Iron Chef Returns: Adam Liaw Celebrates Japan’s Cult-Classic Cooking Show | television

Netflix has announced the return of Iron Chef to our streaming screens later this year, and as a superfan of the godfather of blockbuster cooking shows, I’m excited.

The original series Ryōri no Tetsujin (literally “Ironmen of Cooking”) aired in Japan between 1993 and 1999 for seven seasons in almost 300 episodes. It was one of the first Japanese series to be broadcast worldwide and became a cult classic notable for its extravagant dubbing and uniquely absurd premise.

A mysterious and wealthy aristocrat named Chairman Kaga (played by popular Japanese actor Kaga Takeshi) searches for the next Rosanjin (the legendary Japanese foodie and aesthete Kitaōji Rosanjin). In his quest, he builds the Kitchen Stadium, where challengers will pit their culinary skills against one of a team of Kagas handpicked from a team of Kagas, experts in various global cuisines known as the Iron Chefs.

From the elaborate costumes to the rousing orchestral theme music by Hans Zimmer (actually a track from the soundtrack of the 1991 Hollywood film Backdraft), each episode had a sense of occasion. It was Friday night football, no ball.

As ridiculous as Iron Chef may seem, its impact on cooking programs was genre-defining. It was perhaps the first example of competitive cooking on television rather than instructional and household shows. Today, competitive cooking is one of the most ubiquitous and successful reality TV formats around the world.

In Japan, sports commentary is an art form, and Iron Chef celebrated it with play-by-play caller Fukui Kenji and color commentator Hattori Yukio narrating the action at Kitchen Stadium (past viewers will also remember the excited heckling of “Fukui-san !” from remember kitchen reporter Ota Shinichiro). This enabled another great strength of Iron Chef: diversity. It was the first program to feature chefs proficient in different cuisines on screen simultaneously, and Fukui’s commentary and Hattori’s commentary were an integral part of explaining dishes, ingredients, and techniques that most viewers had never seen before . When legendary French chef Joël Robuchon appeared on the show as a guest judge for a truffle-themed “fight,” he remarked, “With one themed ingredient, you have a combination of completely different cuisines—French and Japanese. This is very impressive and interesting. I’ve never seen a program like this.”

Michiba Rokusaburō, a Japanese from Iron Chef, is cooking a dish.
“It was just cooking as a sport. Pure as Art’… Michiba Rokusaburō, the Japanese from Iron Chef, is cooking a dish. Photo: SBS

Neither had most of us. Chefs preparing dishes as entertainment were something completely new. These were dishes we should never try to imitate. No instructions were given or asked for. That was cooking as a pure sport. Pure as art.

As a teenager I was spellbound when I saw it. If Robuchon had never seen television like this before, I had never seen cooking like this before. And it’s stuck with me ever since.

Decades later, my own show The Cook Up still gives a nod to Iron Chef in its theatrical revelations, complete with cloche reveal and camera zoom. Observant viewers may also notice that whenever I cook a recipe that includes peppers, I walk up to the screen, peppers in hand. It’s my way of acknowledging what I believe to be one of the most important visual stories on food TV and featured at the beginning of every episode of Iron Chef: a shot of Chairman Kaga standing in the middle of Kitchen Stadium surrounded by a legion of white-toqueed chefs before Kaga bites into a yellow pepper with relish and a barely suppressed laugh as the camera pans away.

They could have re-shot that without the laughs (undoubtedly they did) but keeping it was brilliant. That laugh tells you everything you need to know about the show, and to me it’s why none of Iron Chef’s many imitators have ever replaced it.

Some, like Top Chef and MasterChef, got serious about competitive cooking. Others, like Nailed it! and Worst Cooks, lean on the inherent absurdity of their premise. Iron Chef did both. It seriously delivered brilliant chefs, creativity and incredible food, while also acknowledging that the mere idea of ​​chefs competing was a bit ridiculous. Kaga’s little laugh showed that no matter how absurd and over the top it was, Iron Chef was always, always involved in the joke.

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