Once upon a time in the land of the rising sun (that’s Japan, in case you were absent when this was discussed in History class), Fuji Television came up with a cooking show called the Iron Chef. It was a cooking contest that featured accomplished guest chefs challenging one of the show’s resident “Iron Chefs”in a time-pressured cooking battle built around a “secret”theme ingredient. It became such a hit in Japan that USA’s Food Network decided to bring it to American television but dubbing it in English.
Surprisingly, it became an American favorite, so UPN Television came up with the brilliant idea of coming up with an American adaptation of the show. They called it Iron Chef USA and it aired in 2001, 8 years after the original Iron Chef first aired in Japan. They showed two pilot episodes, “The Las Vegas Showdown”and the “Holiday Battle,”but none were favorably viewed. One noted reason for the failure was the larger audience compared to the original Iron Chef; the spectators were noisier than the quiet audiences of the original series. The commentators were also criticized for having a huge lack of knowledge of food with dumb comments such as “What? It’s the sperm? We eat that?” in reference to sea urchin roe.
Three years after that mishap, Food Network decided to do its own remake of the Japanese show which they called Iron Chef America. This time they stuck as much as possible to the original formula that worked. Martial artist Mark Dacascos plays the chairman who is introduced as the nephew of the original Japanese chairman Takeshi Kaga. Each episode typically starts with some cooking footage with his voiceover, then a cut to him taking an exaggeratedly crunchy bite of an apple before showing the title. Chef and actor Alton Brown gives a usually humorous commentary while “celebrity bartender”and host Kevin Brauch is the floor reporter. They both narrate what is going on in the kitchen the way sportscasters give play-by-play commentaries of ball games, so it’s pretty exciting stuff.
A challenger chef is introduced in each episode and he chooses his iron chef opponent. After the “secret”theme ingredient is revealed, they start grabbing the ingredients right after the chairman’s signature tagline: “So now America, with an open heart and an empty stomach, I say unto you in the words of my uncle: Allez cuisine!”Allez cuisine is French for “start cooking.”Both chefs have 60 minutes to prepare five dishes based on the theme ingredient. They each have their own team of sous-chefs or assistants, a counter of all kinds of ingredients, half of the specially built kitchen stadium and any materials they may have brought from their own kitchens at their disposal.
A panel of three judges, two of whom are professional food critics, taste the prepared dishes and each can award a total of 20 points per chef. The criteria for judging are: taste ” up to 10 points, plating (presentation of the food) ” up to 5 points, and originality of the dishes ” up to 5 points. The chefs are given a chance to present their meals to the judges and to explain their approach to the ingredient as well as give some comments about each dish. The judges then try each dish and give their criticism or commendation to the chef.
At the end of the show, the chairman declares the chef with the higher score as the winner of the battle. Should there be a tie, it remains as the final result . There is no tie-breaker overtime contest because hey, this isn’t a basketball game.
The first episode of Iron Chef America was a special titled Iron Chef America: Battle of the Masters and featured Bobby Flay and Hiroyuki Sakai, both brilliant chefs with “Iron Chef”being only one of their numerous accolades. Their theme ingredient was trout, presented as live fish in an aquarium tank that each chef had to fish for by themselves with a net. So lively were these fish that one actually jumped out of Flay’s hands and onto the floor and kept wriggling down to the last moment when the chef put an end to its fight by cleaving its head off. Since Sakai spoke in his native Japanese tongue, his comments were dubbed in English by Joe Cipriano. It was noted during commentary that Sakai had never lost a battle that involved fish as an ingredient and though he made two noteworthy dishes ” a gift-wrapped one to commemorate the opening of Kitchen Stadium America and the unexpected trout ice cream, he lost to Flay by 3 points in taste and 1 point in plating.
There were three more Battle of the Masters episodes ” spiny lobster between Mario Batali and Masaharu Morimoto (won by the former), eggs between Wolfgang Puck and Masaharu Morimoto (won by the former), and fruits de mer between team Bobby Flay-Masaharu Morimoto and Mario Batali-Hiroyuki Sakai (won by the former). When they all proved successful, a regular series was commissioned and season 1 officially began in 2005. The show has since then had eight seasons, over 120 episodes in all.
The program had a total of seven iron chefs from whom the challenger guest chefs would do battle, each with a different specialty: Mario Batali – Italian, Cat Cora ” Greek and Mediterranean, Bobby Flay – Southwestern, Jose Garces ” Latin Fusion, Masaharu Morimoto – Japanese, Michael Symon – Mediterranean, and Wolfgang Puck ” California Cuisine. Puck had to retire right after the Masters episodes, however, and was replaced with Morimoto. Among them all, Flay had the most wins as well as the most number of battles.
Iron Chef America has long outlived its Japanese predecessor which ended in 1999. Its recipe for success is this ” a dollop of the nation’s addiction to reality TV and a dash of the medium itself: food, which everyone enjoys. Not all people want to hover over the TV set with trepidation as a bachelor decides which beautiful damsel is worthy of a rose – but everybody loves to eat. And this is why America continues to watch this show with an open heart and an empty stomach.