Iron Chef is a Japanese television program produced by FujiTV. The original Japanese title is . The series, which premiered on October 10, 1993, was a stylized cooking competition featuring accomplished guest chefs challenging one of the show's resident "Iron Chefs" in a timed cooking battle built around a specific theme ingredient. The series ended on September 24, 1999, although occasional specials were produced until 2002. The series aired over 300 episodes.
The program has an eccentric flavor even for a game show
. Its host is the flamboyant Takeshi Kaga
, known on the show as . Its production values are highlighted with extensive commentary made by two regular commentators and one to two guest commentators (who also serve as judges). The commentary presents thorough background information (e.g., ingredients, past history of contenders) to give a viewer context for what is happening in the kitchen; it also serves as entertainment, as friendly banter is shared among the four commentators.
The supposed "story" behind Iron Chef
is recounted at the beginning of every episode. It is said that Kaga had "realised his dream in a form never seen before" and specially constructed a cooking arena called "Kitchen Stadium" in his castle. There, visiting chefs from "around the world" would compete against his Gourmet Academy, led by his three (later four) Iron Chefs. Chairman Kaga himself is a showpiece, dressed in outlandish examples of men's formal attire.
The English name Iron Chef comes from the show itself: Kaga would use this translation of the Japanese title when summoning his chefs at the beginning of the battle. Kaga famously and theatrically announced the start of each battle with the grammatically-incorrect French phrase Allez Cuisine!, which roughly translates to "go and cook".
United States reception
While always a success in Japan
, Iron Chef
became a surprise cult favorite in the United States when it was picked up by the Food Network
in English. Much of the U.S. appeal was due to the dubbing, which gave the show a campy
charm that evoked English-dubbed Chinese kung fu movies
of the 1970s. Audiences also found amusing some of the over-the-top culinary concoctions regularly featured on the show.
On each show, a challenger, typically a famous chef from Japan
or elsewhere, is pitted against one of the Iron Chefs (with each Iron Chef specializing in a different kind of cuisine—Japanese
, and later Italian
). Although challengers appear to choose an opponent on the spot, the matchups are determined well beforehand, as sometimes the challengers, especially those from Japan, are asked to participate because of a rivalry with one of the Iron Chefs.
These are the Iron Chefs who have appeared on the show (some have retired and have been replaced by successor Iron Chefs) along with their records (win–loss–tie)
- Iron Chef Chinese
- Iron Chef French (I)
- Iron Chef French (II)
- Iron Chef Italian
- Iron Chef Japanese (I)
- Iron Chef Japanese (II)
- Iron Chef Japanese (III)
Originally, challengers vied with each other in preliminary "battles" to earn the right to face an Iron Chef in a 90-minute competition, and should a challenger win twice against Iron Chefs, the challenger would be given the title of "Honorary Iron Chef". However, this format proved unpopular, the preliminary round was scrapped and the main contest was reduced to the now familiar 60 minutes. The awarding of honorary Iron Chef titles was also discontinued (although this was largely a moot point as few challengers ever defeated two Iron Chefs in separate contests), except as an emeritus title for a retiring Iron Chef. Once honorary titles were no longer issued, challengers who beat an Iron Chef had to settle for, according to the English version's introduction, "the people's ovation and fame forever".
In each episode, chefs have one hour to cook and improvise a multi-course meal around a theme ingredient that must be present in each dish. Before the actual taping, the chefs are given a short list of possible themes, allowing the producers of the show to get any ingredients that may be needed. Judges' primary goal was said to be determining which chef was able to "best express the unique qualities of the theme ingredient". In rare cases, the format changed—angler fish battles were typically 75 minutes in length, and noodle battles had the Iron Chef stop after 50 minutes of cooking, only to resume after the challenger's dishes were tasted so that the noodles could be served right after cooking.
Featured ingredients tend toward the exotic and expensive. Many theme ingredients reflect the Japanese origin of the show—river eel
—though ingredients more familiar in the West, such as bell peppers
, summer corn
, and peaches
, are spotlighted as well. In one episode devoted to asparagus
, the challenger boasted that he used over $1000 worth of lobster
(which he then discarded) simply to flavor his asparagus in this battle against Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto
. In another episode, Iron Chef Hiroyuki Sakai
made cod soft roe ice cream
, which was pronounced inedible by the panel.
Initially, a minimum of three dishes were to be prepared, although some challengers have finished only a single dish; four is the typical number. The record for highest number of dishes prepared for a battle was eight, first set by challenger Kenji Kaji against Iron Chef Michiba in "Battle Umeboshi". Five (later six) servings of each dish are prepared: one each for the Chairman and judges, and one for photography and presentation.
Each chef is also given two assistants, who are supposedly students of Kaga's "Gourmet Academy" (in reality, they are students of Hattori Nutrition College
). If the challenger does not speak Japanese, students who can speak in the challenger's native language are sometimes provided. In a notable exception, San Francisco chef Ron Siegel
struggled with his assistants, who did not speak English. (One assistant, Kenichi Miyanaga
, became a challenger himself, taking on Iron Chef Morimoto in a sweetfish
Commentary and judging
Throughout the cook-off, running commentary is made in a booth near the cooking area by an announcer, Kenji Fukui
; a commentator, Yukio Hattori
, and one or two of the guest judges, with one floor reporter (sometimes two; normally Shinichiro Ohta
) providing details of the action in on each side. The commentators and judges discuss the style of cooking, culinary traditions and unusual food preparation. At the end of the hour, after end-of-battle interviews with both competitors, each dish is presented to the camera, with a description of its properties (written by the show's screenwriters based on the chef's explanation) read by the announcer. Then, a panel of three (later expanded to four and, later still, five) judges, of which typically one is a professional critic, tastes the dishes and judges them based on taste, presentation, and originality. Each chef may be awarded up to 20 points by each judge, with ten given for taste and five each for presentation and originality. The chef with the greatest score wins the competition.
Chairman Kaga tastes the dishes along with the judges. While he occasionally makes comments and seeks input from judges during tasting, he generally does not participate in scoring; he did, however, during the 2000th Dish Battle. During this episode, a team of French cuisine chefs—captain Hiroyuki Sakai, the original Iron Chef French Yutaka Ishinabe and Etsuo Joh—battled a team of Chinese cuisine chefs comprised of captain Chen Kenichi, Sozo Myamoto and Yuji Wakiya. To break the tie, Chairman Kaga asked them to allow him this one instance of selfishness, and he cast his vote for the French team.
In the case of a deadlock (as was possible during the era of the four-judge panel), first place is awarded to the chef with the greater number of points. On the rare occasions that the scores were also tied, an immediate "overtime battle" was held to determine the winner. In overtime the chefs are given 30 minutes to prepare dishes with a different key ingredient, having to make do with what remains of their pantry or with items that were previously prepared for the main battle. The overtime battles are aired as a separate episode. On one occasion, the overtime battle itself resulted in a tie, prompting Chairman Kaga to declare both the Iron Chef and challenger winners .
Certain challengers have made repeat appearances, or have been particularly memorable.
(Japanese names are not in the traditional Japanese style [i.e. family name first] but have been written in standard European style [i.e. family name last].)
- Dominique Corby: a chef at la Tour d'Argent Tokyo, who fought iron chef Chen Kenichi in battle 300. He is the only competitor to have tied the Iron Chef twice—once initially and again in the overtime battle; he and Chen were subsequently declared joint winners of that battle.
- Alain Passard (Episodes 204 & 297): Three star French chef and owner of L’Arpege, located in Paris. Ties Iron Chef Koumei Nakamura in the 1997 World Cup championship and was the final challenger in Kitchen Stadium, losing to Iron Chef Hiroyuki Sakai in the finals of the "King of Iron Chefs."
- : First challenger to defeat an Iron Chef. The theme ingredient was octopus.
- : Leader of the "Ohta Faction" (大田軍団) of traditional Japanese chefs. The Ohta Faction regularly challenged Iron Chef Morimoto and his neo-Japanese style (episodes 248, 252, 265, 272 (win), 276+277). Ohta Faction was the name used in the translated version shown on FoodTV. In the original Japanese version (shown in the U.S. and transcribed by the Iron Chef Reporter in southern California) the group is called Ohta’s Party of Heaven and Earth (OPHE; 大田天地の会).
- : The first female chef to appear on the show, and the youngest chef to be victorious. Challenged Chen Kenichi. An interesting side note is that the second female challenger (episodes 42 and 65) also faced Chen. The second indirectly picked Chen because she allowed Kaga to pick for her. Chen lost to the first and second, and purportedly caught some flak from chef-friends of his. Chen fought another two female challengers in episodes 94 (Takemasa; Kandagawa's faction) and 251 (Kagata again) and won.
- : Regular challenger who aligned himself with the Ohta Faction and often led his army of fellow chefs and protegés into Kitchen Stadium during challenges. Kandagawa has taken part in several battles wherein he supported apprentices to battle an Iron Chef (episodes 15, 16, 32, 40, 65, 77, 94, 119, 150, 185 (win)). Kandagawa also participated in several "battle special" episodes, including the 21st Century Battle. Rokusaburo Michiba is his main rival.
- Bobby Flay (New York Battle and 21st Century Battle): Flay entered into a bit of a rivalry with Iron Chef Japanese Morimoto during the show's special New York Battle. Flay complained that his side of the kitchen was poorly laid out (it was noted in an Iron Chef America "Behind the Scenes" episode that the kitchen was hastily set up in the provided forum). At one point Flay received an electric shock, transmitted by a wet floor and faulty wiring, when he grabbed a metal pan on the range. When Flay stood triumphantly on his cutting board at the end of the battle, Morimoto declared that he was "not a chef" for disregarding the cleanliness of one's cutting board. Morimoto won, and Flay demanded a rematch. He got his wish, and his revenge, in the 21st Century Battle in Japan, where, at battle's end, he tossed the cutting board off the counter before climbing on it, so as not to offend Morimoto again. Flay is now an Iron Chef alongside Morimoto on Iron Chef America.
- Ron Siegel (Episode 250): Then of Charles Nob Hill in San Francisco and currently Chef of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, also in San Francisco. In Battle Lobster, became the first American chef to defeat an Iron Chef (Hiroyuki Sakai).
- Michael Noble (episode 284): The first Canadian to appear on the program, challenging Morimoto in Battle Potato in 1999 and losing.
- : A group of Italian chefs which named itself after Italy's top football league and frequently challenged Iron Chef Italian Kobe (i.e. Mario Frittoli; episode 223, Costantino Gemmoli; episode 264, Franco Kanthoniel; episode 275). No group member ever defeated Kobe, although one member did defeat Morimoto (pasta specialist Marco Paolo Molinari in a porcini mushroom battle; episode 257).
- : A group of young specialists in French cuisine that targeted Iron Chef French Sakai in a similar fashion, although they took on Iron Chef Chinese Chen and Iron Chef French Ishinabe once each as well. Only one of them managed a win (Kazutaka Okabe (岡部 和隆) versus Sakai, in a lamb battle; episode 83) despite several attempts.
- Heichinrou (Episodes 255, 260, 262 (win)): The oldest restaurant in Yokohama Chinatown sent three challengers to challenge Iron Chef Chinese Chen in 1999, losing two battles with Chinese ingredients before winning the final.
- : A gentlemen's agreement went on between the Chairman of Gourmet Academy (Kaga) and the President of Culinary Academy (Hattori) where the Doctor agreed to battle an Iron Chef. If he won, he would be given a spot alongside the Iron Chefs and if he lost he would keep working for Kaga. As he remained a commentator until the end of the series, one can easily deduce the outcome of that battle.
- Takashi Saito (not to be confused with the baseball player), top apprentice of Chen Kenmin, and coach of Chen Kenichi. Chen beat his tutor in a prawn battle. Saito recreated Kenmin's original prawns in chili sauce, while Kenichi created his father's modern version of the dish (Canapé Style with ketchup).
- Keiichi Miyanaga (Episode 234): a graduate of Hattori Nutrition College, he was an assistant chef for several battles in Kitchen Stadium, and was eventually hired by Iron Chef Michiba after his retirement. He challenged Iron Chef Morimoto in a battle involving sweetfish.
- Yuji Wakiya (Episodes 33, 174 (win), 245): A master of "neo-Chinese" cuisine, Wakiya lost to Iron Chef Sakai in Battle Sea Urchin but defeated Iron Chef Chen with papayas. He later became part of Chen's team for the 2000th Dish Special.
- Junichi Itoh had one of the most interesting cooking styles in the world. He started French cooking at age 18 and left for France at age 28 to further his skills. However, he left for Italy three years later and joined Enoteca Pincchiori, the same place Masahiko Kobe was trained. At age 32, he began training at a top Japanese restaurant to learn Japanese style cuisine. When he was 35, he opened his restaurant Herle Quin in Tokyo, Japan. His French-Italian-Japanese fusion style cooking led Takeshi Kaga to ask him to be a challenger. Itoh accepted and went to Kitchen Stadium with Asako Kishi. To everyone's surprise he chose Chen Kenichi as the opponent, saying he is interested in Chinese cuisine, but had never been trained at it. Kaga chose a difficult theme ingredient, plain yogurt. Itoh was smiling while Chen was under great pressure. However, according to Kishi's comments at the end, all of Itoh's dishes used the yogurt as a supporting ingredient instead of the main focus of the dish. This resulted in all four judges voting for Chen. (Surprisingly, Chen confusingly pointed to himself the moment Kaga announced him as the winner.)
- Female challengers include: Kyoko Kagata, , , , , , Gillian Hirst (Australian; episode 182), , , , and Meisyuku Ri, currently known as Myungsook Lee (李 明淑; episode 78; defeated by Chen).
Die hard fans note that a given show will be greatly influenced by the lineup of judges, which changes from show to show. A list of some of the more memorable judges includes:
(These names are not in the traditional East Asian style [i.e. family name first] but have been written in standard European style [i.e. family name last].)
- Joël Robuchon, a famous French chef who was titled "Chef of the Century" by the guide Gault Millau.
- Akebono, Yokozuna
- Jackie Chan, actor, director, and martial artist
- Asako Kishi, aka the "East German Judge", a food critic and nutritionist. By far the most frequently-appearing judge. Has tasted the most dishes (after Kaga, of course) according to the 2000th Plate Special Episode.
- Shinichiro Kurimoto, politician (lower house member). Has made the second highest appearances as a judge, according to the 2000th Plate Special Episode.
- Toshiki Kaifu, former Prime Minister of Japan.
- Tenmei Kanoh, photographer
- Chua Lam, VP of Golden Harvest
- Kazuko Hosoki, popular fortune teller and holder of the World Record for Most Best-selling Books (81 books)
- Korn, a Japanese rap artist
- Tamio Kageyama, novelist (deceased)
- Yasushi Akimoto, lyricist
- Kazuhiro Sasaki, baseball player (then with Yokohama BayStars, later with Seattle Mariners, still later returned to BayStars)
- Nagisa Oshima, film director
- Mayuko Takata, actress, wife of Taro Hakase, a violinist
- Julie Dreyfus, French actress, also fluent in Japanese and English. Notably refused to eat one dish prepared by Toshiro Kandagawa because it contained whale meat.
- Ryuichi Sakamoto, Japanese musician, composer, producer and actor
- Ukyo Katayama, former Formula One driver
- Shigesato Itoi, famous director, writer, producer and video game designer.
- Masaaki Hirano, Rosanjin scholar
- Yoshiko Ishii, chanson singer, typically substituted for Asako Kishi when she was unable to appear.
- Ryutaro Hashimoto, former Prime Minister of Japan, judge for the final battle.
- Kazushige Nagashima, aka "Junior," former pro baseball player and sports commentator
The stage setting for the show, , the high-quality (and sometimes very expensive) ingredients used in the cooking battles, and Kaga's extravagant costumes
required the show to have a budget far higher than that of most other cooking shows
. Some statistics: 893 portions of foie gras
, 54 sea breams
, 827 Ise shrimp
, 964 matsutake
mushrooms, 4,593 eggs
, 1,489 truffles
, 4,651 grams of caviar
, and 84 pieces of shark
fin were used during the show, bringing the total grocery bill to ¥843
,354,407 (or about $7
,115,520). One of the most expensive battles was Battle Swallow's Nest
, which ran over $40,000 solely for that ingredient, not counting large quantities of shark's fin; for the battle, the producers were permitted to return any unused portions to Hattori Nutrition College.
For the show's grand finale, the Iron Chefs faced off against each other with the winner to face French chef Alain Passard, owner of Michelin three-star restaurant L’Arpege, with the winner dubbed the "King of Iron Chefs".
In the first round Iron Chef French Sakai defeated Iron Chef Japanese Morimoto in Battle Bell Pepper. The other first round match saw Iron Chef Chinese Chen defeat Iron Chef Italian Kobe in Battle Pork. In the semi-final match, Sakai defeated Chen in Battle Homard Lobster.
In the final match in Kitchen Stadium, with all of the current and previous Iron Chefs looking on, Iron Chef French Sakai defeated Alain Passard in Battle Ronkonkai Chicken. Thus, Hiroyuki Sakai was dubbed "King of Iron Chefs."
There were two reunion specials produced in 2000. The first was "The Millennium Special"; the second was "New York Special", staged in a makeshift Kitchen Stadium at Webster Hall in New York City, and was the first appearance of Bobby Flay. Another reunion episode of the show (entitled "Iron Chef: 21st Century Battle") was produced and broadcast in 2001. A final reunion episode was produced and broadcast in 2002, entitled "The Japan Cup".
The show was presented in the United States and Canada on the Food Network, dubbed and/or subtitled into English. It is also broadcast on SBS TV in Australia. In the case of SBS this is unusual as the network has a policy favouring in-house subtitling. It may be felt that the tone given to the show by its American dub is essential to its charms, heightened perhaps by the fact that in most episodes, the flamboyant Chairman is subtitled instead of dubbed.
The show is also currently being broadcasted on the Finnish channel SubTV and on the Swedish channel TV400 (TV4). Iron Chef was also broadcast on Challenge in the UK in 2003 and 2004, as part of its "Japanese Christmas Cracker" and "Japanorama" strands.
The show is once again airing in the U.S. on the Fine Living Network as of May 5th, 2008; however, all the music has been changed, with none of the music from Backdraft being used, largely due to legal rights of NBC Universal. The stations that have carried the series, Fine Living and Food Network, are owned by the E. W. Scripps Company.
During the 2,000th Dish Battle, Chairman Kaga selected the five best and three worst dishes from the history of the show.
Five Best Dishes
Three Worst Dishes
- Smoked Asparagus Stick Salad (Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto), the asparagus was smoked so strong it tasted bitter and all judges commented negatively.
- Potato Dumpling Soup (Iron Chef Komei Nakamura), the smell of foie gras killed the aroma of the potatoes and nobody was able to finish it.
- Soft Roe in Sake with Truffles (Challenger and commentator Yukio Hattori), gave Joël Robuchon the wrong impression of Japanese Sake.
Iron Chef USA
The U.S. UPN network presented two one-hour episodes of Iron Chef USA hosted by William Shatner around Christmas 2001. These shows were neither a critical nor popular success, perhaps because the show focused little on cooking—a major part of the Japanese program. The show had a small audience section with bleachers, and the audience yelled relentlessly during the show (sounding much like a sports audience). Shatner walked around the kitchen sampling the more expensive items, the chefs refused to say what they were doing, and the cameras rarely showed the food preparation.
Iron Chef America
In 2004, Food Network announced that they would show an Iron Chef special, called "Iron Chef America: Battle of the Masters", featuring Sakai and Morimoto dueling with American Iron Chefs Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, and Wolfgang Puck, all Food Network personalities and renowned American celebrity chefs. (Morimoto and Flay battled in two previous Iron Chef specials that were made after the original series aired.) The specials featured Alton Brown as the announcer and Mark Dacascos playing the role of The Chairman (in the storyline, this Chairman is the nephew of Takeshi Kaga). Even though both Todd English and Kerry Simon from Iron Chef USA have competed on Iron Chef America, there has been no mention of their ICU tenure.
The show received high ratings and rave reviews and in October 2004, Food Network began taping weekly episodes that premiered starting in January 2005. Some changes were made to the show, most notably replacing Puck with Morimoto as an Iron Chef (and a fourth, Cat Cora, was added later), and the location was moved from Los Angeles to New York City. The fifth Iron Chef, Michael Symon, was added for his win in The Next Iron Chef.
In 2007, Krav Sakinim (קרב סכינים, Knife Fight), a show based on Iron Chef, began airing on Israel's Channel 10. Each episode features a different prominent Israeli chef, who competes against one of the show's featured foreign chefs. All Israeli winners compete against one another in the finals and the winner competes against a foreign chef for the title of season champion. Season 1 featured only French chef Stéphane Froidevaux, who won the season's finale, while season 2 saw the inclusion of Italian chef Alfredo Russo, meaning both Michelin star holders would have to compete against each other for a spot in the final bout. The show is actively hosted by actor Oded Menashe and the regular commentators are chef Yaron Kastenboim and catering company owner Ran Shmueli. While in season 1, the panel of judges was made up mostly of celebrities from the entertainment industry, season 2 features renowned persons from the culinary industry, such as restaurant critics and chefs. The competitors prepare a three-course meal, with each dish given a score of up to 10 points by each member of the panel and commentators, accumulating up to 150 points per chef (compared to 90 points in season 1, where the commentators had relatively more points to give).