I have been a fan of “Iron Chef” ever since my cable TV system began carrying Food Network. I was highly skeptical several years ago when UPN tried to do an American version, which they called “Iron Chef USA.” It was awful. But last spring, Food Network tried out its version, “Iron Chef America,” and it was light-years improved.
Tonight, “Iron Chef America,” which was a miniseries event last spring, becomes a regular weekly series. I’m watching the first episode — challenger Rick Bayless versus Iron Chef Bobby Flay, with buffalo as the theme ingredient — and I am not disappointed.
For the uninitiated, the original “Iron Chef” was a weekly program on Japanese television through most of the 1990s. It can be described as a cross between professional wrestling, Pokemon and Julia Child. The culinary competition is real, but there’s a sort of fictional premise in which a mysterious wealthy Japanese nobleman, “Chairman Kaga,” creates “Kitchen Stadium,” an arena for culinary competition, and recruits several “Iron Chefs” — “the invincible men of culinary skill,” according to the opening of the Japanese version. Each week, a challenger arrives in Kitchen Stadium to take on one of the Iron Chefs. A theme ingredient is announced, and the chefs get 60 minutes to prepare various dishes, each of which must feature the theme ingredient. In the Japanese version, each chef may prepare as many or as few dishes as he or she likes; in both “Iron Chef USA” and “Iron Chef America,” they must prepare a minimum of five dishes. After the cooking is over, a panel of judges samples the challenger’s dishes and then the Iron Chef’s dishes and votes on a winner.
There is no prize money, and a victorious challenger does not somehow become an Iron Chef. It’s merely a battle for bragging rights.
Part of the appeal of the original “Iron Chef,” for American viewers, was its exoticness (is that a word?). The voice talents who translated the original Japanese episodes for their Food Network airings did a masterful job. It is obviously a loose translation, preserving some uniquely Japanese attitudes and cultural references while at the same time adopting the cadence and enthusiasm of American sportscasting. The ingredients in the Japanese version are sometimes strange to our American tastes, and in the case of seafood, they would often be live at the time the theme ingredient was unveiled. One of the first episodes of the show I ever saw had octopus as a theme ingredient; one of the Iron Chefs dropped a still live octopus into a bowl of breading, and the octopus flailed about for a few seconds before being dispatched! In another episode, an eel escaped and slithered across the floor.
Then there was the episode with natto as the theme ingredient. Natto is apparently a Japanese specialty made from fermented beans. The beans are covered with a stringy slime that hangs off the spoon like mozzerella cheese from a hot pizza. It looked positively disgusting. Later, after having seen the Iron Chef episode, I heard a Nashville radio talk show host say that the Japanese sometimes use natto as a sort of good-natured test. He claimed that many of the Japanese don’t even like it, but that they will sometimes serve it to a Westerner just to watch the reaction.
Any American version of Iron Chef is going to lose some of that exotic appeal. So it must make up for it with energy, excitement and other factors.
“Iron Chef USA,” which aired as two specials on UPN (and has been rerun a few times on Food Network) fumbled the ball completely. For starters, it alienated viewers of the original Japanese version by completely ignoring its existence. William Shatner appeared as “The Chairman.” That’s not as far-fetched as it sounds — Takeshi Kaga was apparently already well-known to Japanese viewers as a stage actor when he first took the role of “The Chairman” in the Japanese version. But Shatner just carried too much baggage — Star Trek, Priceline and what have you. He couldn’t pull off the mysterious image that would have made the show possible. (Anyway, he’s much better off on “Boston Legal,” in a role where his hamminess is not only tolerated but essential.) The announcers on the UPN version were Michael Burger — an affable but bland pseudo-celebrity whose resume includes a daytime talk show and a remake of “Match Game” — and culinary expert Anthony Dias Blue, with Sissy Biggers as floor reporter. None of them did anything terribly wrong, but none of them provided any sort of spark. The American Iron Chefs (we only got to see two of the three in actual competition) were not bad, but again, no spark. (One of them, Kerry Simon, later turned up as a judge on the “Iron Chef America” miniseries last spring.)
“Iron Chef America” has taken a quite different approach. First off, it’s presented as a spinoff of the original Japanese show — the “Chairman,” played by martial-arts expert Mark Dascassos, presents himself as a nephew of Chairman Kaga who has been commissioned to start a new Kitchen Stadium here in the States. The “Iron Chefs” are already well-known to Food Network viewers. Bobby Flay was a challenger on the Japanese “Iron Chef” and has hosted a variety of Food Network shows. Mario Batali has also hosted a variety of shows on Food Network. Masaharu Morimoto actually was one of the Japanese Iron Chefs, even though he was working in America at the time, and so he has transferred nicely from the Japanese program to the American version. (Last spring, Wolfgang Puck was an Iron Chef, but he apparently decided not to participate in the regular series.)
But my favorite part of the new show is that the play-by-play announcer is my favorite Food Network personality — in fact, he’s one of my favorite people on television period. Alton Brown, the quirky, hilarious host of “Good Eats,” handles the play-by-play and color commentator roles by himself, assisted by a sideline reporter, Kevin Brauch. I am a huge Alton Brown fan, and he manages to take the cooking seriously while winking at the pageantry.
As far as I’m concerned, this show is a home run.