Long before there was Iron Chef USA, Iron Chef America or The Next Iron Chef there was… Iron Chef. In 1998, my wife and I were among the first Americans to see the show in person.
Flickering torches illuminated the medieval hall. Beneath the glare of pinpoint spotlights, two men, still glistening with sweat from their hour-long battle, took deep, quiet breaths awaiting the verdict that would determine their fate. On the other side of the vast room, four judges solemnly followed a man dressed in a black, sequined toreador jacket down a curving stairway. The man in black was not Johnny Cash. The two men silently waiting were not gladiators. They were chefs. This was not the denouement of a science fiction fight-to-the-death movie but the finale of the jaw-dropping Japanese television spectacle known as Ryori No Tetsujin or Iron Chef.
A staple of late night television in Japan since October 1993, Iron Chef has been credited with introducing balsamic vinegar to Japan and turning that nation into the number one foie gras eating country on earth. More amazingly, over the same period, "professional chef" has risen from #17 in a poll of Japanese elementary school boys as a career choice to the #3 spot, just behind baseball player and soccer player. The men anointed as Iron Chefs have risen from the obscurity of the culinary world to celebrities known throughout Japan. Iron Chef threatens to have as much impact on Japan's culinary habits as Commodore Perry's incursion into Tokyo Bay had on the country's modern history.
Since first seeing Iron Chef on San Francisco's KTSF I have been hooked. In the history of television, there has never been anything like Iron Chef.
Filmed on a huge stage at Tokyo's ultra-modern Fuji-TV studios, Iron Chef is an eye-popping whirlwind of cooking dexterity that somehow manages to combine the melodrama of a 1950s horror picture with the flair of a Las Vegas stage show and the hype of the World Wrestling Federation.
The show follows a mesmerizing format. Actor Takeshi Kaga, well-known for his portrayals of Jean Valjean, Jesus, and Tony in the Japanese stage versions of Les Mis, Jesus Christ Superstar and West Side Story, plays the mysterious, fabulously wealthy man in black. Like Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, his character has grown bored with a life of privilege.
Desperate for something to engage his weary fantasy, he built an immense kitchen stadium within the walls of his castle. Each week he invites a renown chef to do battle against one of his French, Japanese, Chinese, or Italian Iron Chefs. Forewarned that the battle will center on one of four possible theme ingredients, the chefs have just 60 minutes to prep, cook, and plate a five-course meal which will be judged by Kaga's guests, a foursome that consists of a revolving set of actors, sportscasters, journalists, astrologers, politicians, a well-known food critic, and an ingénue who generally pants her comments in a breathless awe that often borders on the pornographic.
One of the first episodes I saw on San Francisco's KTSF was "Battle Anago Eel." The English subtitles described foods I had never heard of. Presented with a tank swarming with hundreds of live eels, Chinese Iron Chef Kenichi Chin turned out a four-course meal that included "crunchy anago eel salad." I watched slack-jawed as the challenger completed his "stacked anago with foie gras, eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes and balsamic dressing." Despite years of watching Jacques, Julia, Burt, Martin, and other TV chefs, I had never ever seen anything like this. To catch up on episodes that aired before I had heard of Iron Chef I surfed the unofficial web sites maintained by fanatical viewers. I never missed a new show. I was hooked.
With the ingredient revealed, the chefs have a split second to finalize their mental menus before Kaga commands, "Allez cuisiner!" The race is on and it's no less thrilling than had he said, "Start your engines!"
"I could not turn it off," says TV chef Graham Kerr who caught the show by accident while in San Francisco. "I was slacked jawed as I watched. It's the Peckinpah of the culinary world," he said referring to the director of The Wild Bunch.
Wayne Nish, executive chef at New York's March restaurant, was the first American to have battled on Iron Chef.
"They told me it would either be turkey, celery, turnips or apples. The day before the show I considered how I could plan a menu that would work with any of the main ingredients. I was able to do that with three: apple, turnip and celery. But I didn't know what to do with turkey? How do you do a dessert with turkey?"
One of the most astounding aspects of the show is the chefs' ability to create dishes out of thin air and inspiration. In "Battle Beef Tongue," Japanese Iron Chef Komei Nakamura conjured up "ice cream with wine simmered beef tongue and beef tongue wafers" on the way to winning a 4-0 knockout over challenger Miyashiro Kiyoshi of Tokyo's highly regarded Ebisu Kaem restaurant.
Against French Iron Chef Hiroyuki Sakai, Wayne Nish suffered a similarly unanimous defeat. Using a translator to communicate with two Japanese sous chefs, Nish, whom Iron Chef called Nishi to emphasize his Japanese heritage, found himself on the wrong end of home court advantage. "My communication with the other chefs was so bad I could not enlist their help to plate the dishes so I literally had to plate all 24 within the allotted time." Typical of the Iron Chef sense of humor and drama, New Yorker Nish's theme ingredient couldn't have been anything other than (Big) apples.
Japanese audiences were as astounded by Nish's 6'4" height as by his use of huge pieces of extremely expensive toro - fatty tuna - and melons which can run over $100 a piece in Japan. The budget for theme ingredients alone such as foie gras, matsutake mushrooms, caviar, and sharks fin often approaches $25,000. The Iron Chef larder overflows with hundreds of bottles of wine, dozens of different types of fresh meat and seafood, and fresh fruits and vegetables flown in from around the world. Everything from white truffles to sea urchin ovaries is stocked and ready should a chef require it for a dish.
The newest addition to the Iron Chef bullpen is Masaharu Morimoto, the Executive Chef at Nobu in Manhattan. Morimoto flies to Tokyo as often as twice a month to battle as the third in a line of Japanese Iron Chefs. Having to fight two challengers in one day means that Morimoto must arrive at the kitchen stadium with up to 50 different dishes in his mind.
I arrived at Fuji-TV's studio four at ten in the morning. Preparations for the show had been going on for hours. Taped on Sundays, the first people to arrive are the plumbers, electricians, and carpenters who must put in the gas, water, and sewer lines. Six hours later, the five-tiered set is ready with no less than four ovens, 14 burners, six sinks, and various appliances laid out in two mirror image, semi-circular kitchens. The crew of nearly 100 raced to get everything and everyone into place. Cases of wine, canned goods and products ranging from Jiffy peanut butter to sea cucumbers ovaries filled the space surrounding the set. Clearly anything a chef might ever want was just within reach.
Hattori Yukio, an originator of the show and owner of a well-known cooking school, tells me it will be an excellent battle. The challenger is Riyou Ju Kyo, the Chinese chef from the Hotel Nikko Tokyo. His brother is Riyou Ju No, the "Grand Chef" of the Chinese kitchen at Tokyo's Hotel Okura, widely considered the best in Japan. Riyou has already decided to challenge Chinese Iron Chef Kenichi Chin, the most popular of the Iron Chefs and the only one of the original three still on the show.
As the chefs waited at the center of the Coliseum-like circular kitchen stadium, Kaga fiendishly rubbed his black-gloved hands in anticipation. With matador like grace, he swept away a red cape as the episode's ingredient rose into view out of a dry-ice cloud. On rare occasions, this opening drama occurs away from center stage, such as during "Battle Lamb" when five fully dressed double sides of lamb were lowered from the ceiling. Or "Battle Milk" when two engorged dairy cows were led into the kitchen stadium by their handlers who immediately began a-milking. As producer Toshihiko Matsuo told me, Iron Chef is as much about entertainment as it is about food. It's designed to dazzle and it rarely disappoints.
The chefs' eyes widened as they took in the theme ingredient; five huge, thickly marbled slabs of boneless pork spare ribs. Instantly the kitchen stadium erupted into activity for "Battle Butabara."
Riyou and Chin began prepping feverishly, oblivious to the portable television cameras that are often six inches from their faces. Overhead, a crane mounted camera swept in for flying aerial shots. Sous chefs raced off-stage for special ingredients. Although I had seen nearly 50 televised Iron Chef episodes, like at any major sporting event, it was much harder to follow the action live and in person than in front of a television screen at home.
Four young women frantically took notes on everything the chefs were doing before running to file their reports with Mr. Ota, the super-fast talking "reporter" who breathlessly informed the home audience that the Iron Chef "has started his rice cooker," which was instantly followed by a close up of the rice cooker which was, indeed, steaming!!
Japan's best known baseball announcer, Kenji Fukui, is the play-by-play man on Iron Chef. He and Mr. Hattori kept a running commentary going while soliciting comments from two of the four guest judges, actor Yoshizumi Ishihara and actress Keiko Saitoh. It didn't take a translator to understand their continuous oohing and aahing over the wonderful smells that were filling the studio.
With just 60 minutes there is no time for measuring or recipes and the chefs often utilize shortcuts better not tried at home. Challenger Riyou began carving a large green melon with the top of a can. Working quickly, his hand slipped and the jagged lid sliced through his index finger. Crew members raced to the scene of the accident but no yellow flag came out. The clock kept ticking and three or four minutes were lost as bandages were applied. Like a spectacular accident at any sporting event, Riyou's bleeding finger will certainly be shown again and again in instant replays. Moments later, catastrophe strikes again when Riyou's food processor breaks.
With just a few minutes left, Riyou's brother came down from the visitors box to advise his younger sibling. Off-screen, a haunting voice counted down the final seconds. Heat waves and steam billowed up from the set. Amidst the frenzy someone spilled cooking oil and, for a few seconds, it's "cooking on ice" as six chefs try to plate and dress 48 dishes before someone thinks to throw salt down on the extremely slippery floor. With the camera inches from his face, the play-by-play man announced that Iron Chef Chin "is sweating profusely." The clock runs out. The studio erupts in applause. An hour has flown by.
"Interesting?" Hattori whispered conspiratorially in my ear. Despite the arch melodrama of the show, the dishes are invariably superb and the styling as delicate and sophisticated as any Asian art form.
For the next two hours the judges sampled and commented on the ten dishes. Although not afraid to criticize, their comments were limited to "This is fabulous" and "This is delicious." Iron Chef Chin nibbled at the extra meal his challenger prepared for the camera as he sipped a Sprite. He deemed the dish "not bad." I ask him a question. "Taste," he tells me as his answer as he puts a piece of pork from a stunning sweet-sour dish in my mouth. It's an inch thick chunk of pure marinated pork fat and absolutely delicious.
At 2:30 I have just minutes to leave the studio if I am to catch my flight home and make my Monday morning appointments in San Francisco but the judges' verdict has not yet been announced. Hattori came over knowing that I must leave. "Secret," he whispered to me. "What?" I asked with one eye on my watch. "Tie," he tells me. "Only four time in five years." The judges had dead locked two to two. Chin, who must fight another full battle that afternoon, will first have to fight a 30-minute tie-breaker with Riyou.
I had seen 28-year old Italian Iron Chef Katsuhiko Kobe fight and lose the third ever Iron Chef tie-breaker. Despite never having cooked with theme ingredient shirako cod roe he still managed to tie his Japanese challenger before losing on points in the overtime botan or "Battle Peony Shrimp."
Hattori tells me that after a brief rest Chin and Riyou will duke it out over konnyaku, a firm, jelly-like substance made from a starchy root vegetable. It's only a 30-minute battle but I have a plane to catch. I can't stay but how can I leave? It's a historic moment. Only the fourth tie in the five years of Iron Chef. Would I have run out on the "Rumble in the Jungle" or the "Thriller in Manila" to make a business meeting? What do I do?
The next day I called Tokyo to learn who had won the tie-breaker. It was an incredibly hard fought battle I was told and in the end victory was snatched by.... Oh, I can't tell you that. But if you must know, then call your cable operator and demand that they program Iron Chef. Cause if you haven't seen Iron Chef, then you really haven't seen "must see TV."
A version of this story originally appeared in 1998 in Saveur (Issue #29).