Monday, November 16, 2009

My Dinner with Matsuo-san

Since it debuted on Japanese television in 1993, Iron Chef has become part of the world's cultural lexicon. Few, however, know the man behind the curtain. My wife and I are among the fortunate.

He's crazy about Ben-Hur. He loves Columbo. He looks exactly like Micky Dolenz of The Monkees. He's Toshihiko Matsuo, the creative genius behind the jaw-dropping Japanese television cooking spectacle known as Ryori no Tetsujin or Iron Chef.

For many dedicated viewers, Iron Chef is simply the most entertaining program ever televised. But in the mind of producer Matsuo, it's a virtual reality fight to the death in which two dueling chefs have just 60 minutes to complete an elaborate, gourmet dinner for a panel of four judges. As if the time pressure weren't enough, each of the chefs' five courses must showcase a surprise theme ingredient - such as foie gras, giant sea bass, cod roe, or Guinea fowl - that is revealed only at the beginning of the program. In the history of television cooking there simply has never been anything to rival Iron Chef.

"It's the Peckinpah of the culinary world" is how TV cooking celebrity Graham Kerr described the show referring to the auteur of such classic blood fests as The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs. Jacques, Julia, Burt, Martin, Emeril, (and you two fat ladies from England) move aside. This is must see TV.

Broadcast in just a few U.S. markets, Iron Chef has been seen by a small but rapidly growing set of rabid fans. Only three American chefs have been called to Japan to do battle. Fewer Americans have been invited to witness a taping of the show at Fuji-TV's ultra-futuristic studios on Tokyo Bay. When my wife and I had the chance, we were on the next plane.

With our 15 month old daughter along and my mother-in-law in tow as baby-sitter, the ten hour flight to Tokyo all but wiped us out. When Matsuo invited us out that evening, we didn't think we could stand let alone conduct a coherent interview. The translator said it would only take an hour or so.

"I can't do it," my wife Nina said pulling the covers up over her eyes. "You go."

"Come on," I told her. "Get up. It'll be an adventure. We'll be back in 90 minutes."

Little did we know.

Getting to our rendez-vous with Matsuo resembled a mission worthy of a secret agent. We were given instructions to be in front of an ice cream parlor in the Nishi-Azabu No Cosaten neighborhood of Tokyo at 7 p.m. Our cab zipped through a series of tiny back streets. After crossing and recrossing our path several times, we arrived at the designated meeting spot.

A fortyish man with a modified early Beatles haircut, stood on the corner. He wore a collarless, retro linen jacket with a gray and charcoal button down shirt. With Matsuo was a wildly slinky thing in a leopard skin leotard who could have been a Tilly sister or the Catwoman. She was Hanako Aso, one of the show's assistant producers. The translator I had engaged over the Internet was nowhere in sight. I had been warned that Mr. Matsuo spoke no English. After exchanging business cards and several minutes of a mostly silent pantomime Matsuo led us to Cricket Cha-Cha, an improbably named bistro a few steps away.

Takeshi Kaga, a well-known Japanese actor, plays the host of Iron Chef, an eccentric with no name who lives in a medieval castle. In his employ are four Iron Chefs, each a respective master of French, Italian, Chinese, or Japanese cuisine. At the beginning of each episode he struggles to identify a challenger worthy of his chefs' talents and his own jaded palate. This he often does while contemplating a cream puff in the sallow light of an oil lamp.

At last pleased with his decision, he devours the pastry in a single, ravenous bite. It's Dark Shadows meets World Wrestling. (In fact the show's play-by-play commentary is handled by Japan's best known baseball announcer and the color commentary comes courtesy of a super fast talking ringside reporter who indeed used to cover professional wrestling.) While watching Iron Chef one can't help but wonder "Who on earth thought of this?" I was about to find out. I took out my list of 35 critical questions any self-respecting Iron Chef viewer would want to ask Matsuo.

Fortunately, Hiroko, the translator, had arrived. So, too, had Masaharu Morimoto, the executive chef at Nobu in New York who had been recently anointed as the third Iron Chef of Japanese cuisine. Mr. Kaga's manager joined us. Soon we were nine.

I thought we were going out for drinks but when the first course arrived, a small plate with two elegantly placed, sardines marinated in vinaigrette, I realized we were in for dinner. Champagne was poured. Matsuo-san lit a Mild Seven after asking us several times if we minded smoke. For the rest of the evening, his fingers were never without a cigarette. What I thought was going to be a quick interview over drinks was about to become an evening spent lingering over a dinner worthy of Iron Chef.

The sardines were fabulous. Four perfect, slightly tart bites. The table was cleared and the second course served; a small swirl of angel hair misted with just a hint of a tomato sauce and topped with a small piece of roasted crab served with a dry white wine. Again, it was just four bites. Four perfect bites.

Even to the long time viewer of Iron Chef, the mysteries of the show are many. I wanted to know more about the mysterious gourmand played by actor Kaga. Matsuo explained that he is fabulously wealthy and a bit "mad" like Ludwig II of Bavaria, also famed for his castle. Like Pushkin's Eugene Onegin he has done everything there is to do. To relieve his ennui he decided to host a cooking competition as suggested to him by his faithful culinary advisor (played on the show by Yukio Hattori, head of a well known cooking school in Japan). "He's a bit on the crazy side. A bit eccentric," Matsuo said of Kaga's character. But what about the ruffled shirts, the sequined bolero jackets, and the thick black leather gauntlets he wears each week. Those are "important factors" Matsuo said, shedding no more light on one of the most unlikely uniforms ever seen on television.

Two biscotti shaped slices of beef tenderloin served with a merlot were our third course. "This is the best meat I've ever tasted," my wife whispered in my ear. It was tremendously tender, nearly cleaving itself as the knife descended. Four more bites and it, too, was gone.

"What about the pepper?" I asked Matsuo. Each episode of Iron Chef begins with Kaga's character stepping onto the set and taking in the view of the two fabulously stocked, semi-circular, mirror image kitchens that comprise the "kitchen stadium." Satisfied with what he sees, he reaches into a basket of vegetables, clutches an orange bell pepper, and takes a mischievous, gleeful bite.

"Very important," Matsuo answered before going on to explain that this is the host's way of showing the extremes to which he must go to demonstrate his passion for food after savoring so many countless gourmet meals.

I mentioned that the kitchen stadium reminded me of The Coliseum in Rome. "Exactly!" Matsuo said, snatching the English word from the air just inches in front of my face. The set was designed to reflect the charged atmosphere of the chariot race in Ben-Hur, a place where two culinary gladiators would fight to the finish. Although challengers do occasionally triumph, the incredible time pressure combined with their lack of familiarity with the set gives the resident Iron Chefs a huge home court advantage.

The third and most recent American to pick up Matsuo's gauntlet is Ron Siegel of San Francisco. Siegel, then cooking at Charles Nob Hill, had never heard of the show when Matsuo selected him to appear on Iron Chef. Forewarned that the surprise theme ingredient would be chestnuts, salmon, acorn squash or lobster he developed a menu that could work with any of them.

"I was going to do a soup, salad, pasta, an entrée no matter what and a custard if it was lobster," Siegel said. After two days of practice with two non-English speaking sous chefs, Siegel thought he was ready. But when he arrived at the studio for the taping, the Iron Chef staff allowed him to bring in only the two stocks he had prepared. Everything else he planned to use was confiscated, according to the rules of the show. The Iron Chef larder rivals the finest markets in the world, but still it was unsettling for Siegel, then a youthful veteran of Restaurant Daniel in New York and Aqua in San Francisco.

"This is ridiculous," Siegel says he thought at the time. "I can't speak Japanese. They wouldn't let me bring in my stuff. But I thought I'm still going to do it."

Matsuo and the staff at Iron Chef weren't so sure. A third of the way into the battle, the American challenger hadn't finished a single dish. Matsuo thought disaster was imminent.

"The time goes very fast," Siegel said. "I thought I was doomed. After twenty minutes they were all in the studio control room thinking I was never going to finish. They told me if I failed they would have canceled the show and lost a million bucks!"

One of the challenges of Iron Chef is cooking with one, two, and three cameras sometimes only inches from one's face. "There was a point when I started swearing and the cameraman just wouldn't back off," Siegel recalls. "The cable would get caught around my leg and I had to push him away." Do-koo! Move! is the only word of Japanese Siegel picked up on the set.

For Siegel, the show began inauspiciously. A huge tank of live lobsters rose out of the floor presenting Siegel and Hiroyuki Sakai, the Iron Chef of French cuisine, with their theme ingredient. Once host Kaga gave the command "Start cooking gentlemen!" they literally ran across the set to select the lobsters.

Racing back with a tray of live lobsters, Siegel's leg became ensnared in a television cable that stripped off his shoe. Like awaiting a crash at an auto race, anticipating potential mishaps provides part of the thrill of watching Iron Chef. Rice cookers break, food processors fly out of control, sorbets have frozen stiff inside ice cream machines, difficult to open cans are occasionally attacked with a hammer and screwdriver, and many a chef has severely lacerated a finger while working in haste. In Siegel's case he quickly recovered his shoe, turned out a sumptuous five-course lobster dinner that the judges unanimously preferred over the fare prepared by Iron Chef Sakai. San Francisco's Charles Nob Hill can expect to be inundated by Japanese tourists anxious to sample the cuisine of the first American ever to emerge victorious on Iron Chef.

Listening to the Japanese dialog on Iron Chef is not unlike eavesdropping on a phone sex call. Invariably one of the judges is a willowy, young Japanese actress given to cooing pornographically over whatever the battling chefs are concocting. Occasionally all the judges look like they are about to have an orgasm while sampling the food. "Eating food is like having sex," Matsuo confirmed. With my wife next to me I didn't pursue the topic area further but I sensed that Mr. Matsuo probably knew a lot about both topics.

Two inch square chunks of stew meat bathed in a raspberry sauce were our fourth course accompanied by a weighty cabernet. "Beef cheeks," Matsuo said. Just weeks earlier we had watched "Battle Beef Cheek" on Iron Chef and were slack jawed when the challenger produced a beef cheek mille feuille.

My wife took a bite. "No, I take it back," she said. "This is the best meat I've ever eaten." Once again, the serving offered just four bites. After four courses we had put the fork to our mouths just sixteen times. But the food was perfectly prepared and perfectly proportioned. Another bite and the senses would have started to dull.

Frequently throughout the evening, the entire table would break up at one of Matsuo's comments. I sensed we weren't getting everything in Hiroko's curt translations. Later on I found out that she last brushed up on English while an exchange student in the U.S. An elementary school exchange student. So much for procuring a translator through the Internet. After the fourth course, however, things got suddenly serious.

The table was a-buzz with nodding heads. "What are they talking about?" I asked Hiroko. She leaned into the table as though that would help her pick up the drift of the conversation. "They are talking about an American woman," she said. "Someone named Martha Stewart. Do you know her?"

With the Japanese economy in a prolonged slump, even successful shows such as Iron Chef, which has been nominated twice for an Emmy, have found themselves struggling. Matsuo somehow concluded that the show could ride out the Japanese recession but only with the help of the American market and Martha Stewart in particular.

"Why not ask her to be a judge?" I suggested. Hiroko translated. Matsuo snapped his fingers toward assistant producer Aso. "Okay cut!" he said which I interpreted his way of saying "Let's do it!"

It was getting late and I still had a long list of questions. "Please ask Mr. Matsuo what the "K" means?" I asked the translator. The Iron Chef set and the Iron Chefs' uniforms are all emblazoned with "Gourmet Academy" and a winged crest surrounding the letter "K." At first I thought the "K" perhaps stood for host Takeshi Kaga's surname, but Kaga's persona is nameless. Perhaps the fictitious castle started with a "K." Watching the show there was no way to know. A small platter of dried red raisins slid onto the table. Matsuo placed one in his mouth. He looked at me for a moment. "K stand for kitchen," he said. So much for the mysteries of the East.

During its five year run in Japan the program has had seven different Iron Chefs, three of whom are now retired. I wanted to know how Matsuo selected Morimoto as the most recent Iron Chef. He explained that he wanted an English speaking Japanese chef who was on the cutting edge, who could challenge the conventions of traditional Japanese cooking. "It was destiny," he said of his decision to reach all the way to New York to find Morimoto at Nobu Matsuhisa's eponymous New York venue. "It was God's will." (Morimoto may need divine intervention, however, to handle the demands of commuting monthly from New York to Tokyo where he tapes two shows back to back.)

Our fifth course was a cheese and fruit plate that was quickly followed by a delicious light tea cake with crème frâiche and strawberries. I looked at my watch. It was quarter to midnight. I couldn't believe it. As fast as an hour goes by on Iron Chef, five hours had flown by during my dinner with Matsuo. I had a jet-lagged baby and a weary baby-sitting mother-in-law to worry about. It was time to go.

I asked Matsuo what he would like to see come of the article I planned to write. "If I can feel your heart in it, that will be great," he said. "Remember, the future of Iron Chef depends on the American market and Martha Stewart."

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 14, 1998 edition of the Los Angeles Times and, together with the following story, helped start the Iron Chef phenomenon in the United States.

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