Ok, I admit it. I'm a fan of the Japanese TV show Iron Chef. Living as I do near a metropolitan area with a large Asian population, I had the benefit of first seeing the show better part of ten years ago before it came to the Food Network on a local Asian-language TV station. I've always thought of it as high camp, and if I didn't laugh at it, it was only because I perceived that there was obviously something culturally idiomatic about the presentation that was getting lost in tranlation.
My fascination with the format is easily summed up: it's about the food. I don't generally get to inhabit four to five star restaurants. So, the chance to see renowned professional chefs improvise cuisine on the spot based around a theme ingredient is usually rather interesting. Seeing some of the more unusual theme ingredients found in Japanese cuisine (such as, say, sea urchin roe) or the culturally different ways of using familar items (such as, say, milk or pork) was also endlessly intriguing. It was the chance to see how Asian food might be prepared without being Americanized, as well as how the Japanese look at other great international cuisines.
It was therefore with some interest and surprise that I discovered Iron Chef America: Battle of the Masters was on the Food Network over the weekend... and even more than that, it was good. A feeble attempt to translate the Iron Chef format to American television was made by UPN back in 2000 and they got it all wrong. They dumbed down the food. They hired William Shatner as the central figure of the show, called "The Chairman". They dressed two guys in awful dull yellow jackets like it was 1975 and the viewer was was actually watching ABC's Wide World of Sports all over again. It was awful... they took a show that was odd in a weirdly foreign way and just made it plain tacky.
The new version suffered from none of those flaws. The food was exquisite. Excellent foodie color commentary was provided by Alton Brown. The format of the show largely stuck to its Japanese roots, but also was slyly aware of some of its Japanese predecessors eccentricities. I loved it.
I suppose that the biggest surprise for me on Iron Chef America was watching celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck in action. He usually annoys me, a lot. His show on Food Network is long on chatter and celebrity name dropping and short on effort to teach cooking skills (the same could be said about Emeril, but, somehow he annoys me much less.) On Iron Chef America, he was quiet and all business... and I could finally see that, as they say, "they boy's got skills". He also made menu choices that blew his opponent, Masaharu Morimoto, out of the water.
Fiancee S. thinks that Iron Chef is stupid. She watched patiently with me for a while, but eventually busted out laughing. She says she's tried to understand it, but she just doesn't get it... and that's ok. I'm the first to agree that Iron Chef isn't for everyone. It's the sort of show that you have to accept it for what it is and go to it, rather than it being accessible to everyone. That's why it's frequently referred to as a "cult" hit.
I think I'll just have to make sure the VCR is set whenever future editions of Iron Chef America appear and watch them when Fiancee S. is not around or she is otherwise occupied. It's all fine by me. It's just another slightly guilty pleasure to add to the list.
on 2004-04-26 at 3:17 p.m.
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