When I was at a college residence in Southeastern Ontario during the early ‘aughts, everyone’s room looked exactly the same: Same stack of already-obsolete CDs, same Princess Mononoke poster on the wall, same mountain of clothing on the bed and wasteland of drafting paper and half-eaten Rabba’s pizza slices on the floors. And on TV, one of three things could be counted on: Undergrads, Buffy the vampire Slayer, or Iron Chef.
For the most part, TV was just part of the constant, reassuring din of college life, often mixed with caffeine-induced stress babble and the occasional Rage Against The Machine Song. You would look up every so often from your work, check in with what was happening on-screen and check back out. But sometimes (usually due to severe sleep-deprivation) you looked up and got hooked for the whole episode, homework and future employability forgotten.
This happened to me a lot with Iron Chef (which would explain my poor grades) and began an interest/obsession with the show that would last more than a decade into my later life. If it wasn’t for this strange little show from Japan I may not have had enough of an interest in food to join my then girlfriend-later wife Crystal for that fateful night of Chinatown gluttony. And if that epiphany had never happened, maybe I never would have become a professional chef.
Ryōri no Tetsujin (The Iron Men of Cooking) Premiered on Japanese TV in October of 1993 and ran until September 1999. Produced by Fuji TV and heavily backed by the famous Hattori College of Nutrition, the show’s concept was a total departure from the more traditional “Today I’ll teach you how to make a cake”-style of cooking shows that were dominant in both the US and Japan.
Each week a challenger was chosen by the flamboyant, maniacally grinning Chairman Kaga (actor Shigekatsu Katsuta) of the fictional “Gourmet Academy” to do battle with one of four brightly-costumed Iron Chefs. Both contestants would be assigned two assistants and the secret theme ingredient would be revealed on a dramatically rising pedestal surrounded by smoke. Carrots! Oh Jesus! The gong sounded and both challenger and Iron Chef would begin cooking. Each had one hour to make as many dishes as they could utilizing the theme ingredient.
The Iron Chefs were established names in Japan with vastly different styles of cooking, and the show really played on that, swathing each in a brightly coloured silk costume that paid homage to their cuisine of choice. Producer Toshihiko Matsuo envisioned the Iron Chefs as “A cross between characters on video games and Nikkatsu films.”
Rokusaburo Michiba the original Iron Chef Japan wore a modified blue Zen Buddhist robe. Hiroyuki Sakai the second French Iron Chef wore a fiery red double-breasted French button-up with a ridiculously tall chef’s hat to match. Chen Kenichi (my favourite!) would arise into the arena, cleaver in hand, wearing an intricately embroidered, bright yellow Chinese-style chef’s smock with matching, tasseled hat. I still can’t figure out what was up with Italian Iron Chef Masahiko Kobe’s nightmarish jumpsuit.
Despite all the trimmings of a circus freak show, Iron Chef was grounded in real world competition. The stakes for both the Iron Chefs and their challengers (most owning or heading up restaurant in Japan) was in some cases critical and financial ruin. Simply put, these guys couldn’t lose. Not on network TV with the entire country’s viewing public praising or shaming their business (and in some cases, loved ones) based on the result.
After just a handful of episodes it was clear that the caliber of sweat and talent on display was massive enough to affect the food scene in Japan and beyond. This won over the overly-earnest and discerning Japanese viewers who had originally laughed at the more Street Fighter-ish choices the producers had made. The freak show had gone legit… And soon people overseas began to take notice.
When Food Network brought Iron Chef from Japanese to North American audiences, it wasn’t as simple as just running the tape with some subtitles thrown in. They made some aesthetic choices that cranked the show’s overall kitsch factor to eleven:
Getting the right voice actors for the announcers, Iron Chefs and challengers was the first and most important step and Bill Bickard and co. were the perfect choice. Utilizing a toolbox-full of colloquialisms (mostly invented on the spot!) like “Bang a gong, we are on!”, “Flip, flop and fry action” and “Flamola!” the cast of English voice actors kept the pace of each show flying along and added a bubbly, slightly absurd extra layer to this crazy cake. Of course there were also missteps and moments of profound weirdness in almost every episode: Sakai-san always sounded like a stoned beach bum and challengers hailing from Italy or France were a consistent tossup between Pepe Le Pew and Super Mario.
The only voice left un-dubbed was the sultry baritone of Chairman Kaga, which was either a bizarre oversight, or a profoundly weird aesthetic choice. The show would chug along in English until Kaga appeared to pontificate on the joys of porcini mushrooms or snarl out an ingredient and suddenly the show would take on a Lone Wolf and Cub feel.
The opening sequence was re-worked and throughout it and portions of the show (most notably during the ingredient unveiling) heavily edited pieces of Han Zimmer’s Backdraft soundtrack were added for more drama…. Yes, more drama.
So, just to review: An already near-absurdist cooking competition show lorded over by an imaginary millionaire fashion victim, populated by video game characters was brought to America, scored with an iconic action movie soundtrack and dubbed with equal parts Mystery Science Theater and 70s samurai flicks. It was an instant cult sensation! Of the 300+ Japanese episodes over half were dubbed into English to sate westerner’s desire for more ‘o this freakish and exciting world.
In early 2000, with the show already finished in Japan, Crystal and I moved to BC and had access to cable television for a goodly chunk of time. Iron Chef was sandwiched in between Jamie Oliver’s whimsical Oliver’s Twist and Anthony Bourdain’s game-changing travelogue A Cook’s Tour, forming a solid block of dinner time food show awesomeness! It was the Golden age of Food Network TV! Before Iron Chef’s bastard competition show spawn and the kitchen nightmare nonsense took over.
We would join Lisa and Chiara (then only five or six years old) for dinner and an episode of Iron Chef every other weekend. Chiara would hide her eyes when Chairman Kaga bit into the pepper during the opening scene, then stare transfixed like me during the battle, occasionally giggling whenever floor announcer Shinichiro Ota squealed “Fukui-san” Which to us, always sounded like “Squeeze-On!”
Between Lisa’s amazing cooking and countless episodes of Iron Chef some switch got flipped in the murky cesspool of my brain. I started reading cookbooks, serving up weekday dinners for Crystal and experimenting with new ingredients and techniques. Pretty soon I was enrolled in a Culinary Arts course and dish washing at the local pub. I was becoming a professional cook, just like the guys on TV!
Now, fifteen years later, Iron Chef occupies the same little island in my brain that Jazz music calls home. I’ll fire up my laptop, pull up my cutting board and prep for dinner while an episode plays in the background. This is all thanks to the tireless efforts of cult TV historians at The Iron Chef Collection, the shadowy figures behind The DigitalDistractions who converted many of the videos and Youtubers like Xacred who have kept them up for so long. As I go about putting together a meal the rattle and hum of kitchen stadium acts as a warm blanket for my brain after a hard day’s slog.
And sometimes I’ll look up in the middle of dicing a pepper and get lost in that crazy, brightly coloured universe of strange and exotic flavours, personalities and ideas. Just like I did back in that tiny college dorm room surrounded by abandoned homework, dreaming of one day being a chef.
Check out my “Top Five” Episode List for more Iron Chef lovin.