriptions of what these culinary improvisations taste like is still one of the most interesting parts of the show. Overall, it’s a success for fans of the original. I’m just glad that Food Network’s seemingly ubiquitous dimple-faced, spendthrift twat Rachael Ray isn’t involved.

 

Alexandra wants to be able to bite into a hot pepper like Chairman Kaga. Offer her words of encouragement at almajo@umich.edu.