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Cooking to the Death

Nakamura When I wrote about the Japanese TV series Iron Chef two years ago, I raved about why it was one of the most enthralling, addictive, and entertaining shows on television -- and ranted about how, if you didn't live in San Francisco, L.A., or New York, you would never see it.

But beginning tonight, everyone in the country (at least the ones who get the TV Food Network on cable) will have a chance to savor Iron Chef, with two new episodes airing each week on Friday and Saturday nights at 7 PM.

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. Even if you don't enjoy cooking or Japanese food, you're almost certain to find something in Iron Chef that will keep you entertained.

Every week, a new contestant is given one hour to prepare a series of dishes, all of which must be based on a single secret ingredient picked by the show's Liberace-esque host, Kaga Takeshi. Example: Battle Corn, an episode which featured such items as corn ice cream and corn sushi.

Squaring off against the challenger is one of four "Iron Chefs." An Iron Chef, you see, is sort of a superhero. Each of the Iron Chefs has his own specialty -- French, Chinese, Italian, or traditional Japanese -- and each of them wears a special outfit and color.

There's one other important element that sets Iron Chef apart from other game shows: it's 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. It's all deathly serious.

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, "Ahhhh!"

That sense of reverence 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 the 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: "Come to life, Iron Chefs!" The Iron Chefs appear on 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 food critic (the "East German judge" of Iron Chef), and a giggling young starlet.

"His dream has been destroyed!" declares the color commentator after the latest poor sucker who dared to dream he could defeat an Iron Chef has been dispatched. "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.

In 1997, I was perplexed at why the TV Food Network hadn't bought or stolen Iron Chef, and suggested that maybe the network was afraid of airing a show in Japanese with English subtitles. Turns out that might not be far from the truth -- the new, cable version of Iron Chef features a mix of subtitles and dubbing, which should make it more palatable to people who refuse to read subtitles.

Finally, one of the world's most inexplicable and wonderful shows is available to the American viewing public. If you get the TV Food Network, you'd better take the initiative to seek out this truly remarkable show. If you don't, you risk never being able to show your face in your home village again.


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