“Iron Chef America” is one of those things I watch in the background while cooking or while I can’t sleep late at night. I’m not talking about that unfortunate first attempt to translate Iron Chef into American sensibilities, the one that ran as a special and just featured Shatner in Alton Brown’s position Shatnering all over the proceedings. There is a time and place for Shatnering, but it shouldn’t be near food preparation.
The set up is simple and runs identically in every single episode, even down to the precise rendering of phrases and hand gestures. The Chairman introduces the challenging chef, asks if they are ready for the competition with some terrible pun, asks them to select which Iron Chef against whom they will compete, and then pronounces “let the battle begin” directing them towards the stage with a stabbing wave complete with whooshing sound effect.
Mark Dacascos plays the role of Chairman with hilarious over seriousness, with just enough of a sparkle in his eye to assure the audience that he’s in on the joke and relieved to have a steady paycheck after toiling in made for SyFy movies for many years. His handful of repeated lines and exaggerated gestures are a wonderful nod to ritual, the way that by doing the same thing over and over again, we invest it with more and more meaning. Of course TiVo tears down that temple since nearly everyone just fast forwards to the ten minute mark to see the secret ingredient revealed. I have on occasion burned through a half dozen episodes in ten minutes by going through the motions of fast forward, seeing the secret ingredient is some random fish I’ve never heard of, and clicking through to the next episode.
There’s a fine line that has to be walked here between too mundane of ingredients and so odd that they’re no longer of any interest. The best ingredients are those that are common enough to be familiar, but niche enough that the thought of coming up with five courses featuring it is truly challenging.
There is a problem with the suspension of disbelief that has grown stronger as the show has piled up the episodes. The bottom line is that the competitors are not nearly as blind to the potential secret ingredients as we are led to believe. In the show, the competitors are given the secret ingredient and immediately jump into action, frantically coming up with a plan. In reality, they are given in advance a list of several items that the secret ingredient might be, and the time between the reveal and the beginning of cooking is not actually immediate during filming, but amounts to some 45 minutes of planning. It’s pretty obvious when watching the show that this is the case, especially when a chef pulls out six straight ingredients no one outside a small village in the Andes has ever heard of, but amazingly the pantry has a full supply of in perfect season.
This was something that was less a problem on the Japanese version of the show. Though that might have been because the ingredients were just so bloody bizarre to an American audience that we assumed the competitors had to be pulling their recipes out of thin air. Then again, it’s entirely possible this is an illusion of perspective and lobster pancreas is as common in Japan as ground beef is here.
There’s also the emergent theater that comes from turning the screws on genuinely talented individuals. Little quirks and humor come out to personalize the show. Morimoto speaks about four words of English and glares at the camera and yet manages to be a big doofy teddy bear most of the time. Cat Cora has a tendency to get impatient with can openers and just hacks the cans open with a knife longer than her arm. And she always does shots with her sous-chefs at the end. Batali frequently uses a knife so big that it’s probably technically a sword, but also sneaks the judges drinks. Flay, who people seem to either love or hate, always answers every question Alton Brown throws out there from his viewing platform. In early shows it always surprised Alton, as most chefs ignore everything going on around them.
Alton Brown is the perfect individual to act as the announcer for this sort of thing. The ultimate food geek, he watches with genuine eagerness like a kid at his first baseball game. The judges contribute a great deal of flavor to the show. There are a few stalwarts that are rounded out by one-off judges, but there are really three ingredients to a great episode of “Iron Chef America.” The secret ingredient, the chefs, and Jeffrey Steingarten. There is something exquisite about watching Steingarten explain to another judge that their criticism is invalid because they are in fact eating the dish wrong.
The show’s success derives from the way that it is the exact opposite of “Top Chef” or “Hell’s Kitchen.” For all the personality, this show is about a love for food, not about manufactured drama. It inspires the watcher to try to come up with what they would cook in the place of the chefs, and what secret ingredient they would want to see if they somehow landed on the show. I’d want to get peanut butter. Oh, and I’d win with it.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.