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The gong show

[Photo: Food Network]
Cult following notwithstanding, the Iron Chef competitors are masters of the kitchen.

By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Restaurant Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 8, 2000

With a touch of pro wrestling showmanship and a whole lot of bad dubbing, Food Network's Iron Chef makes viewers out of non-cooks.

SARASOTA -- Ron Siegel's introduction at a gourmet cooking demonstration gets a knowing buzz at all the right points in the young chef's resume.

"The kitchens of Daniel in New York . . . the French Laundry in the Napa Valley . . . now the exquisitely intimate Charles Nob Hill in San Francisco . . . named one of the 10 best young chefs of 1999 by Food and Wine magazine.

"The only American chef to win the Iron Chef competition in Tokyo as seen on the Food Network."

A middle-aged man in the crowd goes "Yeah! Yeah!" and pumps his fist in the air in the universal fan salute. Siegel winces and tries to protest.

"That's over, That was almost two years ago they filmed that. I am over that," he tells the crowd. Later he goes so far as to say that the whole competition is "kind of cheesy" but he admits it has its upside: He has just opened a restaurant in Tokyo under his celebrity as a champion, Ron Siegel Grand Bleu.

For those of you tuning in late to the state of cooking, television and sports, Iron Chef is a high-glitz extreme cooking competition with elements of Julia Child, pro wrestling and the Power Rangers. It was a hit for six years on Japanese television when the TV Food Network imported it last July, airing original Japanese episodes uncut and with robustly bad English dubbing not heard since Ultra Man.

It was an instant cult favorite. Airing at 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, it's the cable channel's No. 2 show behind Emeril. It has far more Bam!, so much so that it feels like the culinary equivalent of the Friday night fights. Although some elements make Iron Chef sound like "Cooking for Men Behaving Badly," Food Network ratings show the audience is 50 percent women. The female audience for the network's overall schedule is about 60 percent. (Iron Chef is no longer in production except for special episodes, including a two-hour June 25 showdown between the Iron Chef and Hot off the Grill's Bobby Flay in New York).

Each episode begins in the Kitchen Stadium, an elaborate culinary amphitheater, supposedly in the mountain castle of a reclusive gourmet, played by Takeshi Kaga (who has performed the lead role in Japan in Jesus Christ Superstar, Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, and a Pokemon voice). For Iron Chef, according to the story line, he has assembled a private gladiatorial team of chefs and amuses himself by daring other chefs to meet them one on one. The challenge is to make the best full-course meal in an hour using the stadium's fully equipped kitchen (it has a two-minute ice cream maker) and pantry stocked with everything from caviar and truffles to daikon radish -- and the night's secret ingredient.

It opens amid the smoke, lights and drama of WCW Monday Nitro. Pedestals rise from the floor bearing the three Iron Chefs, one each for Chinese, Japanese and French cuisine in shining red, gold and silver uniforms. (Iron Chef Italian was named later.) Kaga takes the dais to preside in Liberace glamor; the lone challenger enters from the far side and singles out the Iron Chefs he will battle. Kaga unveils the mystery ingredient, selected from a list of possibilities the contestants have chosen in advance.

[Photo: Food Network ]
How much stranger can cooking shows get? The Iron Chef brings its stable of superchefs to the Kitchen Stadium via rising pedestals. A flourish of dramatic music trumpets their arrival.

From there the show shifts into kung fu speed, as the chefs scoop up ingredients and start prepping, building sauces for four to five courses showcasing the highlighted ingredient.

Each chef gets the assistance of two sous chefs and the impediment of commentators and videographers with mini-cams covering their cooking with the play-by-play, color and banality reserved for the most minor sports: "Fukui-san, I can't tell what the challenger has put in his pot!"

When the food is displayed in the final moments and served to a panel of celebrity judges, merriment reaches a high point for American viewers. Fashion models, athletes and fortune tellers taste each dish and debate the verdict in what is translated as third-grade English, along the lines of "It tasted, really, really good."

When the judges make their decision (up to 20 points are awarded for the total meal), the challenger rarely wins. The incumbents, who are highly respected chefs (Iron Chef Japanese Masaharu Morimoto is actually the executive chef at New York's Nobu), are the Iron Chefs for a reason.

Enter Ron Siegel, a lean and intense young man with a brisk moustache and slicked back hair.

The announcer calls him "the West Coast's top man." A camera shows San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown praising him for carrying the city's banner. An hour later, Siegel has won, a point ahead of the Iron Chef from every judge.

And he got behind the hokum to get a better perspective on Japanese cuisine and culture, which can get twisted as it's translated and hyped for network television on two continents.

When the hooting is over, some of the Iron Chef's most devout fans are also better educated. They see the immense value modern Japanese society puts on food and those who prepare it, demonstrations of culinary speed and imagination never tried at home and ultimately, beautiful food they'd love to taste.

We'll just have to take the judges' words for it.

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