Food is good television. You can’t swing a freshly plucked spatchcock without hitting a celebrity chef showing their audience how to whip up amazing creations, and a great many of them have homes on our own SBS Food – a whole channel dedicated to culinary pursuits.
This wasn’t always the case: the big boom in kitchen TV came around the turn of the century, when the likes of Nigella Lawson, Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver launched their first television series and helped convince a generation or three that they could create Michelin-star-worthy meals on their own electric range. That’s the big appeal right there – cooking shows make great food seem accessible and achievable, telling us that we too could be a world-class food wizard if we just follow these easy steps.
Iron Chef is not that.
Debuting in 1993 and airing in Australia on Saturday nights on SBS, the cult Japanese (dubbed into English here) cooking competition was not here to assure us that we could throw together skipjack sashimi fit for an emperor’s palate. For Iron Chef, the gatekeeping is part of the fun.
Every episode, some of the best chefs in the world would face off against the show’s own expert chefs, building a multi-course menu around a special theme ingredient that must be present in each dish. A pair of commentators, Kenji Fukui and Yukio Hattori, called the action as the challengers struggled to create sumptuous banquets in the time allotted before presenting them to a panel of judges, which comprised of food critics and celebrity guests (Jackie Chan showed up at one point, as did Nagisa Oshima, director of In the Realm of the Senses and Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence).
Which sounds pretty straightforward, right? But what sets Iron Chef apart is its sense of style and pageantry, grandeur and occasion. The series has an elaborate backstory worthy of WWE. We’re told that founder Chairman Kaga (Takeshi Kaga) dreamed of discovering “…new original cuisines which could be called true artistic creations.” To that end, he spent a fortune building his elaborate Kitchen Stadium, where the show takes place, and recruited some of the best chefs in the world, his “invincible men of culinary skills”, each specialising in a different cuisine:
- Iron Chef Chinese (Chen Kinichi
- Iron Chef French (Yutaka Ishinabe, later Hiroyuki Sakai)
- Iron Chef Japanese (Rokusaburo Michiba, later Koumei Nakamura, then Masaharu Morimoto) and
- Iron Chef Italian (Masahiko Kobe, who was little used – he’s like the fourth Marx brother of Iron Chef).
The flamboyant Chairman Kaga acts as Master of Ceremonies, sending the competitors to their tasks with a commanding cry of “Allez cuisine!” What’s really fun is seeing these kitchen wizards, absolute masters of their craft, run headlong into whatever the episode’s signature ingredient is, which they only learn in competition.
The ingredients range from the quotidian – tomatoes, rice, potatoes – to the more exotic: black pork, giant eel, sea urchin. Occasionally something more mundane presents a special challenge – yoghurt might not be all that exotic to Western palates, but it’s much less commonly used in Chinese cooking, leading the competitors to really stretch themselves to incorporate it.
The whole show thrums with tension: the ticking clock, the demanding standards of the judges, the fraught atmosphere of Kitchen Stadium, all combine to give Iron Chef its own unique flavour. It’s a flavour that many have tried to replicate, but never wholly successfully – although Iron Chef America, one of more than 10 international remakes, gets points for casting martial arts star Marc Dacascos as the new Chairman.
No, for the real deal, we must return to the original, and still the best, Iron Chef, which is finally back home on SBS.
Join Takeshi Kaga and his Iron Chefs in this cult cook-off series in this SBS On Demand Classic Box set, streaming now: