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Hail to the Chef

Nakamura One of the most entertaining shows on television does not appear on a network. It appears in only a handful of cities in the U.S. It's not a comedy or a drama. It's not even in English. And yet Iron Chef is the most enthralling and unique TV show I've seen in a long, long time.

Iron Chef may be a mystery to you, but not to TV viewers in Japan, where it's apparently a hit. Essentially, Iron Chef is a cooking game show. But since it's from Japan, it's got a strange sensibility that sets it apart from anything we might see in the U.S.

Every week, a new contestant -- usually either a "legendary chef" from a far-off village or a well-known chef from a popular high-class restaurant -- is given one hour to prepare a series of dishes based on an ingredient picked by the show's host, Kaga Takeshi, who sports a wardrobe Liberace would be proud to wear. (My favorite episode? "Battle Corn," featuring corn ice cream and corn sushi. Biggest gross-out? "Battle Eel," which afforded lots of tight close-ups of thinly-sliced eel head. And who could forget the salad made with sliced pig's ear?)

Squaring off against the challenger is one of three "Iron Chefs." An Iron Chef, you see, is sort of a superhero. Each of the Iron Chefs has his own specialty -- French, Chinese, or traditional Japanese -- and each of them wears a special outfit and color. My favorite is probably the purple chef, Nakamura Koumei, a traditional Japanese chef who every week seems to be forced to cook with ingredients that aren't really his forte. He always seems to be on the brink of defeat, but manages to eke out a win just about every time.

Before your eyes glaze over, there's one other important element that sets Iron Chef apart from other game shows. It's that the show is staged like a sporting event. All the cooking takes place in an arena, complete with viewing stands, called the Kitchen Stadium. As the competing chefs cook, a team of announcers in a broadcast booth discuss the merits of their ingredient choices and speculate on what dishes they might be making. Meanwhile, informational graphics -- at least, I assume they're informational, since they're mostly in Japanese -- scroll along the bottom of the screen.

But what clinches this scenario is that the Kitchen Stadium has its own Pit Reporter, a guy who describes the adding of olive oil to a pot of boiling water with as much excitement as Jack Arute announcing that they've changed Al Unser Jr.'s two rear tires and added enough fuel for him to reach the finish line at Indy with several laps to spare: "Fukui-San! Nakamura says he's using the lungfish liver to make ice cream!"

To which the announcers up in the booth inevitably reply knowingly, "Ahhhh!"

That reverence and sense of importance is the other thing that makes Iron Chef such a fun show to watch. Maybe it's purely because I'm viewing this Japanese import from an outsider's viewpoint, but the seriousness with which the host and announcers take the show is contagious -- by the end of the hour, you're convinced that an angry mob is bound to beat the loser into a pulp due to sheer embarrassment and feelings of dishonor.

Kaga Each episode of Iron Chef begins with dramatic music as our Liberace-esque host Kaga explains the dramatic life story of the challenger, explaining that the pride -- nay, the entire reputation -- of his home village is riding on this event. Then, with a flourish of his fluffy black outfit, he declares: "Iron Chefs, come to life!" The Iron Chefs appear on three rising pillars, looking a little like the guys who must run the commissary at Power Rangers headquarters. Then comes the Iron Chef version of the coin toss, when Kaga whips a tablecloth off a rising table, revealing this particular episode's battle ingredient.

Even more amusing is the show's ending, after the challenger is judged -- and almost always found wanting -- by a taste-test panel which always features men in suits, a dour older woman who must be a restaurant critic, and a beautiful young starlet.

"His dream has been destroyed!" declares an announcer after the latest poor sucker who dared to dream he could defeat an Iron Chef. "How will he ever be able to return to his village and show his face again?" And woe be to the Iron Chef who dares to lose even one battle -- the show's announcers will threaten that he may lose his job if he continues to bring dishonor to the brotherhood of the Iron Chef.

Why Iron Chef hasn't yet been ripped off by the TV Food Network, I don't know. Perhaps they've decided that Iron Chef is only entertaining when it's in Japanese with subtitles, when you're on the outside looking in. That doesn't explain why it's such a hit in Japan, though.

But until the day that Iron Chef is inevitably ripped off, the original is still completely engrossing, even if you -- like me -- don't speak Japanese and don't even particularly like most kinds of Japanese cuisine. I can't recommend it highly enough for those lucky few who can actually see it.

That's because Iron Chef only appears in three U.S. television markets, if the various Iron Chef) Web pages I've visited are to be believed. In the San Francisco area, you can find it on KTSF, channel 26, Saturdays at 8 p.m. or so. In Los Angeles, it's on KSCI, channel 18, on Sundays at 6 p.m or thereabouts. And in New York, it's on WMBC, channel 63, on Saturdays at roughly 10 p.m. It may be on elsewhere; eye the listings of your local international TV station (if you've got one) for Iron Chef or the more generic "Fuji TV," a block of programming which includes Iron Chef and a few strange Japanese soap operas.

If you manage to find Iron Chef, consider yourself lucky. You've been granted a precious gift. It's up to you. If you fail to take advantage of this opportunity, you'll never be able to show your face in your home village again.


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