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Mark Beaulieu

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Ironchef

Cooking Evangelist

 

by Mark Beaulieu

Wireless Fuki-san Engineer

June 28, 2000


If memory serves me, there was a secret ingredient ... I taste it now, so many years ago...


This was a great weekend! Kitchen Stadium, normally in Tokyo, was recreated in New York City this Sunday June 25, 2000 9pm-11pm PST. I taped the culinary Godzilla tromp over New York if you need to see it.

The Japanese are teleconquering the world with three silk-bloused sushi-prone seaweed-seasoned wrestlers, the "Iron Chefs". Iron Chef is a cooking game show that mixes serious culinary art with camp entertainment played in gladiatorial splendor at a kitchen stadium.

If you have never seen two warrior chefs duke it out under the dramatic staging of the James Brown of Japan - Takeshi Kaga - you haven't lived. A typical show goes like this. Kaga, the caped master of ceremonies squints and passes his lingering evil gaze over the TV audience viewing the stadium center holding two kitchens. His head snaps to center stage to the bleachered crowd. He slowly raises a fresh yellow bell pepper then takes a furious bite. He very slowly chews and raises an eyebrow contemplating, we are told in voice-over, his stable of Iron Chefs which no one in the world can beat. Victory rarely falls from their grace. Finally a challenger enters this coliseum hoping to prove worthy.

Outrageous pomp as chariman Kaga, black glove fist raised, shouts, "I SUMMON YOU IRONCHEFS". From the earth slowly rise three colorful figures in silk on gantries - the Ironchefs. The challenger chooses one and the new challenger and accomplished Ironchef step before Kaga. The chairman will surprise them with a secret ingredient. The chefs look about, "What are the ingredients and where will they come from?" Kaga may use a cape cloaked chamber, a descending table, a roll-in cart. He unveils the source of their inspiration. The chefs charge into the arms of whatever - seaweed, frogs, broccoli, peaches. It flies through the air into their tubs. After one hour, each chef will have battled out a 4 to 6 course gourmet meal. A tasting panel of odd actors and random talents judge the dishes and make peculiar personal comments to the on-looking chefs who make subtle faces and sublime responses. With ballots in hand, Kaga announces the winner. Victor and honor are bestowed. Unbelievable. Better than Ultimate.

Half the fun is to hear pure Japanese, Asian-emotion filled, subtitled in odd English, or listen to the awkwardly dubbed Japanese commentators as they make intense play-by play reports from the pit. A lot gets lost in translation and we like it that way. The pomp is outrageous, costumes colorfully theatric, presentation of dishes inspirational. Melodramatic music plays. Romance becomes drama. This is real TV.

Now we are in New York City. This time Chairman Kaga enters through a side curtain ablaze in his new multi-technicolor robe. He walks through the cheering seated audience and throws, Mardi-Gras style, yellow peppers to the wanting crowd. At last, arriving at the stage with Las Vegas-like showmanship, the James Brown of Japan lets USA challenger Bobby Flay pick his Iron Chef - Japanese Chef Masaharu Morimoto. They are both New York restaurant owners. Kaga unveils the "secret ingredient." This time it dramatically descends from sky in a mirrored ball. The chefs are puzzled. Shielding their eyes from the stage lights they croon to discover the source of their inspiration and the weapon of their art. What is it this time? "Battle Rock Crab".

I doubt a skit from Saturday Night Live could ever become so mad, so romantic, so dramatic.

Like a good pro-wrestling match, there is a back-story. Tonight a too-young boy has come all the way from Arizona with his folks to see his hero Iron Chef. The boy dressed up like Morimoto-san show their earlier meeting, bonded before TV cameras, and are destined to meet again.

The New York audience is riled and raving. Can Bobby Flay, the big Apple’s current favorite chef of Mesa Grill, out-cook Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto who runs Nobu? Will American judges, familiar with Flay’s Southwest-inspired all-American cuisine, be able to appreciate the subtleties of Morimoto’s Asian dishes?

Morimoto calmly and deftly creates five dishes by hour's end. As the crowd goes wild, he dances a tight boxer's jig to his crab-brain appetizer; crab soup; crab hors d'oeuvres, grilled crabs in seaweed and crab salad.

Flay suffers a knife cut early in battle and then electric shocks from his electric oven. Finally a stage manager throws in a rubber mat over a sloshing wet floor. He produces four dishes: crab and scallops in coriander, crab salad in a coconut bowl, crab cakes and spicy saffron crab soup

"GONGGGGGG" and the battle is done. The camera tracks an exuberant Flay who leaps on top of his cutting board table, stomps, shouts and pushes his "raise the roof" arms up with the audience. Next cut to Morimoto - his back to the camera face filled with shame. His fine Japanese sensibility can not take the aping American antics. He reluctantly tells the commentator, "He is not a chef! In Japan, the cutting board and the knife is sacred. NO, he is not a chef!"

And here is the difference; the two cuisines mirror the two chefs’ personal styles, their national cultures. Often the challenging foreign cook lazily accepts this show as oddball, while the Japanese chef works seriously and reveres the art. And guess what - it always shows up in the cooking. East meets West and culture slays the amateur. But only if the judges can taste the difference.

With the battle over, the spoils are left to the court - the stage guests who taste at Kaga-san's table. Odd entertainment personalities (the rarer the better) make heroically ordinary comments. Something new this time. For thisUS show a randomly selected an audience member shows Democracy in action. So the dishes roll out before the judges - Joe America, an actress and two ex-lawyers turned food critics. Much anticipation as each chef looks on and takes the random comments from the eaters. (Could you imagine a real chef having to stand by his work as diners consume it?) They are done and the tally is counted. On the concerned face of Morimoto-san nothing but frowns and cheek biting as if he is thinking - "I can't get over it, how can that "cooking person" dishonor the art of his country. Should I fall on my sword? What if these American tasters choose him? And where is my knife now?" And Fray's face reads - "I've Won, End of Story. Har Har Get Out of Town." Where is the umpire?

Well you have to watch the show to see the final score. But can there be any doubt?

"Iron Chef" plays on the Food Network. It is produced by Fuji Television of Japan and is shown throughout the week. Check your listings for show times. (In Santa Cruz on cable channel 32) By the way, go check out a great IRON CHEF web site. She used to own and run ironchef. com for three years, but Fuji-TV has been battling to own it. Her home site is www.ironsteph.com although www.ironchef.com will inevitably fall to the Japanese.

(c) 2000-2016 Mark Richard Beaulieu

A Lot Gets Lost in Translation
(and we like it that way)