Monday, February 21, 2005

Lost In The Translation

A couple of years after Food TV first showed up in Canada I stumbled upon the debut of a new series (at least new to them) called Iron Chef. If you remember Food TV at the time it was pretty dire. There was - I kid you not - a show about making dog biscuits, called Three Dog Bakery after the hosts who owned an establishment by that name. About the best show on the network was Two Fat Ladies, and yeah I am including Emeril on that list. Iron Chef was a revelation. It presented cooking like a competitive sport complete with announcer Fukui Kenji (I'm giving the names in the Japanese manner with the surname first), colour commentator Hattori Yukio, and on field reporter Ota Shinichiro. The fact that sometimes the show seemed like pro wrestling - like when various factions formed to confront various Iron Chefs of which the most notable was the Ohta Faction that was headhunting for the third Iron Chef Japanese Morimoto Masaharu - made it more fun. Even the music fits - I can't watch the movie Backdraft without expecting to see a flamboyantly dressed Japanese man show up and chomp on a bell pepper. It rapidly went on my list of guilty pleasures until I discovered that it was on so many people's list of guilty pleasures that it had actually become something of a mainstream show. Just to show you how popular the show was, I remember going to dinner at my brother's house with my mother and some of my brother's friends. While Greg and his then wife Jana were upstairs cooking the rest of us were in the basement watching TV and talking. At the appropriate time I switched the TV over to Food TV to watch Iron Chef. A few minutes later my brother - who is not a fan - came down and tried to change the channel. There was a general rebellion amongst the guests. The same thing happened when my sister-in-law came down and tried to get the channel changed - the only one on her side was my brother.

It was probably inevitable that once it became apparent how popular the show was, there was be an attempt to create an American version. The first tentative move was made by Food TV in cooperation with the show's Japanese producers, Fuji TV. They brought most of the Japanese cast including Hattori, Fukui, Iron Chefs Sakai Hiroyuki and Kobe Masahiko (Morimoto lived in New York at the time), retired Iron Chef Michiba Rokusaburo, and the show's host "Chairman" Kaga Takeshi, to New York City to do an episode for the Japanese series but also set it up as a Food TV special. In it, Morimoto went up against American chef - and Food TV star - Bobby Flay. Despite an all-American judging panel including restaurant guide writers Tim and Nina Zagat and Donna Hanover (then going through an extremely messy divorce from New York Mayor Rudy Gulianni) and an audience member, Flay lost and in doing so cemented his reputation as a bit of a brat.

The first real attempt to do an all-American version of Iron Chef was made by UPN in two specials that seemed to be intended as pilots for a series. They took all of the elements of the Japanese version and did them completely wrong. They took a large showroom space in Las Vegas for their Kitchen Stadium and filled it with cheering "fans" complete with signs that I'm sure were made by the producers and handed to audience members as they came in. The announcers came across as converted wrestling announcers with absolutely no knowledge of food (while Fukui Kenji from the Japanese version is a baseball announcer, his partner Hattori Yukio is an expert on food whose business - Hattori Nutrition College - was involved in the creation of the show) and the less said about floor reporter Sissy Biggers and "Chairman" William Shatner the better. I said at the time that the only man who could possibly be an American version of Kaga was Liberace and he was, unfortunately, dead. The quality of the judges can be summed up by the fact that one said that the only way to eat tuna is on bread with mayonnaise, and another judge was Bruce Villanch. About the only thing they got right was their selection of Iron Chefs. The show tanked in the ratings - even by UPN standards - and no more was heard of it.

Which brings us to the new incarnation of Iron Chef. This version is being done by Food TV and is light years beyond the UPN version. As "Chairman" they have martial artist and actor Marc Dacascos as "Chairman" Kaga's nephew. Instead of an announcer and a colour commentator, the producers have decided to use Food TV host Alton Brown as the announcer with another network personality Kevin Brauch as floor reporter. It's a nice choice since both men seem to know what they're talking about with reference to food, and if they don't know what's going on the chefs are miked and close enough to make comments and answer questions. After an initial four episode series of specials featuring Japanese Iron Chefs Morimoto and Sakai (a third Japanese Iron Chef, Chen Kenichi was supposed to appear but had to cancel due to a death in the family) against American Iron Chefs (and Food TV hosts) Bobby Flay, Mario Battali and Wolfgang Puck, the series was picked up although Puck was replaced (mercifully) with Morimoto (who now runs his own restaurant in Philadelphia). The result was Iron Chef America.

I enjoy Iron Chef America, but there are enough differences between this and the Japanese version (which is no longer in production) to make the whole thing feel somewhat "off". While Alton Brown is extremely knowledgeable, my feeling is that he may need someone who has less knowledge than him to work off of in the way that Hattori-san worked off of Fukui and one or two of the guest judges. The judges are another minor problem. In the Japanese version the usual format was to have at least one and possibly two celebrities as judges, in addition to one of a group of regular judges who weren't in the food business and (usually) a judge who was a culinary writer or other professional - the most frequent choice was Kishi Asako. In the episodes of the Iron Chef America that I've seen almost all of the judges have been professional food critics. They may know food, but they aren't prone to make silly comments like the notorious "bimbos du jour" from the original series. Another minor quibble is the decision to dress the Iron Chefs in a sort of uniform of blue jackets with an American flag on the right shoulder and the only distinguishing mark being a different coloured patch for each man on the left arm. The Japanese Iron Chefs each had their own distinctive outfit right down to their hats. The uniform look of the American Iron Chefs gives an impression not unlike the kitchen staff at your local East Side Marios or some other chain where the kitchen personnel are on view. A big change is that they've abandoned the fiction that the Challengers chose which Iron Chef they'd face. (It was a fiction. In the Japanese show the producers would suggest a couple of opponents to a challenger some time before taping and the selection would be made at that time. Thus it was rare that all of the Iron Chefs were in the studio at the same time. They also gave both the Iron Chef and the challenger a list of five potential featured ingredients, one of which would be used.) In the American version of the show, the Chairman chooses which Iron Chef will be featured.

As I say, I enjoy Iron Chef America and I hope that it will be enough of a success that Food TV and Food Network Canada (which was created by Alliance-Atlantis in partnership with the American channel a couple of years ago - it helps with Canadian television regulations and provides the Canadian channel with different content than the American parent) will continue to produce and broadcast it. It's a good show, but that said, the fact remains that there is something ever so slightly off that keeps it from being the great show that the Japanese Iron Chef was. If someone can figure out what that missing ingredient is, they might have something.


Unknown said...

Just a quick comment--Takeshi Kaga's sister Moriko really is Mark Dacascos' mother; the uncle-nephew relationship is not a fiction. As for the differences between the original Iron Chef and Iron Chef America, I agree that ICA isn't quite there yet. However, it would be a serious mistake for ICA to imitate the original too lavishly. I say, give it a couple of seasons and it will develop its own flavor better. As is, I love watching both shows, more so for the cooking than for the pageantry. So the more utilitarian ICA uniforms don't bug me.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I love both shows man. I do agree however, the original Japanese Iron Chef is far better. As for what Iron Chef America is missing, It's the comentators. I mean just with the whole Japanese over-dubbed into English made it so much more exciting and the intro music and the host of the show, how can you beat that? I mean yeah, the ones voicing for the newer version are great too, but you can't beat those originals. I do however really enjoy watching Mario Batali, he's awesome! Than again, so is Hiroyuki Sakai.