Wok on the Wild Side
"And the way he stir-fries!" adds Masahiko Kobe. "When the camera catches the moment a huge flame flares up in his wok and shows it in slow-motion replay again and again..."
"Well, it's an easy trick," Chen tells fellow chefs Kobe, Morimoto and Hiroyuki Sakai as the four gather in Sakai's Tokyo restaurant, not far from where the show originated in 1993. "You can always have a huge flame by just pouring in alcohol. But be careful not to get burned!"
The wonder is that Iron Chef has caught fire with viewers. Julia Child it's not. The cook-offs take place in a so-called Kitchen Stadium filled with all manner of food, spice and gadgets. There an imperious emcee named Chairman Kaga presides. Kenji Fukui, a former baseball announcer on Japanese TV, excitedly calls the stir-by-stir. And to complicate things, the chefs must work with a surprise main ingredient—giant eel, perhaps, or dried cuttlefish—which is introduced in a mysterioso cloud of dry ice.
"There is a certain level of absurdity to Iron Chef," admits Eileen Opatut, a senior vice president at the Food Network. "But the passion and intensity make it appealing." Indeed, the late-night show, a monster hit in Japan, is not only the Food Network's second-highest-rated entrée (after Emeril Live), it has also spawned a cult following at colleges.
Despite the campy trimmings, all four Iron Chefs are rigorously trained in their respective disciplines—Chinese, French, Italian and Japanese cooking. Chen, 45, was virtually raised in the kitchen of his father's Chinese restaurant in Tokyo. Sakai, 58, honed his skills at Shiki, one of Tokyo's legendary temples of French cuisine. Kobe, 31, learned his chops at the prestigious Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence.
It is Morimoto, 45, who can perhaps claim the oddest source of inspiration. True, he got his seasoning at a sushi restaurant in Japan before becoming the head chef at Manhattan's acclaimed Nobu. But he says that what really motivated him to pursue haute cuisine was his mother—whose inedible meals left him longing for something better. "Sorry to admit, but my mother's cooking was that terrible," says Morimoto. "So when I decided to become a sushi chef, the first thing I had to do was break away and learn to enjoy the subtle taste, texture and aroma of each ingredient."
The challengers, all renowned chefs themselves, have included celebrity restaurateur Bobby Flay. Last year, in the course of preparing a rock-crab dish, Flay had to contend with a leak in his sink that sent water puddling on the floor among the electrical wires. "I actually got shocked two or three times," he says. Though Flay ultimately lost to Morimoto, "it was good competition," he says. "The energy was very high. I like those situations. If they invite me back, I'm going for it."
To be sure, the pressure-cooker atmosphere occasionally results in some rather dubious concoctions. Chen recalls one time a few years ago when he was trying to make a dessert out of sea slug, a popular Chinese delicacy that has a distinctly rubbery consistency. "I intended to make a gelatin mold with colorful small tropical fruit cubes," explains Chen, "but I ran out of time before it set." Faced with the prospect of not having any dish to present, Chen improvised. "I was panicked," he says, "so I decided to serve it as a cocktail in a tall champagne glass." Smart chef, foolish choice. He ended up, as he puts it, with "a weird-colored mess" that a judge on the show, Japanese food critic Asako Kishi, promptly spat out. "It did not taste anywhere near as atrocious as it looked," Kishi now says tactfully. "It's just that I did not enjoy the minced rubbery sea slugs sticking to my dentures."
There are some things you just never get used to. Even after all these years, the four chefs agree that there is something about cooking in front of a live audience that often causes them to overdose their dishes with salt. "It's true," says Chen. "You lose your sense of taste when you are overly excited." And how about when you lose a competition? After a rare defeat, Chen recalls driving to a river on the edge of Tokyo. "I sat throwing stones into the river in the darkness until I became calm enough to go home." Even Iron Chefs need to let off steam now and then.
Michael A. Lipton
Nobuko Matsushita in Tokyo, Paula Yoo in Los Angeles and Joseph V. Tirella in New York City