A tantalizing taste of the 'Iron Chef'

For a fan of the Food Network's cult hit, even an Americanized version was something to savor.

Pop Culture

June 25, 2000|By Gabriel Wardell | Gabriel Wardell,Special to the Sun

NEW YORK -- The marquee above our heads on a busy Manhattan Street read "Iron Chef Live From Webster Hall NYC." I could only imagine what uninitiated passers-by must have thought: "Some new heavy metal band?" Webster Hall, after all, is usually a nightclub.

But it wasn't rock 'n' roll that drew the long line of fans that wound down the block and around the corner on this March afternoon. It was the chance to witness a bout of culinary combat we had seen only on television before: "Iron Chef," the dramatically dubbed Japanese soap opera/ cooking show that has become a cult hit among Food Network viewers in this country.

We had come to see a live version of the show, in which one of four so-called Iron Chefs, each skilled in a particular cuisine, takes on a challenger. In one hour, each must spontaneously assemble a full dinner menu employing the day's secret "theme ingredient," then await the judgment of a panel of celebrities. So we "Iron Chef" devotees eagerly waited for our chance to be in the audience at this first U.S. taping of the show (which airs tonight from 9 to 11).

And waited. And waited.

To pass the time, we "Iron Chef" aficionados reminisced about our favorite episodes (the Squid Battle, in which an Iron Chef whipped up squid-ink ice cream, was a favorite). Others tried to guess what the day's theme ingredient would be. One fan was certain: "Gotta be apples -- we're in the Big Apple." Another hypothesized: "They'll go with New York strip steaks."

Some of us, emulating our chef heroes, invented extravagant recipes on the spot, such as ice cream tartar -- raw beef ground into ice cream, with just a hint of ginger. Others brandished banners: "San Francisco Bay Area Welcomes Iron Chefs," said one. "Kaga: Don't Bite the Pepper!" read another, referring to Takeshi Kaga, "chairman" of "Iron Chef's" Kitchen Stadium, and his penchant for yellow peppers. One little girl dressed as her hero, Iron Chef Japanese, drew the attention of a local news crew. It occurred to me that everyone on line was happy, if simply to be among other people who actually understood the "Iron Chef" addiction.

Into the kitchen

After two hours outside, we were led indoors, where (after another long wait) the audience coordinator prepped us: "OK, when I wave my arms like this, make a big round of applause! ... Is that the best you can do? Let's try that again!" Tired of waiting and eager to get into the show, we mustered up the energy sufficient for a rousing "WOOOOOOOO!" that satisfied him. Finally, we were led to the set.

The ersatz Kitchen Stadium constructed inside the nightclub was much smaller than the one in Japan. And where the audience in the Japanese program observes from the elevated "royal box" behind the competitors, we were seated in front of the kitchen, facing the competition head on and from ground level. As a result, we couldn't actually see very much of the cooking action.

(There was one advantage to my particular spot: I was seated directly in front of the broadcast booth and could watch Dr. Hattori and Fukui, "Iron Chef's" play-by-play team, spin their commentary. As on the TV show, they spoke in Japanese -- dubbed for the U.S. broadcasts. But it was a delight to watch them work -- the seriousness and enthusiasm with which they narrated the battle was palpable.)

Garishly clad Chairman Kaga entered the arena like a king on coronation day, tossing his trademark yellow peppers to the crowd like penny candy. Then he summoned the Iron Chefs, who appeared on platforms decked out like culinary action figures. The day's champion, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, wore his game face, ready to compete. Challenger Bobby Flay (the Food Network's "Hot off the Grill" host and resident sex symbol) strutted into the arena with the bravura of a pro wrestler.

Then, the moment of truth: The theme ingredient -- rock crab -- descended from the ceiling inside the dance hall's gigantic mirrored ball, and the battle was on.

Once underway, the contest continued nonstop. The countdown clock halted for nothing -- not even when Flay recoiled from an electric shock he'd received reaching for a spoon. (Apparently, electrical cords from the cameras, lights and appliances in the temporary kitchen weren't mixing well with spilled water.) Flay protested and tried to stop the contest so they could mop up the spillage. But the clock ticked on.

Strange ingredients

A few differences from the Japanese program were immediately evident. Most jarring was the addition of an emcee: Gordon Elliott, the Aussie host of Food Network's "Door Knock Dinners" and the faux Regis on Fox's "It's Your Chance of a Lifetime." With his toothy sarcasm and pitchman swagger, Elliott mugged for the camera, playing up the event as so much campy exotica. Unluckily for fans, Ota, "Iron Chef's" roving "sideline reporter" (a foodie version of sports guy Ahmad Rashad) was also absent from the proceedings, replaced by a bilingual commentator to interact with the audience.

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