They glare, they battle, they cook.By Betty Shimabukuro
They are mighty kitchen warriors.
He rises from somewhere below ground, a glaring, staring man in red. He is ready for battle, holding -- a pear. Why? Who knows. He is an iron chef, and iron chefs need explain themselves to no one.
"Iron Chef" is a TV show about food. Deeply, totally, passionately and hilariously about food. It airs, naturally, on the Food Network, but only since July. "Iron Chef" was born in Japan, where it has been a prime-time hit for several years.
You have to see this show. There is nothing on television -- or anywhere else -- like it.
"Just phenomenally odd," is how devoted viewer Lauri Yanagawa describes the show.
"Intrinsically, incredibly informative," says Eileen Opatut, senior vice president for programming and production at Food TV.
The premise: A really rich guy devotes his fortune to the building of an elaborately appointed Kitchen Stadium where his gladiators -- the four iron chefs -- do battle against challenger-chefs from the classiest restaurants in Japan.
The rich guy is Kaga Takeshi, and he is an actor playing the one fictional character in the show.
The iron chefs are for real -- master chefs representing four culinary styles: Iron Chef French (the guy in red with the pear), Iron Chef Chinese (in yellow with a cleaver), Iron Chef Italian (in red, white and green with a tomato) and Iron Chef Japanese (in silver and weaponless; who knows why). Their challengers are also chefs from real restaurants, and the judges are celebrity panelists operating under their true names.
Other key players are the commentator Fukui Kenji, who provides play-by-play, and roving reporter Ota Shinichiro, who breathlessly investigates what the chefs are putting into their pots. "Fukui-san!" he calls out when he has breaking news to report.
As each competition begins, the iron chefs rise grandly onto the stage. ("I summon -- the iron chefs!" Kaga proclaims.) They do not smile. One is selected with great flourish by the challenger for the culinary joust.
Kaga then produces an ingredient that the chefs must use to produce a multi-course meal. ("We unveil -- the ingredient!" Imagine a cloth pulled away to reveal a pile of plucked guinea fowl.) The chefs always look deeply concerned at this point. But then much cooking ensues, involving an army of white-suited assistants. The dishes are displayed and tasted. A winner is proclaimed, almost always the iron chef, although upsets have occurred.
The mystery ingredient has been all manner of seafood, cuts of meat (including beef cheek), but also such things as yogurt, pineapple, cucumber, curry powder and banana ("Battle: Banana," the episode was called). Plain old rice has been the weapon three times.
Traditional humility is elusive among these chefs. "My dishes are perfect," one challenger announced. He lost.
Each chef is introduced in a segment reminiscent of the "Up Close and Personal" filmographies aired during the Olympics. "His tastebuds are God-given," one interviewee said about a particular challenger.
Lest you think this is all flash and show biz, consider that three iron chefs have "retired" from competition, all citing the stress of being continually creative with the more bizarre ingredients.
"Iron Chef" is deadly serious and laugh-out-loud funny. Is it supposed to be funny? That's the enigma, to risk a stereotype, of the show.
"Iron Chef" is a departure for the Food Network, which is essentially a how-to kind of place. No recipes are provided and it would be difficult to duplicate at home what's going on in Kitchen Stadium anyway.
To wit: "Battle: Guinea Fowl," in which an inflated pig bladder (in French, a vessie) was filled with meat of the bird, asparagus, foie gras and truffles, and steamed. "A traditional French technique!" an on-air consultant proclaimed.
"Our e-mail lines are flooded with people requesting recipes, and we're sorry that we don't have them," Food TV's Opatut says.
But the show does demonstrate lots of cooking technique, and it provides Western audiences with a glimpse of Japanese culinary styles. "The information presented in 'Iron Chef' has great integrity. It's not just a funny, high-energy competition. It also has lots of great food information."
Opatut says she was sold on the show after her first viewing.
"I had never seen anyone take the subject of food quite so seriously before. I thought that it reminded me of 'American Gladiators,' or a sporting event ...
"I was also taken with the fact that it was Japanese, which is a whole other cultural take on the subject of food. Later, I was taken by the fact that I cared whether these people won or not. You get to know them."
Before Food TV picked up "Iron Chef" for national viewing, it was available in a few cable markets either in Japanese or subtitled. It attracted a cult audience in the Bay area, where an incredibly devoted fan named Stephanie Masumura maintains a Web site, http://www.ironchef.com, that includes, among other things, a running scorecard for each chef.
San Francisco's Exploratorium capitalizes on the show's popularity with a weekly Iron Science Teacher competition, wherein teachers race to demonstrate scientific principals using a "secret ingredient."
When the show went more or less mainstream, it was dubbed in English by Fuji TV in Japan, producer of the show. That proved controversial, Opatut says.
Many fans felt the show lost a lot of energy and flavor to the dubbing -- it was actually denounced in the San Francisco Examiner.
"Some people are saying, 'You should have left it in its authentic, original state,' " Opatut says. "Other people who have been fans for a long time are writing in and saying, 'I thought I was a loyalist. Now I realize I never really understood what was going on.' "
Last week the network began airing a hybrid dubbing of the show. Everything is now dubbed except the words of host Taga, which are subtitled. "He has such a strong personality and was so distinctive that we were never really able to capture his quality in full when we lost the Japanese-language track," Opatut says.
This leads, however, to somewhat disorienting sequences where Taga speaks in Japanese and a chef responds in overdubbed English.
This matters not to loyal viewer Yanagawa, a "foodie-wannabe" who has been hooked on the show since its Food TV debut and tapes it weekly.
She enjoys the campiness and humor -- intended or not -- comparing the show's over-the-top style to Japanese TV dramas and old samurai films. "They tend to be prone to hyper-emoting."
Her friend, Kris Kimoto, says she's fascinated with the variety of dishes the chefs can make out of a single ingredient while working at hyperspeed. Watching one make a dessert out of a fish left her truly impressed.
"Only in Japan."
What next for "Iron Chef?" Fuji TV plans to discontinue the show after September, but with more than 300 back episodes in storage, the Food Network could air episodes for years, Opatut says. So far, only six of a first 26-show installment have shown.
In the meantime, programmers are considering an American version of "Iron Chef." Imagine the possibilities: Iron Chef French, Jacques Pepin; Iron Chef Cajun, Emeril Lagasse; Iron Chef Asian, Ming Tsai. A decision is expected in the next few months.
Yanagawa votes yes. "I'm just waiting to see if any producer would have the gumption to stage anything like it."
On TV: 4 and 7 p.m. Fridays (new episode, airs twice) and Saturdays (repeat of previous week's show), Food Network.
Online: http://www.foodtv.com for program notes; http://www.ironchef.com, an unofficial fan site
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