All foodies are familiar with Iron Chef, the innovative cooking show that debuted on Japanese TV in 1993, and it’s American spin-off, Iron Chef America. ( For non-foodies , a brief description is attached to the end of this post). My wife and I became fans of the show when it was aired only on a Japanese station and all the commentary was in Japanese leaving us to guess at what was said.The show was a success among American viewers and when the Food Network was established, it re-aired the shows with a voice-over in English. A big, big improvement. The Japanese original was discontinued in 1999 ( except for a special in 2002) but a new Americanized version debuted in 2004 and has been a smash hit among foodies. Having watched the original as well as the American spin-off, I asked myself which version I preferred. Here is a omparison of the two shows.
1. The Chairman and ” his Nephew”. Chairman Kaga ( Takeshi Kaga) who presided over the original show was a flamboyant character who played his role as high camp. Dressed in gaudy costumes which made him look like a cross between a Park Avenue doorman and a navy admiral and prone to theatrical gestures and over wrought mannerims, he still came across as a likable sort who injected a note of comedy into the proceedings.Iron Chef America is MC’d by an Asian looking man , supposedly the Chairman’s nephew. Younger, better looking and definitely fitter than the Chairman( he sometimes does backflips onto the stage) , he nevertheless comes off second best . The Chairman obviously didn’t take himself too seriously and that was part of his charm. The nephew is humorless and uses the same stilted phrases over and over again in every episode— b-o-r-i-n-g. Advantage: The Chairman.
2. The Iron Chefs: The Iron Chef had an Iron Chef Chinese ( Chen Kenichi) , an Iron Chef Japanese ( first Rokusaburo Michibata, then Yutaka Ishinata, then Koumei Nakamura and later Masahiro Morimoto ), and an Iron Chef French ( Hiroyuki Sakai) joined much later by an Iron Chef Italian ( Masahiko Kobe). The American show did not designate it’s Iron Chefs as French, Chinese etc. Morimoto , who has a restaurant in Philadelphia, reprised his role on the U.S show and was joined by Bobby Flay, Mario Batali and Wolfgang Puck. The last named was replaced by Michael Symon and , later, a female Iron Chef (Cat Cora) was added to the show. Needless to say, all the chefs were amazing in turning out five or more dishes, all of them incorporating the secret ingredient, inside of an hour . Having watched almost all of them in action, my opinion is that in terms of cooking skill, Hiroyuki Sakai was clearly ahead of the rest with Chen Kenichi a close second ,with the American Chefs in the middle of the pack and Cat Cora bringing up the rear slightly ahead of Masahiko Kobe. One problem with the Japanese chefs, from a viewer’s perspective, was that they were dead serious and sometimes dull ; the Americans were much more entertaining. It didn’t help that the audience never quite got to know the assistant chefs on the Japanese show . They were rarely introduced . Also, sometimes the Japanese influence in the cooking was far too pronounced; for examle,rather than French cooking it was ‘ French cuisine as interpreted by a Japanese) . On the American version, the assistant chefs are identified by name and are not relegated to the background.Occasionally, Bobby Flay’s Southwestern style was a little too pronounced but, overall,. . . Even.
3. The Secret Ingredient: on the Japanese show was quite often very, very Japanese e.g natto beans, hairy crab, ayu fish etc. Quite understandable, since the show was meant primarily for a Japanese audience but it reduced the show’s appeal for the international audience. Also, the nature of the secret ingredient was so exotic that it was difficult for the chefs to properly incorporate it into their dishes. This is only rarely the case with the American version. Incidentally, I cannot believe that the secret ingredient is truly ‘secret’. No matter how skilled the chefs , I don’t think they could turn out their dishes within an hour without prior consultation with their assistants if the ingredient was truly secret. I have heard rumors that actually the chefs were given beforehand a list of 5 ingredients from which one would be picked by the Chairman. Thus they were able to prepare for the contest, no matter which one was picked. Advantage: Iron Chef America.
4.The Judges. This was the weakest part of the Japanese show as few of the judges had any expertise in food. The panel always included a film actress who was there for the publicity and whose giggly comments were an embarassment. Even worse was one of the regulars, a stern looking, humorless battle-axe, who was identified as an astrologer and who seemed to blatantly favor the Iron Chef over his challenger and voted accordingly.On the American show, the judges are usually food critics, chefs and food writers who are very articulate and knowledgeable in voicing their opinions. Advantage- Iron Chef America.
5. Roving Reporters. Dr.Hattori owned a cooking school and even was a challenger in one episode of the Japanese show.Knowledgeable he may have been but he was also boring. Alton Brown , on the other hand, is quite the opposite and grates on the nerves with his go-go-go style. Kevin Brosch is fine. Even.
6. Intangibles. Initially, I found the U.S version too chaotic, too ‘busy’. It was like being a spectator at aa three ring circus. I now quite like the pace ; either I’ve got used to it or the production has improved. I also find the dishes prepared more eclectic than in the Japanese version . The American version also seemed to me to be more colorful and the dishes more appealing but that could be effect of HDTV.Advantage: None
Overall, I would have to say that this is one of those cases where the spinoff is an improvement on the original: Iron Chef America is superior to it’s parent. What do you think ?
** Iron Chef was a one hour cooking contest in which a challenger battled an “Iron Chef” head to head. Contestants prepared a number of dishes, all of which used a ” secret ingredient” that was unveiled just before the cook-off started. The contest took place in side-by-side, state of the art kitchens and was presided over by the ” Chairman” and judged by a panel of celebrities/ food expertswho tasted the food, and judged the dishes on the basis of taste, presentation and originality. A running commentary was provided throughout the hour by roving reporters . At the end of the show The Chairman announced the winner baased on the judges’ scores..