Cooking competitions are a dime a dozen nowadays, whether it’s Master Chef, The Great British Bake-Off, or even that old stand-by to make any aspiring baker to feel better, Nailed It. The endless memes about lamb sauce aside, Hell’s Kitchen has always been great background noise for me while attempting to make something for the family at dinnertime.
Before any of those, however, there was one program which stood out – dare I say, it started the trend of televised cooking competitions. It proved you could center an entire show not just around preparing meals, but also around showing an audience the true art of cooking.
“If memory serves me right…”
First, a little backstory.
In the summer of 1999, I was returning from the mall with an issue of Animerica Magazine. One small section featured a “what’s hot in Japan” breakdown written by 4 correspondents. In one person’s intro comments, they talked about a Japanese show they’ve been obsessed with that’s airing on (of all places) The Food Network. At the time, my knowledge of The Food Network began and ended with the show Emirl Live, probably their hottest program; I wasn’t much of a viewer of theirs.
“You’re telling me an anime is airing on The Food Network,” I thought. “This I gotta see.”
After scouring the latest TV Guide, I finally found the show: Iron Chef, Saturday at 8pm.This was the start of my own obsession with the show – a series of hot summer weekends in my bedroom, finishing up my assigned book reading for sophomore year of high school as the sun set, the commotion of Japanese chefs (actual people, and not animated as thought) preparing food over play-by-play commentary in the background.
"Today's Ingredient Is..."
The first iteration of Iron Chef began around October of 1993 in Japan; named Ryōri no Tetsujin (or, “Ironmen of Cooking”), it aired weekly on Fuji TV for nearly six straight years.
The basic premise of the show involved a chef from Japan (and occasionally elsewhere in the world!) being invited to compete against one of three “Iron Chefs,” each specializing in a different type of cuisine – Japanese, Chinese, and French. As the series progressed a fourth chef was added, introducing Italian to the list. Both chefs would have 60 minutes to complete a fabulous spread of food to be served to a panel of (Japanese) celebrity judges who then each of the dishes that evening. The person with the largest score is declared the victor.
There is, however, just one catch – all the dishes need to include and be centered around that night’s special ingredient.
Ingredients ranged from the common to the extravagant. One week, the chefs could be working on dishes involving wheat – the very next week, the contestants would be expected to use Swallow’s Nest, an ingredient that this connoisseur of boxed macaroni and cheese had to look up to figure out what it even was!
And as if all that weren’t enough, there is a story to go along with it…
Meet Chairman Kaga, the creator of the Gourmet Academy. This bombastic biter of bell peppers…this enigmatic entertainer of the masses…he overlooks the events each night a competition is held.
In reality a star of Japanese stage and film named Takeshi Kaga, the “chairman” is a lover of fine foods from all over the globe; from his castle abode (oh, he has a castle, by the way) he one day pondered, “What if I were to have chefs from around the world compete?” Thus, the grand Kitchen Stadium was born – an elaborate space full of all the tools and ingredients chefs would need to create dishes of all kinds. And at the head of the stadium stood the portraits of the men Chairman Kaga selected to be his Iron Chefs.
Rising from the bowels of the stadium to face each challenger amidst smoke and thunderous music playing for those at home, only one is picked to do battle with said challenger and defend their place as an Iron Chef.
If this all sounded really over-the-top and hammy as all get-out, but you’re still here for it anyway – congratulations! You’re on your way to being a fan.
"Let's Go to the Floor!"
All of this activity is filmed wildly by camera crews dodging assistants and weaving through equipment so that the audience can see as it all comes together. A field reporter, Shinichiro Ohta, would bounce from chef to chef in the hopes of learning what we all could expect from them.
Meanwhile, Kenji Fukui and Yukio Hattori (Kitchen Stadium’s own Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler, as it were) would comment on what they see from the commentary booth as pans clang and scents waft, while a woman’s voice periodically announces how much longer both competitors have within the one-hour time limit.
Once time is up, the two chefs take a moment to breathe and then reflect on the battle with Mr. Ohta’s microphone at the ready. And then…the moment of awe.
"Whose Cuisine Will Reign Supreme?"
Each of the dishes are revealed, course by course. And it’s in this moment that all of the camp, all of the bravado, and all of the madness begin to simmer and form into food beyond your wildest imagination.
While every episode showcases the extravagant meals during this portion, let’s look at one example of both a challenger and an Iron Chef taking a mundane ingredient and running with it.
Take a look at these.
Take a good, long look at these.
Now, try to imagine just what the key ingredient for this challenge could have been.
If you said asparagus…well, congratulations!
I think it bears repeating – these twelve dishes were assembled in one hour by two chefs just given the simple direction, “Hey, make something with asparagus.”
This included an asparagus cocktail – “asparagus added to a white wine and champagne sparkler.”
The true artistic insanity, however, lies in the main dish.
Literally just called “Asparagus Grilled in Lobsters,” one only needs to hear our commentator, Mr. Fukui, describe it for them:
“Six asparagus stalks, grilled in 30 Omar lobsters. But, it’s an asparagus-only dish – the ultimate – costing well over $1,000 a serving.”
So remember – the next time you’re splitting hairs about whether you should get that appetizer at Outback or just stick with the pumpernickel bread, it won’t break the bank that badly.
Like a Fine Wine
Around the summertime last year, I suddenly got a craving to relive this show. Yet no matter how hard I looked it seemed no one was offering this particular version. In the years following Iron Chef‘s run, the demand was high enough for more and more kitchen battles; this led to special events both in the United States and in Japan, with the US eventually getting its own version, Iron Chef: America. These were ready to go for anyone who wanted to stream them…but not the one that preheated the country’s desire for outlandish culinary war.
And then, in what can only be described as a Christmas miracle, the show emerged on PlutoTV’s channel guide in early December. Not only was it available on a streaming platform on-demand, it got the full 24/7 channel treatment much like The Joy of Painting, Unsolved Mysteries, and the TokuSHOUTsu channel (watch Kamen Rider Ryuki, you won’t regret it).
After spending almost an entire evening watching episodes, what really caught me by surprise was the fact that Iron Chef is still a truly remarkable show. With more mature eyes, I find myself enjoying the nostalgic comfort of the campiness while appreciating the intricacy of the food even more so today. Putting any of the dishes present in any of these episodes up against the best ones offered on Master Chef is downright unfair – there’s just no comparison. What’s even more remarkable is that so much content from the era which it aired in has aged horribly.
That’s not to say there aren’t faults in it; after watching a random episode on PlutoTV’s dedicated channel, I overheard one line in particular that, even back when the show first aired, was very cringe-worthy. At the start of this particular competition, Bill Bickard (the gentleman who dubbed the lines for Fukui) says aloud, “Bang a gong, we are on!”
In an interview conducted back in June of 2004, Mr. Bickard stated, “When I am in the studio, I want to make it so I can do this thing as smooth as possible…I want to put it in my words; I want to do it in my style.”
While it’s completely understandable to want to make the dialogue flow naturally, it feels like that one could have been reeled back in. It goes without saying that something like that would not fly in this day and age.
Regardless, the show as a whole has held up very well. It is a treat and well worth your time watching – if you’ve never experienced it before, do yourself a favor and please do.
Thank you very much for reading. If you’d like, you can follow me on Twitter – @Prattski84, or click the handy link on the right.