Let’s take a moment to talk about Iron Chef.
Not the one that’s being made right now, I’m talking about the original, 料理の鉄人 (Ryouri no Tetsujin). Originally airing in Japan from 1993-1999 and syndicated on Food Network immediately after its completion, Iron Chef combined the finesse of high-level culinary skill with the chest-thumping bombast of the WWE and the brightly-colored Japanese kitsch of the Power Rangers, to form a competitive cooking show that was simultaneously hilariously over the top and extremely serious business.
The show had the Hans Zimmer-tastic soundtrack of the movie Backdraft (which was subsequently replaced by music from one of my other favorite shows, The Big O, after running into licensing issues) and an extremely earnest, Liberace-esque chairman of a host whom was also literally the Japanese versions of Jean Valjean, Tony from West Side Story, and Jesus from Jesus Christ Superstar. In short, this show was a perfect storm of insane melodrama stacked on top of what for all intents and purposes should have been a pretty interesting program unto itself, even without all the embellishments that adorned every inch of it.
And I loved every second of it.
As a kid, the ingredients really knocked the whole ordeal out of the park for me. Challengers of the mighty Iron Chefs would be presented with one special ingredient that needed to be incorporated into each prepared dish in some way, shape, or form. They ranged from the mundane to the bizarrely opulent. Which the chairman would announce with amazing gusto or blazing intensity, depending on the day:
The possibilities of a meal were limited only by the creativity and skill of the person making it.
I think that Iron Chef was a major contributor towards fostering my appreciation towards food. Cheap or expensive, rare or common, any ingredient could be presented front and center as a showcase item in a dish. Cooking was so much more than “boil this, fry that” – the possibilities of a meal were limited only by the creativity and skill of the person making it. For a 13-year-old who spent most of his time inside watching television or playing video games, this was a huge revelation – food didn’t just have to be something that you’d only think about when you were hungry. It could be interesting, or downright awesome.
I didn’t really start dabbling in cooking food myself until several years later when I was in college, though the themes and characters that came up in the show stuck with me. Every new ingredient I’d encounter would be overlaid with ham-tastic commentary in my mind to bring a little levity to the fact that I had pretty much no idea what I was doing:
Fukui: “Man-alive, what a beautiful looking fish! Doc, I don’t think the challenger has used tilapia before!”
Doc Hattori: “Well, tilapia doesn’t really look like an oily fish, right? It’s not like salmon! He could try to play it safe and roast it with some sort of coating.”
Bimbo du Jour: “Wow~! Looks yummy!”
Silly? Sure. But it’s akin to how people can get themselves psyched up by listening to awesome or epic music, to the point where they can actually push themselves farther than they could otherwise. (There was actually a study on this once. It’s pretty crazy.) By imagining myself as something like a challenger, I could focus less on the fact that I was cooking something I didn’t know much about, and more on the act of cooking itself. I’d look at books to find tips and tricks to improve my intuition with food and to up my game, so to speak, though I’d rarely actually follow any instructions. The participants on Iron Chef didn’t have recipes to conform to, they only had their imaginations, their skills, and their ingredients. It was that kind of mentality I wanted to emulate as I developed my own style of cooking.
To me, the ideas that the Iron Chefs represented transcended their namesake schools of cuisine and were just as much about the men themselves.
To me, the Iron Chefs were avatars of culinary ideals. Each one had their own style and philosophy when they approached a meal. For instance, elder statesman and French culinary badass Hiroyuki Sakai would use his razor-sharp palate to modulate his tried-and-true techniques to deliver winning dish after winning dish. Meanwhile, others, like my personal favorite Iron Chef and young-gun-maverick at the time, Masaharu Morimoto, would focus on constantly pushing the envelope of his own comfort zone and bringing visionary or downright weird ideas to the table, accepting both his successes and failures with equal dignity.
The ideas that the Iron Chefs represented transcended their namesake schools of cuisine and were just as much about the men themselves, as they handled strange situations and high-pressure environments with equal parts ingenuity, deftness, and decorum. And I’ll continue to try to emulate those traits; even watching it now, some fifteen years after the show was originally cancelled, I always find something that gives me ideas or inspiration to try new things. And honestly, I hope it stays that way – I hope that pretty much any time down the road when I look back, I’ll find a sequin-studded megalomaniac from the mid-nineties that will summon a pile of random food and inspire me to cook in those same words of mangled French that he and his successors have been using for nearly two decades: