Iron Men of Cooking

All seven Iron Chefs and Chairman Kaga in Cooking Stadium.
All seven Iron Chefs and Chairman Kaga. By Source, Fair use,

When I was in high school, my first introduction to Iron Chef was through an article in Entertainment Weekly. It had lots of erudite critic-type things to say about the show. How Chairman Kaga’s unique voice and flair for the dramatic in the original Japanese was preserved and subtitled rather than trying to reproduce it, ridiculously, in English. How the dubbed voices of the commentators and the guests, despite speaking perfect English, still somehow suggested foreign-ness.

This last, I guess, is due to the voice actors knowing how to pronounce Japanese names and honorifics correctly.

Anyway, something about that article seized me, and I decided that I just had to watch this show, this timed battle between chefs. Mind you, I’d never so much as turned on Food Network before, and I had no interest in cooking myself, but something about the article sold it to me. Maybe it was the drama they mentioned, the gravitas of the whole exercise. Who knows? But I found myself staying up until the godforsaken hour of eleven PM on school nights to watch it.

It was magnificent. And I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the show’s success led to the glut of cooking competition shows that suffuse Food Network and its sister network, the Cooking Channel.

Fast forward to today, and I’ve discovered that all the episodes of the original Japanese run are on YouTube, in one form or another. In rewatching them, I’m discovering that there are some things that the original Iron Chef got right that none of the other iterations of the show, and none of the other cooking competition shows, have succeeded at.

First, it treated the whole thing like a sporting event rather than a reality television show. Maybe I’m old and crotchety, but the insincere “confessional” moments (“When I realized the ice cream machine was broken, I almost panicked. How would I be able to make my zucchini ice cream if I didn’t have an ice cream machine?”) have always irked me. It removes the immediacy of the moment. Nowadays, you get to see the contestant struggle with the busted-ass ice cream machine for about two seconds before we get a confessional cutaway where they TELL US HOW THEY FELT ABOUT THE BUSTED-ASS ICE CREAM MACHINE instead of just letting the camera SHOW US.

On Iron Chef, the shot lingers on the poor sous chef who is trying to get the ice cream machine to work, sweat beading on his upper lip and silk hat flopping away, as the commentators speculate on what’s happening. Then, the closest thing we get to a confessional moment is the inimitable “FUKUI-SAN!” of Shinichiro Ohta (voiced by Jeff Manning) followed by an on-the-spot report on the state of the ice cream machine.

Like a sporting event.

The other thing the old Iron Chef got right that nobody has managed since was its sense of drama.

There’s a very fine line in fiction between drama and artificial drama, between drama that appears to arise naturally from the situation and drama that is manufactured wholesale and dished out every commercial break with a side of Doritos ads. This is true in both fiction and in filmed competitions.

The gnarly truth about cooking shows is that, in general, the drama is always manufactured. This leaves two choices: a) to present the artificial drama with a wink and a nudge, “Hey buddy, we’re in this silliness together, let’s have fun with it” or b) to go whole hog, commit to the dramatics of the situation.

Cooking competitions nowadays don’t choose either. The suspense doesn’t come, for the most part, from whether the dishes will be good (which would arise naturally from the scenario of a cooking competition). The hearts of the hosts are also not really in it, because goddamn, how do you make a show about cupcakes suspenseful? Who gives two shits about cupcakes.

At the end of the day, modern cooking shows hang their suspense on the hopes and dreams of the competitors. Karen wants to win that ten thousand dollars so she can open her own zoodle truck. Liam wants to win the ten thousand dollars so he can help his mom with her medical bills. At the end of the day, this leaves us feeling not good when one of these people loses. Instead of being able to say, “That was a damn fine match!” we wind up thinking, “Oh Jesus, Liam’s mother is going to go into bankruptcy.”

What little suspense isn’t generated by worrying about Liam’s mother is wrought by ending each. And. Every. Segment. On. A. Cliffhanger. One that is typically resolved within seconds of the end of the commercial break. This irritates me even in fiction, so it’s no wonder that it bugs me in competitions, too. A problem resolved in the space of three seconds was not a problem to begin with and should not be treated like one.

On Iron Chef, for the most part, the competitors are representing restaurants, so their only hope is to beat the Iron Chef. The Iron Chef, as an Invincible Man of Culinary Skill, aims to defend their title. It’s the drama of a good football game, not of a soap opera, and it’s embraced wholeheartedly by everyone involved.

Note that I have nothing against soap operas. They provide a lot of actors with consistent work, and, as someone with a theater degree, that’s something I can appreciate. But soap opera dramatics tend toward the repetitive and melancholic, which is not a thing I like in my cooking shows.

The other drama on Iron Chef–of the introduction of the challenger, the rise of the Iron Chefs into Kitchen Stadium–is all presented with a wink and a nudge. “Here’s a guy dressed like an anime villain who has gathered an invincible team of chefs in order to experience NEW CUISINES! And this is the chef who dares to challenge them, described to you in the reminiscences of anime villain guy! And now we’re going to play HARDCORE CHORAL CHANTING as the invincible chefs are brought into the stadium on pneumatic lifts!” It’s silly, and the show knows that it’s silly, and that’s what makes it so goddamn fun.

So this post has so far been entirely about me being an old fogey about how they just don’t make cooking shows like they used to, but there are some takeaways.

  • The original Iron Chef continues to be the best cooking competition show in history.
  • Confessional inserts have outlived their usefulness and should be outlawed by the UN or other relevant international body.
  • Drama needs to be either fully embraced or it needs to be offered up with a grin to let the audience know that they’re in on the silliness. Or both! That works, too.
  • Zoodles are gross, Karen.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments!