Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Iron Chef: Japan's Culinary Sensation Takes America By Storm

By Ross Everett

One of the most entertaining spectacles on television can be found every week on the Food Network. The concept of the program sounds like a twisted dream"prominent chefs from all over the world go head to head in competitions more suited for All Japan Pro Wrestling. Thats exactly the premise of Iron Chef, which is hands down the most compelling cooking show on television. Even non-gourmands will enjoy the fast paced competition and the near incomprehensibility of the show.

The show was originally created by the Fuji TV network in the Japan, and the original Japanese title translates literally to The Iron Men of Cooking. The premise behind the competition is even more outlandish. An eccentric millionaire and food lover MC Kaga, summons the summons the finest chefs in Japan to do battle in his kitchen stadium. Also in residence are three Iron Chefs, each representing a different type of cuisine (Chinese, French and Japanese). The summoned culinary challenger picks which Iron Chef he wants to take a crack at and the contest begins.

But wait, theres more"the chefs just dont pull out the best dishes from their repertoire. Theres a catch to the contest, and thats the fact that every dish must contain the theme ingredient which is kept a mystery until immediately before the contest begins. At that time, Kaga brings forth a heaping helping of whatever the current mystery ingredient is in a production of smoke and pyrotechnics straight out of a KISS concert. Sometimes the ingredient is something basic like tofu or apples, but it can also be something obscure like ox tail or some obscure shellfish.

The chefs then have an hour to prepare a seven-course meal to be served to a panel of what I presume to be mid-level Japanese celebrities. They rate and discuss each participants offering and pick a winner. At the end of the show with much fan fare Kaga reveals the winner. Its a great honor to beat one of the Iron Chefs, though its no easy feat.

What really brings the show together is the announcing. Theres a hysterical play by play announcer, an excitable color commentator, and an even more hyperactive sideline correspondent who will break in the commentary frequently with revelations such as observing that a chef is using fresh ginger in a dish or some similar piece of trivia. Apparently one of the announcers is a legit sumo wrestling announcer in Japan, making the strange juxtaposition between cooking shows and wrestling even more complete.

The dishes that the chefs come up with are always pretty amazing, creative and complex"if not always appetizing. Some of their creations look yummy, but a dessert with a compulsory use of carp isnt exactly mouth watering for American palates. Nonetheless, the creative process and intensity of the competitors is amazing. Even as challenging as this is, the requirement that a theme ingredient be used in every component of the meal really ups the ante.

The Food Network has recently begun production of a native grown version called 'Iron Chef America'. It has a similar format, but really loses a lot from the inscrutable original.

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