Iron Chef

Iron Chef
Courtesy of Fuji TV

Cookery programs have reached epidemic proportions in Japan, but let' face it, there's a finite number of ways you can make shots of minor celebrities stuffing their faces look interesting. So a worthy salute is given to the series Ryori no Tetsujin, which means literally "Iron Chef," also known as "Gourmet Academy." This program, which has sadly finished its run, has since 1993 put entertainment and fantasy into fancy cuisine.

The premise of the series was a weekly "battle" between one of the show's resident "Iron Chefs," all experts in their chosen fields, and a challenger from outside. The aim was to create a course of superb-looking and outstandingly delicious food in a time limit of 45 minutes. One of the show's many unusual aspects was that each dish had to include a certain ingredient, which was the theme of that week's battle. The ingredient started off as something mainly sensible (lobster, tofu, foie gras) but became increasingly bizarre as the shows went on - natto, ostrich, black pig.

The Iron Chefs themselves are not exactly chefs, more like culinary superheroes who wear costumes that are a cross between Duran Duran and Thunderbirds. For the last few years there have been three main characters: Sakai Hiroyuki (French), Morimoto Masaharu (Japanese), and Chin Kenichi (Chinese). Kobe Masahiko (Italian) appeared infrequently, and there were three retired Iron Chefs who were the original experts, returning occasionally to give advice. Each person is the head chef of an internationally renowned restaurant; Morimoto is based in New York at the restaurant Nobu (co-founded by Robert DeNiro).

The contests were staged in something appropriately called the Kitchen Stadium, a huge arena with cameras swooping in and out of the action. Every program would start and finish with MC Takeshi Kaga, playing an eccentric nobleman who apparently staged the battles for his own pleasure, and announced the start of each show by biting into a raw bell pepper (for reasons never explained).

During the food fight, three announcers explained the recipes to the audiences at home, and after the final bell was rung, the results were passed to a team of judges. The judges were drawn from many areas of business and entertainment as well as catering, and on the final show the judge guest of honor was ex-Prime Minister "Elvis" Hashimoto himself. The Iron Chefs won on a highly regular basis, but the show was never predictable, with many a challenger leaving with impressive prizes and an immeasurably boosted reputation.

Ryori no Tetsujin was syndicated on the Food Channel in the US (as Iron Chef) and became an instant cult hit. The originality and attractiveness of the dishes, and the atmosphere of tension built up during the program, left many an armchair gourmet drooling. Fuji TV Japan has promised the show will return in one-off specials, with the first scheduled for January 2000 - although as public pressure has been mounting, it may well be a new series.

As King Kaga would say, "Allez cuisine!" Whatever that means.

John Paul Catton

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