The US Food Network’s much-publicized new series “Iron Chef America” finally premiered on Jan. 16. Before the broadcast of the Americanized version of the globally popular Japanese import — which still airs in reruns — a question hovered in my head: Could the new show’s cuisine reign supreme?
The odds of that happening were fairly low. Previous US IC knockoffs — UPN’s hideous “Iron Chef USA” and the obviously pro-Western Food Network-Fuji TV “Iron Chef America: Battle of the Masters” specials — were less than satisfying. As was evident in IC chat rooms and message boards all over the Internet, an overwhelming number of IC fans declared that the two programs simply could not compete with the magic of the Japanese original. And with good reason.
If memory serves me correctly, Japan’s Fuji TV debuted a show in late 1993 that blended the grandeur and fiery competitiveness of a samurai battle with haute cuisine, high camp, and humor: “Ryori no Tetsujin,” or as we call it in America, “Iron Chef.” The program, which pitted four “invincible men of culinary skill” against challenger chefs from around the globe, ended up being a hit in its native country. That popularity expanded worldwide — thanks to the addition of subtitles and dubbing — after its export to the US, Canada, and other countries in 1999.
What made “Iron Chef” so tantalizing? For this viewer, many things: the magnificent Kitchen Stadium filled with high-priced, luxurious ingredients; “Chairman” Takeshi Kaga, the show’s flamboyant, debonair, and frighteningly charismatic host; the rapid-fire pace fueled by play-by-play and knowledgeable commentary from, respectively, announcer Kenji Fukui and culinary expert Dr. Yukio Hattori — plus the humorous antics of sidelines reporter Shinichiro Ota; the splendidly costumed and gifted Iron Chefs; and the spirited rivalries between our “men of iron” and cooking gangs such as the Kandagawa “hit men” and the traditionalist Ohta faction. And of course, there were the dishes prepared within a 60-minute time limit — the gustatory works of art created looked every bit as appetizing as I imagine they tasted.
It would be difficult for Food Network and Fuji TV’s “Iron Chef America” to compete with a production so wonderful — and, of course, it didn’t come close. But surprisingly, its first episode turned out to be better than I expected. “Culinary commentator” Alton Brown, known for his Food Network hit “Good Eats,” knows his foodstuffs, and his breezy wit keeps the show moving; the pace is much improved over the sluggish “ICA” specials. The judges, most more food-savvy than the Japanese original’s usual celebrity tasters (all love to Asako Kishi, a real culinary critic from the old show), offer fascinating commentary about the dishes being prepared. And the cooking action in the premiere, which featured classless culinary egomaniac Bobby Flay against noted Mexican-cuisine specialist Rick Bayless, was compelling.
Still, the new offering is no match for the classic “Iron Chef.” Let’s start with the new “Chairman,” martial-arts actor Mark Dacascos. Original host Kaga, viewers were told, was an eccentric gourmand who spent his massive inheritance to build a castle, create Kitchen Stadium, secretly choose four stoic and stalwart Iron Chefs, and conduct expensive culinary battles to defend the glory of his beloved Gourmet Academy, which he headed until his untimely death by fugu. It was all a fiction, of course — Takeshi Kaga is an acclaimed and still-breathing actor — but lots of people believed it. In contrast, Dacascos is supposedly Kaga’s nephew. Yeah, right. Okay. But it doesn’t explain Dacascos’ stated passion for all things culinary — one imagines the real reason is that the actor isn’t getting many movie roles lately.
Really, I think the problem is summed up neatly in a clip featuring the new Chairman. The Japanese original started each episode with a shot of the handsome and enticing Kaga biting into a yellow pepper and grinning maniacally. The American offshoot has handsome-yet-dull Dacascos eschewing the pepper and biting instead into an apple. Where “Iron Chef” had edginess and potent attitude, “Iron Chef America” is comparatively bland and sweet.
Beyond that, where the high-camp, pseudoserious original featured competitors battling for “the people’s ovation and fame forever” with “reputations on the line,” with “ICA,” there are no stakes — we get gladiator-chefs competing as “brothers.” And despite the presence of the often-funny Brown and the ridiculous sight of Dacascos karate-chopping into the air for no good reason as he cops Kaga’s battle cry, “Allez cuisine!”, “ICA”‘s premiere episode, Battle Buffalo, is largely humorless.
That doesn’t mean the show is not worth watching. As with the original, the cooking skills of the chefs involved are wondrous to behold. Plus, there are nine episodes remaining: Watching Food Network’s other men of iron — renowned Italian chef Mario Batali and Asian-fusion specialist Masaharu Morimoto (who looks remarkably like Kaga’s third Iron Chef Japanese) — should be enjoyable. Plus, word has it that the first female Iron Chef will appear before this 10-episode run ends. I can’t wait to see her in action — especially if she cooks the stuffing out of Bobby Flay.
“Iron Chef America” may be far from supreme, but classic “Iron Chef” doesn’t air on Sundays, so what the hell. Allez cuisine.
“Iron Chef America”
Sundays at 9 PM ET
rerun Wednesdays at 11 PM ET
(damn you, Food Network!)
Classic “Iron Chef”
Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays – Saturdays at 11 PM ET
also published on Advance.net/Cleveland.com