[10 May 2005]
“Allez! Cuisine!” This phrase translates directly into “Go! Kitchen!” And for food aficionados worldwide, it marks the start of Iron Chef. A cross between a boxing match and a cooking instructional, the original series (1993-1999) was a huge success in its native Japan, then became a cult hit abroad. With its competitive storylines and varied theme ingredients, the show showcased the sequined-suited Chairman Kaga, head of the fictional Gourmet Academy, full of pomp and excitement as he called his chefs into battle.
The catchphrase—along with some of the melodrama associated with it—has been incorporated into Iron Chef America. Now well into its first season, this version also keeps the original’s basic premise: four Iron Chefs, experts in their respective fields, are challenged by other gourmet chefs. Each has an hour to incorporate a secret ingredient, unveiled at the top of the program, into five dishes. A combination of celebrities and food critics then judge the dishes, and a winner is crowned weekly, based on taste, presentation, and originality.
Beyond this, the two versions differ. The Japanese show relied heavily on the charisma of its regulars, not unlike the WWE. The personality cults built up around characters such as Chairman Kaga and the self-deprecating Iron Chef Chen Kenichi drew viewers from outside of the cooking show demographic, people who tune in less for recipes than for showdowns.
By contrast, Iron Chef America favors accessibility over spectacle, and it doesn’t make as many reaches for a broad audience. On Iron Chef Japan, the theme ingredients bordered on unattainable: a single plate of mushrooms might have cost thousands of dollars, which gave the competitions an epic, inconceivable tone. Most of the secret ingredients on Iron Chef America (for instance, coconut, crab, and cheese) are readily available at the local supermarket. Announcer Alton Brown uses several minutes of each episode to impart practical knowledge (for Battle Mushroom, for example, he discussed mushrooms). And during each competition, chefs narrate their processes: for Battle Duck, Iron Chef Bobby Flay described his “Deep-Fried Duck and 10-Ingredients Grits” in detail, making its duplication conceivable.
The decrease of epic melodrama is most evident in Iron Chef America‘s treatment of participants’ rivalries. Many of Iron Chef Japan‘s battles reflected a generational conflict between centuries-old traditions and outside, often Western, influences. The 70+ strong Ohta faction would object to the Iron Chefs’ neo-classical cooking approaches, promising to “unseat” or “destroy” those Iron Chefs they challenged.
Iron Chef America, with its hyperbolic dialogue and charismatic performers, seems poised for the same type of dramatic tension. Brown, who also emcees the food trend show Good Eats, provides peppy, if sincere reverence, noting the Chairman’s “infinite wisdom” with a self-seriousness indicative of the show’s subversive humor. Flay, who heads the Southwest American Mesa Grill in Manhattan, and hosts Boy Meets Grill and BBQ with Bobby Flay, has also appeared as a controversial, trash-talking challenger on Iron Chef Japan. Like Brown, he’s camera-savvy, and smart enough to turn his brash New Yorker persona into a selling point.
As it is primarily a cooking show, Iron Chef America avoids arcing storylines (unlike Japan, which dedicated upwards of 10 minutes to a challenger’s biography, including black and white photos and interview sound-bites). Iron Chef America does away with these flourishes, reducing the challenger’s back-story to several video clips and a stat sheet listing cooking experiences and influences. Here the challenger does not call out his opponent; the Chairman selects, reducing the possibility for personal grudges or confrontations.
The American Iron Chefs and most of their challengers are nontraditional, fusion chefs. And the series celebrates such combinations of cuisines, deeming them ambitious and “American” rather than disrespectful or rebellious. The competitions are friendly; the chefs cut promos praising their opponents’ abilities rather than disputing their “authenticity.” All this makes for a focus on actual food preparation, geared for the Food Network’s audience.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/iron-chef-america/