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Our ultimate competition is with ourselves. That is what my uncle told me when I would visit him as a young boy. Now I prepare myself for my most savory challenge. My uncle, the man the world knows as Kaga the Chairman, has decided that although America is a young country, we now possess the proper palate to host our own Iron Chef competition, an American celebration of the world's high art of cuisine.

Recaps by Chico Alexander, GSNN

Host ("The Chairman"):
Mark Dacascos
Culinary Commentator: Alton Brown
Iron Chefs: Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Wolfgang Puck
Creator: Keiichi Tanaka (based upon "Ryori no Tetsujin/Iron Chef")
EP: Steve Kroopnick
Packager: Triage Entertainment, Fuji Television Network, Food Network
Aired: April 2004

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Web design by Jason Elliott. Logo by Chico Alexander. 

Making Of... - April 23

If memory serves me right, this is the series I've been waiting to cover... But before we dice a single tomato, let's go back... the complete history (give or take a few details) of Iron Chef as we know it.

In a castle in Japan, an eccentric gourmand (played originally by famed Japanese stage actor Takeshi Kaga) has spent his entire fortune to carve out a gourmet academy to further his dream to find the culinary descendant of Rosanjin, a Japanese chef who taught of food as art. Not only this, but the Chairman, as he was later called, would spread his message to the four corners of the world. The cornerstone of this Gourmet Academy would be a giant cooking arena, the first of its kind, which would play host to gladiatorial culinary battles the likes of which the world has never seen before. The Chairman called his creation "Kitchen Stadium." Finally, to complete the project, he sought out the most elite chefs to do battle against any and all challengers. These men came to be known as the Three Divas for their combination of color, flavor, and overall finesse.

The Chairman called these three men "Ryori no Tetsujin"... Cooking's Iron Men... the Iron Chefs. Each taught in a different discipline of world class cuisine, they are the invincible men of culinary skills. The first Iron Japanese was Rokusaburou Michiba. The first Iron French was Yutaka Ishinabe. The first -- and only -- Iron Chinese was Chen Kenichi. Over time, the Iron Chefs would pass their gifts onto a new generation of Iron Chefs -- Michiba begat Komei Nakamura, who in turn begat US-based Japanese chef Masaharu Morimoto, and Ishinabe begat current Iron French Hiroyuki Sakai -- and a fourth chef would be added to the Chairman's army, Italy-trained Masahiko Kobe, but all had the same mission: defend the honor of the Gourmet Academy and Kitchen Stadium. Any challenger who would defeat an Iron Chef would have their name live on in gourmet history forever. The show bore some unforgettable characters, such as Sakai the "Delacroix of French cuisine," Chen "the Szechwan sage", Kobe "the Prince of Pasta", Toshiro Kandagawa "the don of the Kansai", floor reporter Shinichiro "Fukui-San!" Ohta, color commentator Kenji "Go, Ohta!" Fukui, and the resident Simon Cowell of IC, culinary critic Asako Kishi.

This was the story of the show which ran in Japan from its inception in 1993 to its conclusion in 1999. A few specials, a new Chairman, and a poorly-translated American version later, we arrive here, at Iron Chef America.

Premise hasn't changed much. Two chefs enter. An hour later, one leaves with his head in his hands, eating the dull raw pepper of failure. Okay, so it's a little bit extreme. We'll get to details with the first battle, but first, color commentator Alton Brown... yes, THAT Alton Brown, leads us in an hour-long look at what it took to bring the series to the US WITHOUT having it suck ostrich eggs.

As you know, Iron Chef premiered in October, 1993, on Fuji TV in Japan, complete with Chairman Kaga, a hardcore foodie who looks like he raided Liberace's closet and has an unnatural craving for yellow bell peppers. Originally a 30-minute show, the first battle pitted a challenger against Ishinabe in Battle Salmon. Later, it expanded into an hour and became available to legions of fans like myself in anime trading circuits (remember, not for sale or rent). Bruce Seidel (VP, Food Network) cited that it created a culinary revolution in Japan. Knowing a good thing when they saw it, Food Network snatched broadcast rights to the original eps dubbed (rather poorly, I must say) in English in 1999. Keiichi Tanaka, who created the show for Fuji TV, noticed that there were resemblances to boxing in each battle, with each chef putting their pride and/or careers on the line.

Captivated by the wizardry or the sheer foreignness, it became one of Food Network's top draws. Which led Food Network to create their own version with help from Fuji TV. Because after all, they did own the format. Next step, creating Kitchen Stadium America, with state of the art appliances, tools, dishes, and ingredients. After deciding on what the chefs would wear to do combat. Nothing against silk robes, but that's just plain... anyway.

Kitchen Stadium America is where... excuse me... "the brightest stars in the culinary firmament will square off and pitch bouts inspired by the legacy of their gladiator forebearers to determine who will emerge victorious in the great food wars of the 21st Century." Alton's words. Very versed, that man. The stadium is equipped with two identically-designed kitchens with convection-ovens, a salamander (a broiler with a raising top), a smoker with wooden disks, a fryolator, double ovens, six 15,000 BTU burners, a 20,000 BTU griddle, a 20,000 BTU grill, and a 40,000 BTU burner with convertible face. "Awe-inspiring" as Mario puts it. "Very very nice, but too convenient" as Morimoto puts it, citing the artistry of the creation of the dishes. Very nice, but a long way to go to surpass the original Kitchen Stadium, where six tons of rice, five tons of eggs, and a ton each of chicken, beef, pork, foie gras, and seafood were combined with two tons of tomatoes and one ton of mushrooms, and topped off with ten pounds of beluga caviar.

And all of that translated to a cult following of "the celebrity chef" in both Japan and the US, as director Tanaka noted. The five chefs are on pins and needles until the battle begins. "And then I stop shaking," Morimoto says.

And then there are the secret theme ingredients, anything from milk to octopus. Ingredients are paramount to the entire premise, of course, and Jill Novatt dispatches her army of food buyers to make sure that they're ready for showtime. One of them, Andy Sheen-Turner, heads to Little Tokyo to shop for ingredients for Morimoto. His list includes nori (seaweed), panko (bread crumbs), soba (buckwheat) noodles, lotus root, and bonito flakes (and that's only about 10 percent of the ingredients Morimoto needs!). Jill also gathers Kyoto scallions, pine branches, shiso sprouts, benitade, kyuzu juice, and giant radishes brought from Japan.

As for other ingredients, they could've been as near as the local supermarket, or as far as off the California coast. But once all the ingredients are collected, Jill serves another purpose: to be Alton's eyes and ears off to the side. She relays the info to Alton's earpiece and he dissects the info as it comes in. So he's like Fukui and Dr. Hattori all in one. Clever.

And finally, an army of our own needed to be chosen to do battle as America's first Iron Chefs. So to answer your question, yes, ICUSA is OOC - out of continuity. Of course, you could say that the star is the Chairman, but he's just there to set the table for the main event and deliver the verdict. The Iron Chefs are the ones who would take the stage for the duration of the hour. And as such, we'll meet the new Chairman later. But first, the Iron Chefs...

First up, Iron Chef Bobby Flay, a southwestern-style New York chef who is no stranger to Kitchen Stadium, having battled Morimoto on two separate occasions. He began at 17 in Joel, before his boss gave him a check to go to a French culinary school. But he would find that his true forte lied in the Tex-Mex flavor of the southwest. First time he saw "Iron Chef" was late at night. He couldn't believe that Japanese warrior chefs even existed.

Next, Iron Chef Mario Batali, an Italian chef... also from New York. He started out at Cordon Bleu in London who started out as a sous-chef in Italy. His restaurants are considered the finest Italian eateries in New York City. He'll try to work in the Italian vernacular, being most comfortable with that discipline. Mario thought IC was "strange" at first.

Finally, Iron Chef Wolfgang Puck, who grew up in Auschwitz and is credited with putting California on the culinary map. He specializes in California French, with touches of Californian and Asian cuisine to taste. Chances are you've heard of his LA eatery Spago. If not, then I suggest you read a People magazine or something. His philosophy: "Buy the finest ingredients, no matter what the price, and then don't screw them up." Wolfgang thought it was exciting to see cooking presented as sports.

Of course, each one knew that food made up the heart of the show. And two of those crafters have come as challengers from Japan to kick ass and take names. First, Hiroyuki Sakai, Iron French II, who heads the kitchen at La Rochelle, one of the best French eateries in Tokyo. He was later crowned the King of Iron Chefs in the original series' finale. His ideal theme ingredient? Fish. "I've never lost a fish battle." Mario describes Sakai as "the most 'zen master' of all the Iron Chefs".

The second challenger is Iron Japanese III, Masaharu Morimoto, who trained as the head chef of Nobu New York before opening up his own restaurant, Morimoto's, in Philadelphia. He can't make simple sushi, so he makes it with international ingredients. He's also the most competitive of the Iron Chefs. "When I was a kid, I had two dreams: I wanted to become a baseball player, play professionally. And then I wanted to be a sushi chef." "He comes to win, he comes to kill," Bobby notes. Yeah, he knows that from first-hand experience.

Yep. You remember, right? The end of the battle? The cutting board? Just one of the many injuries sustained to one's ego at Kitchen Stadium. Not to discount the monkfish bites, the knife mishandlings, and the squid bites. The most stinging injury from a physical standpoint came from a shock to Bobby Flay in New York Battle Rock Crab. It came about when a water-main leaked and the electric stove acted as a conductor. Even more damaging ego-wise was what Bobby did after the final Gong of Fate sounded. He got up onto his cutting board and started hyping the crowd. The Iron Chefs did not take too kind of that, even as Bobby meant no ill will. Ironically, Morimoto went on to win that battle. And they're still friends to this day.

Morimoto agreed to a rematch in Tokyo, thinking that Flay was subject to controversy over sabotage and theatrics. That played out in 21st Century Battle Part 2: Battle Lobster. Everything went as it was supposed to, then at around the 15-second mark, tried his best not to insult his hosts, chucking the cutting board and standing atop the bare kitchen counter. Did he succeed? You be the judge.

That battle went to Bobby Flay. So I guess you could say that Flay and the Iron Chefs have some unfinished business. That will have to wait until the first battle. But first, we meet the new Chairman, who just happens to be... the original Chairman's nephew with an unhealthy obsession with apples. Of course, we know that Takeshi Kaga is not really the uncle of one Mark Dacascos (actor/martial artist best known for his roles in "Brotherhood of the Wolf" and "Cradle 2 The Grave"), but perhaps the story of Iron Chef is best left for him to continue...

"Our ultimate competition is with ourselves. That is what my uncle told me when I would visit him as a young boy. Now I prepare myself for my most savory challenge. My uncle, the man the world knows as Kaga the Chairman, has decided that although America is a young country, we now possess the proper palate to host our own Iron Chef competition, an American celebration of the world's high art of cuisine. Kaga honors me by asking that I serve as Chairman of our own Gourmet Academy to preside over this most glorious event. He has sent gifts that will help pass the torch between our two worlds, and he has dispatched two of his bravest champions. These heroic figures, these Iron Chefs will compete on these shores in our new Kitchen Stadium and reveal to us the tantalizing lessons of taste, texture, and technique. The Iron Chefs have traveled far, not only to do honorable battle with America's finest chefs, but also to carry a flame that burns within each and every one of us. That undying thirst and internal hunger to be our best. To be the best..."

Up next: Flay vs. Sakai. This promises to be quite tasty...

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