Netflix announced Iron Chef’s return to our streaming screens later this year and, as a superfan of the godfather of hit cooking shows, I’m excited.
The original series, Ryōri no Tetsujin (literally “Ironmen of Cooking”), aired in Japan for nearly 300 episodes over seven seasons between 1993 and 1999. It was one of the first Japanese series to air worldwide and became a cult classic notable for its flamboyant voice acting and singularly absurd premise.
A mysterious and wealthy aristocrat named Chairman Kaga (played by well-known Japanese actor Kaga Takeshi) is on the hunt for the next Rosanjin (legendary Japanese foodie and aesthete, Kitaōji Rosanjin). In his quest, he builds the Kitchen Stadium, where the challengers pit their culinary skills against one of Kaga’s selected experts in different world cuisines, known as the Iron Chefs.
From the elaborate costumes to the catchy orchestral theme music by Hans Zimmer (actually a track taken from the soundtrack to the 1991 Hollywood film Backdraft), each episode had a sense of occasion. It was Friday Night Football, without the ball.
As ridiculous as Iron Chef may have sounded, its influence on culinary programming has defined the genre. It was perhaps the first instance of competitive cooking on television, rather than educational and home shows. Today, competitive cooking is one of the most widespread and successful formats of reality television in the world.
In Japan, sports commentary is an art form and Iron Chef celebrated it with play-by-play caller Fukui Kenji and color commentator Hattori Yukio narrating the Kitchen Stadium action (previous viewers will also recall enthusiastic interjections of “Fukui-san!” from food reporter Ota Shinichiro). This facilitated another of Iron Chef’s great strengths: diversity. It was the first program to show chefs skilled in different cuisines on screen at the same time, and Fukui and Hattori’s commentary was integral to explaining the dishes, ingredients and techniques that most viewers didn’t. had never seen before. When legendary French chef Joël Robuchon appeared on the show as a guest judge for a truffle-themed “battle,” he noted, “With one thematic ingredient, you have a match of totally different cuisines – French and Japanese. It is very impressive and interesting. I have never seen a program like this.
Neither do most of us. Chefs cooking food as entertainment was something completely new. These are dishes we were never meant to recreate. No instructions were given or requested. It was pure sports cooking. Purely as art.
As a teenager watching it, I was fascinated. If Robuchon had never seen television like this before, I had never seen cooking like this before. And it has stuck with me ever since.
Decades later, my own show The Cook Up still nods to Iron Chef in its theatrical theme reveal, complete with bell reveal and camera zoom. Attentive viewers might also notice that whenever I cook a recipe that includes bell pepper, I walk across the screen holding the bell pepper in my hand. It’s my way of acknowledging what I think is one of the most important visual narratives in food television, and the one that played at the start of every episode of Iron Chef: a photo of President Kaga standing in the center of the Kitchen Stadium, surrounded by a legion of white-toque chefs, before Kaga bit into a yellow pepper with enthusiasm and a barely stifled laugh as the camera pulled away.
They could have done it again without laughing (they probably did), but keeping it was awesome. That laugh tells you everything you need to know about the show, and to me, that’s why none of the many Iron Chef impersonators since have ever replaced it.
Some, like Top Chef and MasterChef, have made competitive cooking serious. Others, like Nailed it! and Worst Cooks, delve into the inherent absurdity of their premise. Iron Chef did both. He genuinely delivered brilliant chefs, creativity and amazing food, while acknowledging that the very idea of competing chefs was a bit ridiculous. Kaga’s chuckle showed that no matter how absurd and exaggerated, Iron Chef was always, always on top of the joke.