Monday, November 26, 2001

They Got the Mustard Out

Unlike all those daycare pampered precocious children of today, my pre-school education primarily consisted of the TV shows my mom let me watch while my siblings were off at school. For science there was Sea Hunt; for contemporary American history there was 77 Sunset Street; and for political science there was Mission Impossible.

Perhaps the shows I learned the most from, and were the most fun to watch were cooking shows like the Galloping Gourmet with Graham Kerr and a locally produced show with Chef Hank Meadows. I would cook along with the chefs using my Romper Room plastic cases, Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys serving as substitute food items and utensils (Mom let me borrow her oven mitts). I'll never forget the day Mom (Watakushi no kioku ga tashika naraba...) taught me how to prepare my first real food item (not counting toast and Pop Tarts)- instant pudding. Precisely measuring the milk and mixing up the two ingredients (milk and pudding powder) was a thrill like nothing I had ever experienced.

Thus there was a tinge of nostalgia when I discovered the Japanese cooking show Iron Chef a couple of years ago. For those of you who haven't seen the show it essentially takes the art of cooking and turns it into a fiercely competitive sport. The premise of the show is that Chairman Kaga, a fan of fine cuisine, decided to build Kitchen Stadium, a place where the world's finest chefs would come to test their skills against his "Iron Chefs." The four Iron Chefs specialize in a different style of cooking- Sakai is Iron Chef French, Chin is Iron Chef Chinese, Kobe is Iron Chef Italian, and Morimoto is Iron Chef Japanese.

The challenger is allowed to choose which of the Iron Chefs he/she wishes to square off against. Then Chairman Kaga unveils a food ingredient that must be used in all of the chefs' dishes. (My favorite episode so far was the "carrot contest" in which Kenichi-san defeated his challenger by better realizing that the meat around the core of the carrot is what should be used in fixing exquisite meals.) Many of the shows feature some wacky main ingredients like sea urchin, Shittake mushrooms, and squid- not exactly stuff you'd likely have lying around your house.

There is something uniquely Japanese about the style of the show in its mixture of melodramatic sincerity and humor. Chairman Kaga's presentation of the whole show is over the top but in a sly way. As the chefs scramble to complete their different courses running commentary is provided by a play by play guy, a color commentator and Ota- the roving reporter who runs between the two chefs and breathlessly reports on what ingredients are being used and how the dishes are being prepared. The panel of judges also includes Japanese celebrities usually a bubble headed actress or actor or athlete or politician with no apparent knowledge of food other than they like to eat it. The chefs have 60 minutes to prepare their dishes (usually four or five) and then the panel of judges comments on what they are served.

Despite appearances I'm not exactly the most Japanese guy around. Sure I love my sushi but has there been anyone in recent memory more Americanized by this country's popular culture? Shamefully no and thus I think some of my fondness for the show has to do with my ancestry and feeling some guilt that for an hour I can feel a bit Japanese and a culinary expert as well. At its best Iron Chef inspires not only a love for fine food but also for creativity. Not much of a cook my own self, I must admit being a tad more ambitious with my stir fries after becoming a regular viewer of the show and I even learned what foie gras is. (The duck liver is used in many of the chefs' dishes- and apparently for good reason: It is an expensive delicacy and the chefs are allowed to take items not used up in preparation back to their own restaurants. Thus we see heavy use of caviar also.)

The American version of the show debut last week and predictably something got lost in the translation. While the premise of the show is the same none of the subtle elegance remains. By its very nature there is a campiness but the American version has too much of wink to it- as if the viewer has to be reminded that the whole thing is some big joke. The choice of William Shatner as the chairman was inspired and the over the top actor seems to be having a great time (I liked his little spiel about food being fuel for the body but great food is fuel for the soul.) But the American show is loud and soulless- more akin to professional wrestling or the XFL than Julia Childs or Wolfgang Puck. On the first episode we seldom knew what was being cooked or how it was being prepared- the focus instead was on the celebrity of the chef (and lingering shots of the Playmate of the Year who was one of the judges). While the Japanese Iron Chefs never seem to play to the crowd, the American pretty boy Iron Chef did little but that.

Leave it to Hollywood to take a fun little show and turn it into a spectacle emphasizing flash over substance. It was almost enough to make me want to finally live up to my surname and remove the hyphen from the census category I fall in.

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